WILSON: Peace Corps Oral History Project. Interview with Harry Siler,December 7th, 2004. Interviewer Jack Wilson--Harry, would you give me your full name and when and where you were born?
SILER: My name is Harry Siler, I would say but in fact, I was bornas Harry Lynn Siler and was called by that name till I left home in Williamsburg, Kentucky but born, I was born in Pineville, Kentucky in the nearest hospital on April the 24th, 1939.
WILSON: Okay, tell me something about your growing up and your familyand background in Pineville and whatever happened there after.
SILER: No, I need to clarify. Pineville was the hospital nearby forty1:00miles away. Williamsburg is in fact my home and always has been, was until I left it to come to the University of Kentucky. My dad was a lawyer, prominent lawyer, L.O. Siler in Williamsburg, Kentucky. My mother for his entire legal career was his legal secretary, stenographer and person who knew how to do things and where everything was, worked for him daily so I grew up with those two parents and a caretaker at home, a series of people that were most influential. Also, I have come to understand I had an older brother, nearly fifteen years older who wasn't in all terms an only child growing up with my parents as they 2:00moved out from their rural beginnings into the world and he was killed in the second World War when I was about four and my sister was less than a year old. That event, my brother's death and its effect on my parents was huge. It affected me. It affected them. It affected my sister and it's also something of, of a formative part of my history that I've spent a good deal of my adult life trying to understand why I am the way I am and, and in some measure, it's not only being a Kentuckian, being a hillbilly, being the child of those parents and 3:00growing up in this small town where I was somewhat prominent because of my parents' prominence and also by having a population of two thousand and there being some thirty or so people in my graduating high school class. One was sort of automatically prominent and if you played football and so on, you were, you were prominent also so I was a pretty happy kid I think and lived in an ideal world as near as I could tell--
WILSON: So you graduated from high school in Williamsburg and then wentto college where? Tell me something about that.
SILER: Well, I'll make it short. I was a pretty good football player4:00in, in high school and I went to the University of Kentucky after I graduated from high school in 1957. I went in the fall of 1957 to the University of Kentucky and was on the freshmen football team for a couple of weeks under scholarship. Blanton Collier was the coach at that time and I was, after a couple weeks, right at the beginning of school, we came in a couple weeks early, I was informed that they wanted me to be on the team, stay on the team. They thought I was small. They thought I would develop but they were going to take me off scholarship and I remember that as being such a wound that loss 5:00of, of sense of myself that the scholarship represented that I decided that I would quit and I reflected over the years that that's probably a very good move on my part because many of my friends from that group of freshmen and their three and four and five years of college were beat to a pulp, broken and there's no way on earth I could have played football and gone to architectural school at the University of Kentucky too. It very nearly was every bit of my life's blood to get through architectural school at UK but that's jumping ahead because during that very first semester that I came from Williamsburg to go to the state 6:00university and after that first two weeks, moved into the dormitory with a bunch of people that I remember still too. I, my dad, mother and sister were traveling to a football game. Williamsburg High School playing in a bowl game in Cumberland, Kentucky in November of 1957 and had an automobile accident, the result of which my dad died a couple of year-, days later and I was here at the time at UK. It was a Saturday and, and pledged to a fraternity, Phi, no, Phi Beta Kappa I never had anything to do with those people. Tau Beta Phi, I forgot the name. I think it was on Broadway but any rate, I was just, the call came and 7:00I was sort of out of my head with what, what the implications of that were. I didn't know of course the severity but my fraternity brothers within an hour or so, chartered a plane and had me flown to Harlan to a little grass landing strip down inside the mountains, met by another fraternity brother that was home for that weekend and took me probably within two hours or so from the phone call, I was at the hospital, Miners Hospital in Harlan and was with my dad for the day or so that he lived beyond that. My mom and sister were not hurt seriously and so that was Lexington in that time and, and I might confess here also that I was woefully unprepared to go to college. I had been a B student sort 8:00of in high school not ever working at anything other than mathematics because I liked the teacher and she was a tough old lady who apparently made me work and expected it and I did it so I was a pretty good math student but I never disciplined myself to work and I was just wiped out at UK. I don't think I passed a thing except ROTC and Phys Ed that first semester and my dad had died and I decided the second semester, not only because I had done so poorly but I just sort of wanted to go home for a while ----------(??) so I did go back to Williamsburg and I went to the junior college there at Cumberland, Cumberland Junior College at that time beginning in, in January of 1958 and completed the Junior College aspect in two and a half years of so, it, it, they 9:00were sort of on a year cycle. You take calculus, integral calculus in the, in the fall and differential calculus in the spring so you, you couldn't start in the middle of the year and go through in two years so at any rate, I went through and graduated in 1960 from Cumberland and became under a wonderful teacher there, Dr. Vallandingham, J. T. Vallandingham. I learned how to be a student, how to study. I learned personal discipline because of his expectations of me that I somehow didn't want him to be wrong about me. I, I apply still. I can do whatever it is I decide I want to do and need to do through Dr. Vall's assistance but then, I came back to UK as, in the first 10:00class of architectural students when it was the architectural school was moving from being a part of the School of Engineering, offering a degree in Civil Engineering with a major in Architecture to offering the degree bachelor of Architecture in it's own program and it was a five year, 181 semester hour requirement for the bachelor's degree of which I had many, many hours already from having gone to Cumberland so I went through that five year program in four years with several other students that had already been in college at the time in 1960 when the school was established and was in the first graduating class in 1964 11:00from the School of Architecture at Cumberland, at, at the University of Kentucky. That's sort of another story because coming from my mountain background, my small town background, there's an old story about a boy from my part of the world who came home one time and had been to UK and came home and somebody said how'd you do in school? And he said well, I, I graduated and four years ago I couldn't spell engineer and now I are one. As an architect, I had no idea, I, to want to be an architect and have so little idea of what it meant, I should have been arrested. When I arrived but they didn't know any better and I didn't either so over the four years, I sort of began to learn at least what 12:00it was about if not how to be one and got through but it remains as the most difficult thing I have ever done. But there were wonderful teachers there and kind people, some, and, and the dean of the school, Charles P. Graves was, was a wonderful teacher, man who's died recently but he taught there during my days and has died only recently after forty years or more of serving this state, that school and people like me so I've, I have much to thank the University of Kentucky for and the people of Kentucky who made it possible for me to go and I, being 13:00a hillbilly boy without any idea that that was in any way special or particular or maybe a problem was rudely acquainted with it when I came to UK the first time in '57 and then, it continued of course all the way through being not prepared with high school courses in drawing and in architecture as many of my Chicago colleagues had when I was in school. I had to learn it all and being asked to draw a plan as we were in early exercises at, I didn't know what a plan was and so I really had to learn everything and, and--
WILSON: So you graduated in '64?
