Maurice Robinson, a teacher at America's first Job Corps center, looked up from his desk on March 10, 1965, to see three formidable figures standing in the doorway to his small classroom: Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara.
Things like this happened rather often at Catoctin in the winter of 1965. Because of its proximity to Washington and its status as the first Job Corps center in the country, Catoctin and its pilot class were visited by thousands of public figures and international dignitaries who wanted to look in on America's War on Poverty.
Among the honored guests in the early months were OEO director Sargent Shriver, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, then-Rep. Charles McC. Mathias, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and others.
"We were a regular event," recalls Clyde Maxey, the center's first director. "We had more company than we had help."
The special visits so disrupted the routine, Maxey says, that he tried to get a public relations officer assigned to the center. His request was denied. The meetings between the guinea pigs of the War on Poverty and the leaders of the western world produced some telling vignettes.
On that March morning when Robinson saw Johnson, Rusk and McNamara in his doorway, the teacher reacted according to protocol: He looked at the motely collection of Appalachian and inner-city teenage boys in his class, and said, "Please stand for the President of the United States."
"Everyone was stunned. We just sat there with our eyes bugging out. It was really him," recalls Richard Sherrill, now a machinist in Baltimore, then a member of the first class at the Catoctin Mountain Job Corps center.
While the boys were scrambling to their feet, Robinson recalls that he slid up to Johnson, Rusk and McNamara, and asked pointedly, "What are we doing in Vietnam?" With that, he recalls, Johnson ducked into the cluster of boys and started shaking hands, leaving his two cabinet members to attempt an answer to the question. (Robinson says he doesn't recall what the answer was.)
"He [Johnson] went around and shook all our hands," Sherrill recalls. "He said he hoped we wouldn't let him down; he hoped we'd learn something. I told him I wanted to be a cook and he said he wanted me to come to Texas and cook on his ranch."
"At that age, meeting somebody very important, it meant a great deal. How many people meet the president? All the fellows, they'll never forget it. It made us feel like Job Corps is a start, an opportunity to look forward to something."
However, several of the recruits who met Johnson had mixed feelings about him. "I thought he was just being a politician," says Robert Collier, a coalminer's son from Big Stone Gap, Va. "He was full of bull," said Henry Epps of Baltimore, now an electrician.
"I liked that guy Shriver, the one who was in charge of the whole thing," Collier said. "I thought he really cared about young people. You could tell he really believed what he was saying."
Johnson's reaction to the boys mirrored the extent to which most Americans in 1965 had underestimated the depths ofpoverty in the country. "He was shocked -- or at least surprised to see the boys," Shriver recalls. "Surprised at their lack of education, at their physical condition, at their psychological attitudes, the fact that they were sullen and snarly. He really thought this was a lot more like the Civilian Conservation Corps than it was. Compared to this, Roosevelt had it easy. The CCC was mostly middle class men."