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Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

Barbara Hiller, 72, flips through a scrapbook of her years serving in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. The family with whom she lived made the book for her as a going-away gift.

Impact: Barbara Hiller is still answering Kennedy's call to service

by Ashley Hickey
Nov 21, 2013


Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

A bamboo model of a Filipino nipa hut is displayed on Hiller’s bookshelf in her Evanston home. Hiller was sleeping on the second floor of a hut like this when she was awakened in the middle of the night to news of President Kennedy’s assassination.


Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

This room in Hiller’s home is filled with photos and artifacts from her Peace Corps years. Hiller said two things surprised her when she arrived in the Philippines: the sincere warmth of the people in the community and the extremely hot and humid climate. “By the second year we were there,” Hiller said, “if it went [down] to 90 degrees, we put on a sweatshirt!”


Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

Hiller met her husband, Phillip, during Peace Corps training, and they went on to marry in the Philippines in 1965. In this wedding photo, they stand next to a couple with whom they both lived. Phillip passed away in 2006.  



Peace Corps

Listen to then-Sen. Kennedy announce the idea of the Peace Corps to University of Michigan students on Oct. 14, 1960. 

Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

Barbara Hiller shares favorite keepsakes from her Peace Corps service.  

“He is dead! He is dead!”

Barbara Hiller woke up in the middle of the night to dozens of people shouting those words in Tagalog from the ground beneath her elevated bamboo nipa hut in a remote village in the Philippines. Back in the United States, it was the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy had been killed.

“We had no idea what they were talking about because we had no radio,” Hiller, now 72, said Saturday from her home in Evanston. “But then they told us. President Kennedy was assassinated. It was an amazing shock.”

In 1963 Hiller was a math teacher living in the Philippines as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, among the earliest members to deploy after Kennedy launched the program in 1961. As America commemorates the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death Friday, Hiller remembers the man who inspired her to join the Peace Corps and devote her life to education. She remains focused on his legacy.

Hiller witnessed what most historians consider the birth of the Peace Corps, a short campaign speech then-Sen. Kennedy gave at the University of Michigan in the early hours of Oct. 14, 1960.

Stanley Meisler, author of “When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First 50 Years,” said Kennedy was heading to the student union building to prepare for a whistle-stop train tour of the state scheduled for the following morning.

“The speech itself was sort of very off-hand,” Meisler said. “He didn’t intend to speak then, but all the students were there, and he wasn’t going to disappoint them.”

Hiller, originally from upstate New York, was a freshman at the University of Michigan. She remembers hearing rumors that Kennedy was coming, and she stayed up to see him.

“At the time, he was a candidate, and it was exciting that he was a candidate,” she said, “but we had no idea what was about to be put on the table.”

From the steps of the Michigan Union, Kennedy told an audience of 5,000 students that this was the most important election since the 1932 Great Depression election because of the “problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented in the 1960s.”

Kennedy then asked the students a question:

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve for one year or two years, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.”

Kennedy urged the students to understand what was being asked of them and to realize their decision would improve the strength of the United States over the next decade.

He closed by saying their public university didn’t exist “merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it.”

Kennedy then went to bed, perhaps not realizing what he had set in motion.

The speech received very little press attention, according to Meisler, but the students had paid close attention.

“It’s the students who grabbed at it,” he said, “and I think the significance was that he hit a chord.”

Dr. Francis Blouin, history professor at the University of Michigan, said Kennedy deliberately chose a college audience to propose the idea.

“He was appealing to a new generation that should have higher goals and a broader perspective on how to achieve peace,” Blouin said. “I think the speech and the whole context of it was really a turning point in how people approached their mission in life.”

Hiller certainly felt that way.

“I think it struck most people there,” she said. “It was what I would call a clear calling to people to think about what you can do as a person in a country that is very rich. What can you give back?”

Hiller was part of a student response that Meisler said propelled the Peace Corps into existence.

The idea of sending college graduates into foreign countries had been swirling around the campaign, Meisler said, but many people worried that proposing it before the election would make Kennedy look even younger, or potentially foolish, for suggesting kids would go around the world doing a job seasoned diplomats should do.

The student response to the speech, however, was overwhelming. Word spread to other campuses, and students began sending thousands of letters to Kennedy’s campaign headquarters offering to volunteer.

“The student reaction was way out of proportion to what Kennedy had proposed,” Meisler said. “He had asked for people to volunteer, and all of a sudden, they all volunteered.”

For Hiller, the speech brought into focus what she was meant to do with her life: become a math teacher.

She soon transferred to Daemen College, a smaller school in upstate New York that offered a more intimate learning environment for studying education.

After Kennedy won the election, enthusiasm for what would become the Peace Corps grew even louder. Hiller remembers being moved by the promise of his presidency.

“The fact that we would be on the ground, so to speak, and could actively participate in this concept of making a better world was very emotional,” Hiller said. “The Peace Corps solidified that this was the way I could do it.”

The Peace Corps became something much larger than Kennedy ever envisioned, Meisler said, due to the tremendous student response and Kennedy’s selection of his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to build the program.

“Kennedy wanted to start small, but Shriver was a dynamic, exciting character, and for him, starting small was a waste of time,” Meisler said.

Kennedy officially established the Peace Corps by executive order in March 1961, two months after taking office.

By June 1962, more than 20,000 people had volunteered to join, according to the 1962 Peace Corps Annual Report. After submitting to background checks and training, 1,051 would be selected as the first Peace Corps volunteers, deploying to 17 countries across Africa, the Far East, South Asia, and Central and South America.

Hiller would follow in the second group of volunteers, departing for the Philippines after graduating in the summer of 1963.

Training would put her on her first airplane flight, traveling to San Francisco State University for an 11-week immersion in which she learned the Tagalog language, developed basic survival skills such as fishing and animal butchering, and studied cultures – both the Filipino culture and the American culture.