WILSON: And then what?14:00
SILER: Well, also, got married in 1963 to a girl that I had met in,at Cumberland and I had, at the time, we were going to have a baby. At the time, I graduated and he was in fact born, my son Steven in 196-, in October of '64 and we lived at the time in my college attic apartment with exposed gas heaters, un-vented gas heaters and the doctor frowned on the baby being in that environment so I needed to look for another job. I worked part time for John Morgan, an architect here in Lexington at the time I graduated and continued to work there 15:00full time when I graduated at $2.25 an hour and I looked for a job, found one in an architectural magazine advertised in Cincinnati and we moved there in January of 1965 in large measure to have better heat and lived in a, a almost a public housing project. I don't guess it was public but it was a place called Swiften Village and I wanted to live there. It was my choice because I'd never been part of any big housing complex and as an architect, I kind of wanted to understand what that was about and so Cincinnati was another kind of exposure to what being a hillbilly means and having it handed to me roughly. Lexington had 16:00been that, the University of Kentucky had been that and these were sort of new and surprising things because, as I said, I thought I was quite special when I was in high school and living in Williamsburg and was treated that way by teachers and friends of my parents and my friends as well so that kind of getting splashed by the world, the wider world was somewhat news and, and continues to be something I work with. In fact, I'm taking now a course in Appalachian literature at Eastern's campus at, at Corbin. I'm in the process this very last two weeks of 17:00the semester writing a paper about my own history in some measure but the part of it that illuminates this idea of Kentuckians and coming home and other Kentuckians that have come home for the variety of reasons that I've discovered, many of them to find out who they are and how they were formed by their origins, many because they know and prefer it to all the other things they've found in the world. Others for, many other reasons that may not be a part of this but it's, it's an important part of who I am. I know and have known but I hadn't known exactly how, how unique that part of the world was and how 18:00valuable and important to the world, how and a part, sooner or later, it will come out in this discussion. Part of my Peace Corps persona, part of my consciousness as a Peace Corps person was to be an American without any kind of badges or signs but to have that come to be known and have that become a part of how anybody else who had known me and what I did and what I was trying to do, have to say whatever you think about that I was an American and so you can't one without the other.
WILSON: Okay, so you, you moved away from Kentucky, you went toCincinnati starting your architectural career basically and then, what? 19:00
WILSON: Between then and the time you decided to go to the Peace Corps,give me a brief of that.
SILER: Well, part of this is sounding like I'm telling about my paperbut part of this is, is the Cincinnati part was a first step, blooming from wherever, Williamsburg or UK or the school of architecture, to try to be a great architect. You can even capitalize it and put it in italics if you want so a, a next step was to go to the best architectural office in this world, I thought as I, in my innocence, researched it and I still agree with myself and that was Eero Saarinen and Associates in New Haven, Connecticut. Mr. Saarinen 20:00had recently died, 1961, died but his office continued and I had read in an architectural magazine about the procedure of his office in design and I was a very, very poor student as a, but I aspired and, and this office--one of my problems with Lexington and, and school, architectural school and maybe the world at large was being in the company of people who seemed to know things and I couldn't figure out why they knew what they knew and how they were so sure of it but this article described the Saarinen office as pro-, pursuing a design problem by the development of several possibilities that seemed to 21:00be responsive to the requirements as they were being understood of an architectural project so the, the resulting designs were, were not the design. They were possibilities to be discussed as to what was positive and negative about those designs and that procedure, one, two, three, four, five designs seemed to lead and lead and lead until the questions seemed to get answered so I didn't know how to answer questions, certainly not directly and quickly and incisively and brilliantly but I did know how to ask questions and sort of work on what might be the answer so I wanted to go be in that place and on vacation from my Cincinnati job, my wife and I left our infant child 22:00with her sister in Cincinnati and I rolled up my drawings and went to New England and I applied to, to an office in Boston, the Architects Collaborative under Walter Gropius. Had a friend from Cincinnati that had moved there and was working there and showed me around the place and then, how to put in my application and then, came back down to, to New Haven and to the office in Hamden in suburban New Haven and I had another friend work from Cincinnati that had gone to work there so I, I had some kind of tracks I could follow so that I wasn't absolutely looking for the building but I went in there to the Saarinen office and was interviewed by the surviving partner, design partner of Eero 23:00Saarinen, Kevin Roche, one of the world's best architects but a man who believed this kind of procedure as well and he made the judgment after looking at whatever I had to offer him that I should work there and he called then one of his chief associates down to figure out exactly where and how and when to do all of that and this man came. His name was Phil Kinsella and remains an amiable person in my life still, looked at my stuff and we talked a while and then, worked out when I would come and, and then, it was like summer and he said when can you come and I said well, I have this project in Cincinnati that I must finish. It's the, the Chemistry, the University of Cincinnati the, the Chemical Engineering tower and, and lab building was the project I was 24:00working on and, and something for Children's Hospital in Cincinnati and I was the project architect so I, I had to finish them and so he said well, come in January, that's four or five months away--
WILSON: That's January of--?
