Their experiences spanned 25 years and 92 countries, but two things drew them all together -- the idea of the Peace Corps and the memory of the man who started it all.
"It was that emotional call," said Karena Poonen, a Peace Corps volunteer in India about 20 years ago. Kennedy, she said, "was young, idealistic, dynamic . . . and we really felt he would do something for peace."
Poonen was one of about 800 people -- a few with familiar faces, but many more unfamiliar -- who marked the 25th anniversary of the Corps Saturday night here at the John F. Kennedy Library. It was a tribute to Kennedy as well as to his beloved project.
CBS News correspondent Bill Moyers, who served the Peace Corps as its deputy director for two years, summed up much of the emotion at the anniversary gathering this way:
"The New Frontier was never a place," he said. "It was not in Washington. It was not on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs or in the jungles of Laos . . . It was an inner reality. It was the idea of an inner moral self. We would carry the mainstream of culture within us. We would be a synthesis of black and white, rich and poor, city and country."
Outside the auditorium where the group gathered were photographs of JFK in the White House, on the beach and with his family, interspersed with some of his famous remarks, including the one that captured the spirit of the Peace Corps: " . . . ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) wrote to the celebration: "I know that if my brother were here today he'd say 'Well done.' "
On this anniversary, there were panel discussions, films, even a 550-pound cake with flags from all the Peace Corps countries.
And there were Kennedys. Not enough for a touch football game, perhaps, but enough to emphasize that this was JFK's program, the first part of the New Frontier: Joan Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and R. Sargent Shriver, the first director the Peace Corps.
If anyone was looking for long-haired flower children, he left disappointed. One former volunteer did say she was a horticulturist, but she later added that the main reason she attended was to make sure her company's flowers had arrived.
Mostly, there were memories.
Sal Lopes remembered having heard Kennedy's campaign speech in Hartford, Conn. The idea of working with people struggling to survive appealed to him; he himself was trying to adjust to America as a Sicilian immigrant. A few years later he traveled to Liberia, where he taught reading, health and geography. There were bugs and snakes, not to mention the 33 rats he killed in his house. He ate roasted termites for dinner and regularly killed, decapitated, cleaned and cooked chickens.
He feels that he made a difference.
"I think I lucked out. Yeah, I feel good about what I experienced." Like many volunteers he returned to his village, Kpaiyea. He also relates his experience to his high school students, with a slide show and a paper he wrote for graduate school. Now 44, he plans to return to the Peace Corps after his children have grown up.
To others, such as Rich Barton, a 34-year-old computer specialist, any talk of lost idealism and increasing materialism that was around during the celebration verges on hyperbole. "The message of lost hope is something that we hear all the time. Do I feel it? No."
"As individual Americans," he continued, "we are greedy. But I think there's a part of us that still does have a sense of sharing." Eunice Shriver also was optimistic. "I feel very hopeful about the way young people are. I see enormous idealism and hope and commitment."
Much has changed since the agency's inception, when critics warned of a kiddy corps jaunting through the Third World in Bermuda shorts.
Peace Corps Director Loret Miller Ruppe described today's volunteer as a "realistic idealist." Volunteers are now older (median age 30) and more specialized. Sargent Shriver joked that Moyers was lucky to get into the Peace Corps when he did, because today he would be too young to qualify.
Interest in the corps is also booming. Ruppe reports 5,000 calls for information each week. Said Sargent Shriver: "Foreign countries are begging for Peace Corps volunteers. Thousands of people volunteer. And the only thing that is stopping them is that Congress hasn't appropriated the money."
For fiscal 1986, Congress appropriated $130 million to the Peace Corps, but Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts have reduced that figure to $124 million. As a result, the Corps will have to cut back the number of recruits from 3,200 to 2,600, Ruppe said. The total number of volunteers abroad is 6,000.
At its height in 1966 the number of volunteers and trainees stood at 15,556.
"From 1969 to 1979 the Peace Corps was not even allowed to exist as a name in the telephone book," Sargent Shriver said. "It was like '1984.' It was like Stalin in Russia -- you couldn't even mention the Peace Corps." After being neglected in the Nixon and Ford years, the agency began to reemerge under Jimmy Carter's presidency when it regained independent status.
Congress passed legislation signed by President Reagan authorizing the growth of the Peace Corps from its present 6,000 volunteers to 10,000 by 1990. Getting Congress to provide the funds, however, may be more difficult.
"There exists in Washington some resentment to the Kennedys," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), one of the Peace Corps' strongest supporters in Congress. "No one wants to identify with the Peace Corps in a presidential way because it's Jack Kennedy's."
But if, as some suggest, idealism has withered, no one in the Peace Corps seems to have noticed it.
"To me they seem totally the same. They're just as idealistic," said Roger Landrum, a 1961 volunteer who now develops youth programs for the Ford Foundation.
Mary Mancuso, a Peace Corps recruiter in the Boston area, said volunteers have the same gleam in the eye that she had as she left for a rural health education project in Paraguay.
"They've got their selfish reasons and their unselfish reasons. They'll say, 'I want to help other people and use my skills and abilities to make a better world . . . and I also want to learn another language, upgrade my skills and increase my chances for a better job when I get out.' "