“It’s important not to violate people’s culture,” Hiller said. “If you can understand it from the get-go, it’s a better experience.”

Psychologists and social workers were also on hand to make sure volunteers felt inwardly strong enough to fulfill their future duties.

In training she met a Wisconsin man named Phillip, who was also heading to the Philippines to teach. The two would go on to marry there less than two years later in May 1965. They were married for 41 years, producing four children and six grandchildren, before he passed away in July 2006.

Once training was complete, Hiller and her fellow volunteers flew to the Philippines in September 1963. Her first-year assignment was teaching math at a provincial high school about two hours outside the capital city of Manila.

She and a fellow volunteer moved in with a Filipino family in a nearby village. The community welcomed them with open arms.

“I’ve never met such lovely people in my life,” Hiller said. “It was really amazing to me that we became such an immediate part of the families we lived with, the school that we worked in. Everybody knew us by name and invited us to everything.”

Hiller remembers attending church every Sunday with her host family and shopping in the market together at 5 a.m. before the day’s temperature became too hot. Volunteers were paid the same wages as their Filipino teaching colleagues, all of which “was a big message about what the Peace Corps was here to do,” according to Hiller, “and that is to work alongside one another.”

The volunteers and community members would throw each other festive birthday parties and share stories of their cultural traditions.

“The ability to have really free and open conversations was a gift,” Hiller said.

Shira Kramer works for the Peace Corps and said this mutual understanding of other cultures is one of the primary goals of the program.

The Peace Corps’ mission is “to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and to promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans,” Kramer said.

The Peace Corps has continued under nine American presidents, with more than 210,000 men and women having served in 139 countries that request technical assistance to achieve their development goals in areas of education, health, community economic development, agriculture, the environment and youth development.

With America’s security and economic prosperity now deeply linked to other nations, Kramer said the Peace Corps is one of the country’s greatest tools to achieve a globally competent workforce in the 21st century.

Back in the early years, however, Hiller said Filipinos associated the program so closely with Kennedy that his assassination caused a deep fear that Peace Corps volunteers would pack up and go home.

“In this town they did not call us Peace Corps,” Hiller said. “They called us Kennedy-ites. We assured them that it would not change, and that we were not leaving. They kept checking every morning to see if we were still there.”

Hiller moved to Manila in July 1964 to begin her second-year assignment at Philippine Normal College, a teacher training institution, where Phillip was teaching science.

After their wedding in 1965, the couple made their way back to the United States and ultimately settled in Evanston, where they dedicated their careers to teaching in the local school system, District 65.

Hiller, who over the last 30 years has served in several district leadership positions before retiring in 2006, said the approach she and her husband took to teaching was grounded in their Peace Corps experience.

“What the Peace Corps taught us is while you’re teaching someone, say, mathematics that they may need as a tool, how do you help them find what it is that’s important to them for their life, the same way you were able to do that?”

Hiller served as principal of Evanston’s Nichols Middle School from 1990 to 2001. Teacher Katie Foust worked closely with her on math curriculum development toward the end of Hiller’s tenure.

“She is all about the students, and what is best for the students,” Foust said. “She expected the best from everyone, students and teachers, and because of that, students were very successful.”

Foust said Hiller had the respect of all the teachers and parents, and focused on what each child needed to be safe and successful, from food at breakfast time to addressing sensitive challenges at home.

“She’s pretty much given her life to this district, and her impact has been and will be felt for a long time, I imagine,” Foust said.

Though she is technically retired, Hiller continues her commitment to education.

She serves as a principal coach for the Illinois Consortium for Educational Change, through which she supports first-year administrators to become more effective in their roles.

“The thing about Barbara is that she is such a highly qualified and capable individual, that even though the official relationship would end after a given year or two, her coachees remained in constant contact with her and developed some really deep relationships,” said Bill Melsheimer, a longtime leader in the Wilmette school system and colleague of Hiller’s at the Consortium for Educational Change. “That’s the kind of person Barbara was to them and still is to this day.”

Hiller and her husband returned to the Philippines in 1997. While on a walk through the Philippine Normal campus, they heard their names in Tagalog yelled out to them, “Barang and Ipe, where have you been?”

Hiller said the woman had been a student of theirs, and she had gone on to become a teacher herself.

In August 2013, Hiller was once again called to serve. As the school year approached, she stepped up to temporarily fill the role of chief administrative officer in District 65 while the district searches for a superintendent.

“I’ve loved being in the Evanston schools because you can do that really personal approach to teaching,” Hiller said about her commitment to the district. “It’s not just the academic piece. It’s that tie of helping people find the passion for their future.”

For Hiller it was through President Kennedy and the Peace Corps that she found her passion, which is why the anniversary of Kennedy’s death is particularly meaningful.

“I think we look at the death of Kennedy as a very personal issue if you’ve been in the Peace Corps, particularly in those early groups,” Hiller said. “And for me personally, because of the death of my husband, it brings back a whole bunch of memories.”

Hiller said Kennedy’s assassination made her understand the urgency of answering the call to service.

“When you make a decision about helping people or what you want to do, do it now,” Hiller said. “If it’s important to you, do it now. Because who knows about tomorrow.”

Hiller hopes the assassination anniversary is a celebration of Kennedy’s legacy of service and a non-judgmental approach to all people.

“His legacy shouldn’t be his death,” she said. Instead, she wishes people would spend Friday doing something in service to someone else.

Hiller still believes very strongly in the mission of the Peace Corps and hopes it remains well-funded and can recruit dedicated volunteers.

“It is my hope that my own grandchildren have an opportunity like this,” Hiller said. “It’s that personal approach that makes this world a little smaller.”