SILER: And so I worked in Cincinnati a year and then, I went to thisoffice in Connecticut, Eero Saarinen and Associates and I was there for nearly four years while and, and a wonderful, wonderful place. An ivory tower in, in the sense that architecture was spelled with a capital A and I was in the presence of people like myself from all over the world that had come in the same way to be at this place and for the, maybe first time, first time consciously, my hillbilly aspect 25:00was no longer an issue. I wasn't any more different than anybody else was different and so it just wasn't there anymore and but I might also say that this time in Connecticut and the time even when I, I tried all the years I was at the University of Kentucky to take a course in philosophy. I had some suspicion as to its worth to me and in of itself and I could never because of the, the architectural schedule take a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class and the Tuesday, Thursday classes, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday classes were every time, maybe eight times in a row canceled for lack of interest and I never took a course in philosophy so when I got to Connecticut, I knew I had been poorly educated. I had been trained as an architect but I was 26:00not educated so I went to night school for three years at Southern Connecticut State College taking courses in philosophy and art and history, intellectual history, debate. I was terrified to take the course in debate, terrified to talk but I knew some of my weaknesses and I attempted to, to address them. Wonderful time in Connecticut but anyone old enough will remember that the world was pretty much in flame--We were in Vietnam in an increasing way and, and we, in the 1968 saw the race riots after Dr. King's assassination and, and it really was an ivory tower. Was a place working at the edges of 27:00issues that seemed so far from what was going on in the street and what was sort of fundamental to, to me and to, seemed to be important to the country. And I was being elevated whether I wanted to be or not in this firm and it was, I was offered--there were four project managers and fifty or sixty employees but these four project managers were the, were the backbone of this office. They took, they could interpret what was coming from above and interpret it to those below and produce Ellis Airport and TWA terminal and, and Ford Foundation 28:00building and St. Louis Arch and so on so I, I was asked to take over the project management of, of the University of Michigan Repertory Theater and I, and I had been working on the, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, traveling from, from New Haven by railroad to Manhattan two or three times a week to oversee a, a project for the renovation of the Metropolitan for its bicentennial I think, not its centennial, its bicentennial and I knew if I agreed to this project and this promotion, I would be in that office the rest of my life and probably on the Metropolitan the rest of my life because of it's significance to the 29:00art world and the country and New York and so on. And I was in an ivory tower and there was blood in the streets, fire in the streets and, and I went to Washington, tried to find the door where I could apply to become part of the pacification program in Vietnam to build schools and whatever so that, the same sort of what America is kind of stuff. I was much too old to fill anyone I knew and I might back up here and say my brother's death in the Second World War and its effect on my parents was clear to me as I grew and other people telling me 30:00how they, how they'd never recovered. They, they saw to my safety, all my life and all of theirs but they were never emotionally involved in my life. My dad had been a teacher. Graduate of Berea College before going to law school but he never taught me. He was a Latin teacher as well as the teacher in a one room school. He knew more or less everything but I can never being, never remember being read to or, or dealt with in any personal level. He was always proud of me in, in all kinds of ways but never involved so his death in '57 was prior to this time I'm describing of my Vietnam experience but I would have joined the Marine Corps right out of high school I think. There 31:00was a two year opportunity then and I wanted to. That would have been 1957. I think I very likely would have joined it from my failing year, my semester at the University of Kentucky because I, I, I could do that but I didn't know what else to do but my mother's had paid, my mother had paid a heavy, heavy price for, with my brother's death and I couldn't, in 1966 or anytime after that, I couldn't very well join the Marine Corps and go do that which is what I really wanted to do. I thought about doing but knew I couldn't, so the pacification program was the next step and I went around and around and I could never find the door in Washington and I tried and I had, as I said been a very 32:00good employee at this office and I found in Washington after going around and around and being told no, that I was married first of all and you couldn't go if you were married and there was something else, some other kinds of agencies that I, I just never could find any buy and I'm enough of a hillbilly to give me a piece of paper or a sheet or a book or something, that's not the same thing. I need a person that, that would explain what the book says or what the steps are or why I should read the book. I never found such a person but I did find a man named John Hill who was then the new Dean of the University of Maryland School of Architecture in College Park near Washington, D.C. and he had been one of my design teachers at Kentucky and so he said there 33:00was a brand new school being formed or had been formed a year called Washington Technical Institute in Washington, D.C. and it was in short hand, a community college, practically free, open admission, available to the citizens of Washington principally but anybody and everybody and had a program in Architectural Technology, two year program and that I should go apply there. Well, I did and, and my pedigree was such that they were very glad to have me but my--and so that was--
SILER: No, '69--34:00
SILER: And then, I, I think that was summer and so then, in Septemberof that, '69, I came to teach which is my wife and son were very, very, very happy in Connecticut, wanted to stay in Connecticut and I was, it was not anything that I could think of that they could stay in Connecticut. They had to come with me and my boss, John Dinkeloo, the, the partner to Kevin Roche and the succeeding firm of Roche Dinkeloo and Associates asked me to go for a year, go for a semester and then come back and I don't think he said exactly go get this out of your system. And, and come back and I, I remember him saying it but I 35:00wasn't able to hear him, to understand him and if I had, I might have put two and two together and left my wife there and I might have gone back after a while but at any rate, I move my wife and child to Silver Spring to a red house in Silver Spring, Connecticut, Silver Spring, Maryland near the district. Didn't know the district, of course, the warnings by everybody in sight, you can't live in Washington all the rest which didn't interest me, I mean, what, their warnings but I, so I went and I was there. This, I was twenty-nine years old, sort of, maybe thirty at that time, still the athlete that I had been or looked like, flat top hair cut. In, in a world, Kentucky boy, really, I mean, 36:00my accent is still with me, still to the point where, at least in those days, I'd have people in line turn around when I would say something and wonder who is that guy and where is he from? I, when I got to Washington, I, my, my abilities to teach architecture came out when I was a project manager or a project architect in Connecticut. The part of the job I liked best was having time to explain to somebody who was working why we were doing what we were doing, why this was a point or how to assign them the task of looking at something, study it for three or four hours and then, come back, let me come back and you tell me what you found about this thing. It seems to me this that and the other so you, but you look at it so that aspect of outlining 37:00an issue but, and, and confining it somehow but then, not studying it myself but coming back and seeing somebody else's efforts, that's kind of teaching, that, the pleasure of having somebody coming to see something that they didn't before and realizing their own insights, their own abilities. I enjoyed that so that knowledge that I was both a good teacher and good at it and, and enjoyed it was what made me take this job or think that I could do this job at this college and indeed, I could and was sort of seen by my pedigree, having been where I had been to be someone that should be listened to and then, I think when I said something, it was also equal to the expectations so I was there with kids that perhaps had rioted, looted, had hair, afros at the time. 38:00Kids that later I heard the expression couldn't get their head in a garbage can because their hair was so big but I was received after the initial flat top white guy, agreeably, gracefully and I liked it. I liked being where I was, doing what I was doing and in the meantime, while I was there, I started my own kind of architectural practice doing my first job outside the office in Connecticut. Small renovation projects in, in Washington and began to learn the other aspects beyond 39:00the ivory tower of delivering what one designs and, and this ability that I was born with or acquired by my origin of birth or on my way of being able to talk to Peruvian carpenters and Italian tile setters and whether we have the words, we both have the hands and we can gesture and we can draw and we can crawl around in the dirt and, and kind of get wonderful things done that I can learn what the materials and methods require to get where it is I'm trying to go with it. So was a kind of beginnings of a fairly good apprenticeship to be an architect 40:00but, but bringing architecture down to the carpentry, the trade level, the design it and make it happen kind of thing. That was happening as well as the wonderful teaching period and, and then, a, a person I had worked with on the, at the Saarinen office designing the dormitories at the University of Pennsylvania for Eero Saarinen had designed them and we were completed them after his death. His design ready for bidding as my, one of the project architects, I was the project architect on 41:00that project and that project designer which is a distinction that the Saarinen office has, the kind of technical guy and the design guy. He was in Washington and had gotten the job to provide the new museum under the St. Louis Arch called Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, JNEM if I got all those letters in there, all those words, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, yes. At the time the Arch was built, designed by Eero Saarinen, there was a football field size space left underground where what the West was all about, what happened after Mr. Jefferson decided to spend all that money so this man whose name 42:00was Aram Mardirosian asked me to come into his office as an associate and another friend of mine, became a friend of mine, Dave, David Colby who had been at the Saarinen office also. I didn't know him there but he was, he came to be a part of this office from Texas and so we, the three of us principally, Aram's wife, also as a researcher. We over the next couple of years developed the plans that would provide this museum, the exhibits and it was a wonderful opportunity to, to be involved in the content of architect. What in fact goes on the wall, what its use ultimately is and that museum, I am proud of it still and 43:00I have people who know my association say that it still exists. It's a wonderful gift of time beginning from Jefferson, have you seen it?
SILER: So you want to just put in the presence physically of wherethings happened in time as well as how groups kind of conflicted or they were associated or not or so on so I haven't seen much of that sort of thinking in the rest of the world since that time in the early seventies but I was the, part of that office that took the words and deeds and designs and translated them through the construction documents that saw to not only the construction of the exhibit wall 44:00and the dry walling of it and the finishing of the dry wall but the picture that in fact went on the wall and its margins an all of that so that was a very, very intense time. Also coupled with my teaching at Washington Tech and I was all--the next step then was to, after that project, the National, the National Visitor's Center in Washington was the next project that the office had and would have been my responsibility and I, like I had said no to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I, I didn't want to get connected to a, a project that I wouldn't outlive and so-- I mean, architecture is just not so important to me I realized somewhere. It was--as another kind of aside, if I can 45:00have parentheses within the parentheses here. For an architect as I believe it and teach it, there are three aspects to it like a triangle with each point and, and one is social worker. The utility of the building, what it is about is the architect's responsibility and, and if it won't serve the purpose for which it was intended by the guy who hired to architect to build the barn, then, it's not a very good barn. The second point of this triangle is technical; that it shouldn't leak or fall down or so on and the third is the art form. It needs, in human terms, to spark something that makes it not only able to house 46:00the horses-- You need to house the horse and not fall down on them, it needs to make them happy and the guy who owns the barn be happy and the people who drive by the barn be happy and everybody. It needs--
[Tape one, side one ends; tape one, side two begins.]
WILSON: Side two of tape one with Harry Siler, Peace Corps Oral HistoryProject. Harry, you were just going through the three points--
SILER: The triangle--
WILSON: Of what's important in a successful architectural project Iguess or building, whatever it might be.
SILER: Well, they're, they're aspects, these three aspects, I believeare, they can be seen as professions that of the social worker, that of the, the engineer who engineers the building to be well made and 47:00to, to be stable and then, the artist who, who in his, his providing to this project has made it a delight. This is an old, centuries old definition of architecture from Vitruvius, not Vesuvius but Vitruvius that a building should have form, commodity and delight. The artist brings the delight. The commodity is the social worker and the form, the structure as form is, is the engineer. An architect must bring all three things and the ideal one is an equilateral triangle. I'm not, I'm a social worker architect. I discovered it long ago and then, 48:00another parenthesis within this one was a, a vocational test. Is that what they're called in high school? You know, you're given that exam that tries to find your interest and abilities--
WILSON: Oh yes
SILER: Is it vocational? Is that his name? Aptitude.
SILER: Aptitude test--
SILER: Well, I was this captain of the football team, fullback, middleline backer, tough guy and maybe wanted to be a professional football player or a professional pilot. That test came back that it said that I should be a nurse. And I was wounded. I imagined a white dress and white shoes and me and I just, I was just, I was dumbfounded but in fact, it was probably the simple truth. I have worked my wonderful 49:00profession around a way that I can be, I can nurture. I can help clients get where they want to go. I can, I know the technical. I know the artfulness but in the end, I can make them smile because I found out what it was, not only they said they wanted but what they in fact needed or at least, I hope I can and I think I can prove that I, almost always have done that so all of that led to being in Washington, not having gotten to Vietnam for lots of reasons that are probably still worthwhile and, and then, after a while, I had a few students that moved through this two year aspect of Washington Technical Institute ----------(??) I was mostly practicing on my own and had 50:00quit this other office called the Potomac Group because I didn't want to continue in these huge buildings where the client--I never knew the client. I was detailing the, the granite but I didn't know the client and why I had granite and so I, I wanted and needed to find the person for whom I was providing and so I started my own design your kitchen kind of architectural office and through the Park Service and the National Park Service was the client for this project in St. Louis and they were very happy with me and with my friend Dave Colby and so we continued to do projects for the Park Service. Their museum component in, in Maryland, I can't think of the name but along the Shenandoah, Harper's, Harper's, Harper something, where did-- 51:00
WILSON: Harper's Ferry
SILER: Harper's Ferry, Maryland where the Park Service has a thinktank museum for their exhibits all over the country. I, I did several projects including a most wonderful one that I--if I were going to have a tombstone, I would want it to say something. I did at Gettysburg, I, the--I don't think it's called the Visitor's Center. It's called the Welcome Center. The Visitor's Center was by a wonderful architect Neutra. God, I can't think of his first name but one of the Bauhaus people that came to America and designed the Visitor Center for Park Service at Gettysburg. Richard Neutra but they had a acquired, the Park Service had acquired this giant old hodgepodge museum next, on 52:00their property, on, right in the mus-, across the street from the museum, from the cemetery and they asked me to, to design this Welcome Center. It would be the first stop for a visitor coming to Gettysburg not quite knowing what it's all about but that they're going to go, park your car, go in this Orientation Center. That was it's name; Orientation Center so I was the principal architect for this but I, my friend Dave Colby was my partner and we designed this absolutely wonderful kind of old house that was then, that had fourteen additions put onto it over the year and had ultimately this giant terrain map big as a basketball gymnasium within the center of the basketball gymnasium was all of the Gettysburg topography. I mean, you could see Lincoln's 53:00train, little lights as he came from Washington and all, where the battles happened. It was our job to, in this first entry into this building, to introduce the visitor whoever he or she was into the importance of Gettysburg and put them in the mood and, and help them see the battle field and see this building and the visitor center and all the rest, cemetery which we did. Wonderful job and I'm proud of it still and it exists. The skeleton of this design is something that they just refurbish over time and it, it met the requirement artfully as well as those other two aspects of it but for a Kentuckian, to 54:00be in Abraham Lincoln's neighborhood with essentially, at least as I defined it, the same job to explain to folks what happened here and why it's important. Now, that's pretty tall cotton--So that was me in the middle seventies in Washington. Five years or more there starting my own private practice and, and some kids that had gone through school at Washington Tech were on at Howard University taking the five year, 181 equivalent course that I had at the University of Kentucky and one of them, Chris Aniye, a Nigerian, came, said, came to my house and 55:00said we sure wish you would come to Howard and teach. We're upset, can't understand what they're saying or you say it better or whatever he said so he arranged near as I know that I would be interviewed. I don't think I ever actually applied for a job but I came and the same thing sort of happened. My credentials, my pedigree is such that the architectural world that I had lived in was so rarified that they were happy to have me and so I went to work there part time in 1974. And then, I, after a personal event in my life -- my wife and I had huge difficulties in the, 1980 and '81 -- and I, I couldn't work very well 56:00anymore. I, I wasn't able to sit at my desk and work for hours on end like I had been so I decided--they had been asking me to teach full time for a long time so I decided I would in 1981 and I was full time from 1981 at Howard University teaching principally courses in building construction and structures until I retired in 1999 to get ready to go to the Peace Corps. To make some sort of a loop to end of why this is important, I guess the, the thing I would--the one story that has to do was, that's worth telling, at Washington Tech because this was a college of a sort. It wasn't of a sort. It was a community college 57:00with all the programs of a two year college but there was because it was Washington, there was a huge international component of students. In the, in the late sixties and early seventies, there's a whole flock of Nigerians in the country and, and then, a few Asians, some Iranian because the Shah had thrown out people or they had run from him. You, I, I invited to my house--we had bought a house after a year, living in Silver Spring, we bought a house in Washington, Northwest Washington 58:00in the very, very city and I'd wanted one by downtown but a, a row house and renovate it sort of where nothing but black folks were my neighbors or, I think it was in Adam's Morgan so there were Spanish people and the whole thing but, but my wife doesn't share my view of everybody's just alike or ought to be or whatever it is I believe -- maybe she should say that -- but we looked around and, and, and looking for houses, sometimes we would walk the alleys behind them. Pretty much they were all row houses or houses in a very dense part of town so there was really no side yard. Maybe a little space between houses but generally, there would be enough vicious dogs in people's backyards 59:00that one could see without much planning that your child would probably be eaten. Sometime in his life when he went out to play and so I retreated a little bit from how downtown I wanted to live and we bought a house on Morrison Street, 3220 Morrison Street and in the Lafayette School district and my son was about kindergarten age when we moved there, maybe first grade and, and my daughter was born after we had been there a year. And it was an absolutely wonderful place but an old house about to fall. Structurally, frightening to anyone who looked at it because there was an upstairs, second floor hallway three feet wide and one side of the hall was about three inches lower than the 60:00other side of the hall and everyone who went through it scraping off the low wall would say no and the, the realtor that had this house. It was an estate with a daughter surviving, daughter of the man who had owned it. They wanted so much, the realtor wanted to be so much free of this house and this daughter that the offer we made on the house was accepted some ten or more thousand dollars. We paid $28,000 for this house in a neighborhood of probably $48 or $58,000 houses and, and the other, even the workers in the real estate office, when they discovered what we had bought it for were really upset because they thought we had stolen it which $28,000 for me was scary. My dad, mom said he wouldn't, even when he was a lawyer, he didn't want to buy 61:00a refrigerator and pay on, on time because he knew could never, he wouldn't long enough to pay that thing off. He didn't want to be in debt. I had the same feeling but the, finally, coming back I brought this class of mine, a design class at Washington Technical Institute. I made a design problem the renovation of my house and after a week or two, when they had seen the plans and, and had worked on the house a little bit graphically. The big part of any young architect's problems is learning to abstract from the reality to the drawing and the drawing the reality so after a while, I brought my class. Well, of course, they were all black and three fourths of them were Afro-Americans but 62:00the other fourth perhaps were some kind of foreign student. Maybe fifteen kids, I've forgotten and they weren't all kids. Some, some people were older than I was because this was an opportunity to come to college and find my inner light, and I remember showing these kids through there and of course, they were, some of them stunned at, it was a huge wonderful house. Structurally, had trouble but I could fix that I thought. In fact, I was mistaken about what the structural problem was but I could fix what it was when I finally saw it too but these kids were, were, they were part of my life and I was not, not as old as some of them and, and for most of them, I wasn't more than four or five years older than they were but I can remember one of the 63:00Nigerian students in his design when I started to see it and he had had his bedroom and her bedroom and I, I look at that and got Mr., oh I forgot his name. It began with a U. He was Igbo by the way and I began to understand Nigerian is one thing but within Nigeria is, they've got their own Appalachia too. And, and differences within and so after a while, he, he directly explained to me that, that I should not be sleeping in the same room with my wife. That it was, it would lead ultimately to no good place. I've forgotten exactly his words 64:00but it was his culture and mine, being brought to my attention, the distinctions brought to my attention. And my ability to explain to him, being able to design for a person, he should find out who it is, that they are. He should become the social worker in some measure so that his proposals are not foreign to the way that those people choose to live and want to live, seek to live. Anyway, that sort of is the Washington part and then, the time in Washington with my own office, it, I'm, I, I had my own practice up until I left Washington doing more and more elevated projects but after a while, even I did the National Visitor's Center in 1976. The Bicentennial Information Center it 65:00was called. When the Park Service began to realize or thought there might be some extra twenty million people or so coming in the summer of 1976 to Washington, more than normal, they, they wanted to develop a, a national, a, a reception place for them to get oriented to see the D.C. area as well as the activities, and I was asked by the Park Service to, to do that and, and in the Great Hall of the Department of Commerce, we, facing the Willard Hotel along Pennsylvania Avenue, I designed over the course of a few months some pipe and canvas desk with butcher block tops and signage again with Dave Colby, my helper and we 66:00were able to provide in time a, a reception place for that, for those extra people. Not as many people came as the Park Service expected but we were ready if they did and there were, there's a whole--their warehouse is full of gifts given to the President, given to the White House by foreign visitors as well as citizens from, from a musket to a slop jar to whatever and, and so we took those exhibits and made a pipe frame and a canvas border around the plastic see through see and exhibited those things in some part of our space and, and it was a quite wonderful space. Had a, had the post office come in so they 67:00could stamp your, postmark your letter as, as National Information Center or whatever it said. I've forgotten. My, it was a good time so those kinds of projects, that's about the last one I ever did for the Park Service. After that, I just, I guess I really liked to work where I can see the whites of the eyes of the people I'm working for and, and then, see the whites of the eyes of the builders too and so that sort of made the projects be smaller and it's always troubled me a little bit with all this background, shouldn't I be somewhere at least on the ground floor of an ivory tower some place and I, I haven't been willing to say yes to that. I've been offered many of them but I, I choose to keep it where I've kept it. So I guess finally, when I was in 68:001999, I would have been sixty and I had promised myself--the marriage wasn't, was over by that time and maybe should have been over a long time before but one of the things I felt like, as I tried to understand myself, the early 80s my wife and I had terminal trouble. My daughter was about ten years old at the time and my own introspection of that time which hadn't existed probably before that time because I probably carried this attitude all the way from Williamsburg that I was a prince and I just had to wait till other people found it out and then, 69:00everything would be alright. Long about that time, it began to dawn on me that I might not be a prince and that, if I was a frog, I needed to sort of understand some how or other what that meant to me and the others that I might pounce on over time and had pounced on in the past. So one of the books I read had the, I think it's an Unknown Woman was the name of it, was about a woman who had, I think some psychological troubles as well and she went from wherever she was in New York State down at some sort of city, urban situation to live alone on Cape 70:00Cod in the winter, nobody else there, to try to and, and her intent was to start from the beginning as an adult and put into her life, consciously, those things that she was conscious of and wanted to own. Well, that's kind of my attitude in those early eighties in this time of introspection that continues and one of those things that I read was for her, I believe I'm right that it was that book that for a female, a daughter's first man is her father. However good, bad or ugly he is, that's who, as a man, she sees and reacts to and his presence or 71:00the absence is a lifelong problem. His presence, regardless of who he is, is far and away better than his absence and so I, even in the early 80s, as bad as things might be, I decided for my daughter that I was going to be present and so my wife and I lived together for another four, five, six years in this house on Morrison Street, Northwest D.C. with my daughter, my son who during this time graduated from high school and went off to Florida for a while and then, I might say after a year, came back and decided to go to Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky for a couple of years and get what he didn't get in high school and then, went on to American University to major 72:00in Human Resources and has gone back to Florida because he likes to me warm and you say a powerhouse, bigwig at Price Waterhouse Coopers in Tampa still ascending. But my daughter, my focus at least with the little bit of reading that I had done my place was at her side and I stayed and ultimately my wife moved to suburban Virginia, was working for Army Times Publishing, she had gotten her journalism degree at American University discovering finally in her thirties what she wanted to be when she grew up and was working as a journalist and moved out of the house for three or four years until Carrie graduated from high 73:00school, my daughter Carrie but Carrie stayed home, lived with me the years of her high school in Washington. And I'd promised myself for because of the difficulties I guess with my marriage and somehow I had been able to see it as suppose to have solved every problem I ever had and since it didn't I blamed it for a lot of problems that it wasn't responsible for but I, I said when I get to be sixty I have all these steps when Carrie gets out of college, when Carrie graduates, I had all these things I had promised myself I was going to do something different, I was going to live the life I wanted to instead of doing all these other things that I felt like I was somehow compelled to do 74:00because of my um circumstance what I had gotten everybody else into I had to see it honorably to some conclusion for their sake for me to be honorable about it with myself so when I was sixty I--the year before I told Howard University that I would be retiring, I gave them a year to find someone who did what I did and in fact I told the Dean, I told him six months before that year, eighteen months in advance I was going to announce my intention to leave this year so that the senior faculty would have a year to replace me and Carrie by that time was out of college and she went by the way to, to college in Worchester, Massachusetts to Clark University and I had advised her when she went 75:00she didn't know what she wanted to major in. She'd been a pretty good math student but she didn't know what she wanted to do, I advised her to major in social--in liberal arts because I felt I had made a huge mistake by deciding to be an architect for the wrong reasons not understanding it well enough and that I wasn't skilled at it, I'd had to learn to do everything and, and there's a limit to how much you can learn if you don't have the native talent and I'd been a good teacher cause I remember learning all these hard things but I didn't have the talent to excel at it and so Carrie majored in liberal arts at Clark and after a year decided to major in history because she was enjoying 76:00liberal arts so much history let her keep on studying whatever she wanted to and she became unlike any in our family at that point before Steven had begun to excel, she was in fact a Phi Beta Kappa, she had--I don't believe she--maybe she made a "B" somewhere in high school but she sure never made an "A" but all of a sudden we had this scholar in the family which was for me uh even better than being one myself, I didn't have to work at it I could just enjoy and appreciate her way of doing things and so from, from her time at Clark, her graduation, her success there then she came to Washington to live with me a while 77:00and then moved out to live in a group house I think you called and worked for US News and World Report that was instrumental. Like most young college graduates she couldn't get a job, resume just glows in the dark but she couldn't get a job. And so I had a client who was a reporter at US News and World Report and I called Mr. Charles Fenyvesi and we went down to see him and he had remembered my daughter playing with scraps of wood in his floor when I would take her when she was in toddler to the jobs with me because my wife was in school or working or whatever she was doing and so he knew Carrie from way back and he took her around somewhere and they met her and they hired her in a 78:00blink and she was there a long time and a valued employee until she figured out her next step which was to go to graduate school in history at University of California-Davis. Meanwhile she had met a young man named Noah Levy in New York when she went to visit a friend of hers, a high school friend of hers in New York City. He was there after having graduated from Columbia in Comparative Religions an editor and wanting to be a writer but from California, from Mill Valley, California. And so the two of them, Carrie and Noah cooked up this thing that Noah's parents had been wanting him to come home forever and he'd been in New York five years or so after he graduated so if Carrie would go to 79:00graduate school select Davis to go to instead the others she might have gone to he would go back to California and they would live together and whatever else would happen would happen whatever else was that they got married after a while and I now am a grandfather for the first time and a very, very happy camper. I have a grandson named Isaiah who's begun to infect me exactly the way other grandparents seem to be infected. But this business of 1999, I was sixty years old I'd done all these other things I'd never done lots of things that I had wanted to hadn't done for reasons I blamed others for maybe or just hadn't been able to do. One of those was not--I hadn't been able to go to Marine Corps 80:00and I hadn't gone to Vietnam when it was--when I--when other people had gone, when my country was involved right or wrong and so the Peace Corps-- I was a student, 1960 on the campus at University of Kentucky when John Kennedy in his make-up came in front of--I guess it was the administration building looking out on Limestone but he--they, they set up a speakers platform and I might add that I'm from the Republican part of the world, southeastern Kentucky and, and John Kennedy the rumor was, was a Democrat but he came--my wife was a Democrat and she 81:00knew about John Kennedy and she knew about Democrats but he came--I remember coming to hear him speak and remembering that Bert Combs I believe was the Governor at the time and Governor Combs was there and they got up and they talked for a few minutes but I remember the TV make-up as more than I remember anything that he was sort of curiously tanned in a kind of artificial looking way. But I remember an awful lot about him as an impressive person then and of course the Peace Corps was bloomed pretty soon after that Mr. Kennedy's election and, and I had gotten married in on August 24 of 1963 and Mr. Kennedy's 82:00death November 22 was visceral I guess, it was it was awful. I had been working part time somewhere out Main Street, I've forgotten the name of it, for an architect from my hometown who had an office here whose name was Donald B. Shelton. I went to work for a $1.50 an hour I remember I had been there a year or so and I remember very distinctly getting a $.10 an hour raise but I was--on that day November 22, I was driving from school from work where I worked in the morning to the tobacco barn on Broadway I think it is where the School of Architecture was housed that year, my entire career it was housed in that tobacco barn and I came up this huge, huge flight of stairs to the second floor 83:00of the tobacco barn the loft I guess it was and everyone very unusually was standing around it what was our kind of lobby of the school before you went back into the studios and there was a radio everybody was curiously present and quiet. And I remember what's going on and somebody told me. I think I listened a while, I think I listened long enough until I heard somebody, Walter Cronkite or somebody with the radio, so I don't think it was a TV--I remember exactly what happened 84:00there in the lobby. I remember it appearing that he was dead and I don't know that I was--let me back up and say that Mr. Kennedy he was, was alive, he was funny he was affecting me because he--I could imagine me. He was closeness enough to me and I don't know that Nixon wouldn't have been but certainly Eisenhower wasn't and, and Truman and so to have the President be alive, lively, imaginable, present for me and I was coming of age I was twenty something years old and so I was maybe better able to sit up and take nourishment than I'd ever been before and what I remember that day walking back in the back of the tobacco barn alone in a huge building, you walk a hundred yards 85:00back there somewhere in the back and I laid down on some sort of dolly thing that was there, it was empty it was not any tobacco in it anymore and we didn't use much of this giant space. I in fact fainted it was traumatic that day. And I somehow--I lived on Limestone Street, we lived on Limestone Street I guess that was '63 so Steve wasn't born yet and so um anyway I went home from there and called Carol who 86:00worked somewhere down Kelly Girls at a bank downtown, called her if she knew and she knew so we agreed to start walking towards each other down Limestone and we met somewhere along the way. I remember either then or later that my dad being sort of a Republican with stripes or whatever you have and um he was at the time of his death he was the Commonwealth Attorney elect for Whitley and McCreary counties but never served and never was sworn in--died between but I remember as a kid him listening to, to President Truman's speeches, have a radio and just all kinds of trouble in the mountains trying to get the radio station let you hear whatever was going on but I think he and I shared 87:00the President is the President and uh I remember liking Mr. Kennedy, I never had any trouble with his being a Democrat nearly the trouble I imagine some of my now neighbors do and neighbors then did but liked Mr. Kennedy very much and it would be very hard not to like him seems like to me. But he was the President and here all of a sudden was this Abraham Lincoln like event and it was really hard.
WILSON: And so that was sort of the beginning of your interest in thePeace Corps?
SILER: Well, his--he during those--that period and after his death withSargent Shriver was a very big thing and people going like this outside this country as somewhat ambassadors, real or imagined of this country, 88:00yes but I wanted to be a Marine and this was the time when I was still unwilling to accept my be a nurse proclivity so the fact of the Peace Corps I knew about and the older I got and the farther from being a football player and a Marine I got the more appealing Peace Corps became and, and in 1969 uh I guess I am in charge of who gets to listen to this while I'm alive at least I hope--but in 1969 my wife and I had 89:00in 1999 my wife and I had divorced had been for some several years and should have been for fifteen or twenty and I was living on 17th Street in Washington with a wonderful woman who was a yoga teacher, spiritual person, a person who exposed me to lots of worlds that I didn't know anything about until I met her and I in spite of how much I admire and respect her do and did, it was not all that I wanted in the world in a relationship. So, I with a capital "C" for cowardice said to her one 90:00time, soon as I retire, when I retire from Howard I am going to join the Peace Corps. Which is true I wanted to do that and I saw in it some how ever parallel way to the Marine Corps that I couldn't join Marine Corps, but I could join Peace Corps and it would be going somewhere and doing something hard which was--I mean I could--I'm creative, I can event and so I preceded to work towards that and she after a while saw 91:00through that--or saw that wasn't all that going to the Peace Corps was that it was a way to get away from her because I said I'm coming back to Williamsburg meanwhile the Corps of Engineers, Corps of Engineers had decided to build a floodwall after twenty years of consideration, in my hometown and my parents home, my boyhood home uh sat looking at the Cumberland River and I had forever appreciated it and I didn't want it to be destroyed so they the Corps of Engineers mistakenly didn't take the entire four acres of our land they left a little bit of a sliver, enough of a sliver for me to have this house moved it's one of the rights that you can buy the house from them uh if you'll get it out of their way and so I did move it and so I did that '98 or something 92:00like that and I did all the steps necessary to have it sited and moved and a foundation built and--but it sat there unusable and unused and something of a problem for the neighbors, apparently because I began to get letters from the city attorney saying when are you coming to do something about this house. Well, I was going to go to the Peace Corps and then and then come back and do something about that house and that sort of my cover with this lady and then I had to go to Williamsburg and fix this house. Well, knowing as you do Jack the ways of the Peace Corps, just because I applied didn't mean they accepted me
WILSON: Yes, so tell me something about that process.
SILER: Well, I applied while I was still in Washington and I fully93:00expected given my princely background they'd probably call me on the phone by ways another aside, my daughter and I who love each other dearly.
[Tape one, side two ends; tape two, side one begins.]
WILSON: Tape 2 of Peace Corps Oral History project interview with HarrySiler December 7, 2004. Harry we were talking a bit about how you happened to join the Peace Corps and I think you were telling uh me uh a story relative to your daughter in that context.
SILER: Yes, the parallel that my own application to the Peace Corps Ihad had assumed that they would look at my background and probably call me the day they got the letter instead of bothering with the mail and so my daughter came home, graduated from Clark University with a degree 94:00in history and wanted to work a while before she went to graduate school and she lived with me in Washington came back to Washington in her home and uh this home on Morrison Street in fact and began to send off her resumes and that we were the only two people in the house that we would talk about the jobs she was applying for, if she had seen this or that and I am excessively helpful and so I would probably read the want ads too in the paper who, who knows what father did but uh after a while she kept getting rejections or no responses and, and each time she had sent something off I would tell her in my view she was perfect for it, jobs at the Smithsonian or--they were wonderful sounding jobs 95:00and uh after a while she sort of said dad, "shut up." She was getting no response or nothing and my sort of inflated opinion of her was obviously not held widely so she just wanted me to shut up and, and I did and she's been able over time -- she went to a high school, Edmund Burke in Washington -- and learned critical thinking and I can remember maybe even when she was in high school I would say something and then she would turn and singe me with the incorrectness--either political incorrectness or just the error in the logic or whatever it was, she's a joy to have now as an adult to be around. But my own Peace Corps 96:00application, I had never written anything and you might remember there are a couple of essays that one has to respond to, why you want to do what you are doing or so on and they were extremely difficult. I--the only writing that I had ever done was what was minimally required in architectural school or whatever English classes I had to write in and couldn't get my former wife to write the thing for me--It really was, was very, very difficult and very hard--it took a long time but I did get them out and they were heartfelt these two essays they really were my first time to sort of expose myself in writing I'd always somehow wanted to save that until that would be some sort of a wonderful thing 97:00to say instead of what I only had to say at that point and so uh the Peace Corps never ever responded and I--I mean they went through a time or two of I hadn't done this or I hadn't done that and then I'd send that in but I did retire in May of 1999 from Howard, I had a year of work to finish projects that were under construction before I actually left Washington all the time expecting that the Peace Corps was going to call and I was going to go. Meanwhile this business in Williamsburg was getting to be more and more of a problem because it looked like there was some sort of revolt going on down there because I wasn't fixing the house and it was sitting along a street with other houses that were quite nice that had people living in them and mine 98:00didn't and it looked like it didn't and so I, I went after I'd finished these projects in Washington, I'm leaving out a lot trying to get somewhere, I went home in about May of the year 2000 and proceeded to start the renovation, the completion of this house that had been moved from where it was and needed new every--new wiring, new electricity, new--it was sitting on a foundation unconnected to the world it needed everything. So, I like a foolish architect started in--altering it in ways that it didn't really need but I made a big deal out of it because I made an architectural project out of it instead of the minimum one 99:00that it absolutely needed and meanwhile resubmitting to the Peace Corps--ultimately I called them and finally talked to a somebody which is I guess what a hillbilly boy needs and they had failed to informed me as they certainly should have that I had been put on some sort of shelf because the art of the application for the Peace Corps requires that you confess all sins past and present which I did uh including the fact that I had been a quite heavy drinker for a period in the early '80's and, and said so in the proper blank spot on the Peace Corps 100:00application. Well that application generated a phone call from Guidance Counselors Incorporated or somebody like that. A young woman calls and I had wonderful hour long interview, shorter than this one but, but with her and I said every single thing that had been true including the fact that I had stopped drinking in 1986 and here it was the year 2000 or 1999 or whenever that telephone came and hadn't--and why I stopped and hadn't--I stopped because my daughter needed a better role model for a short answer, there's a much longer story. So, I'd stopped but 101:00there's one instance where at a Seder at a friend's house where always before when I had been invited the cup was passed, wine was drunk at the appropriate time and I'd always not participated because I had been or still am an alcoholic and, and I'd been able to successfully not drink and, and I knew in the past I had not been able to successfully drink little only successfully to drink a lot and so I--at this time I felt so good and it had been so long that I began to participate in the Seder and then I--that hadn't killed me so I thought maybe I can be a moderate drinker like others and so I became one for a few weeks 102:00and this lady that I lived with told me that I was becoming immoderate as she fully expected that I would then I had to quit, I couldn't do this and so I did completely again. So, when this telephone call came from the counselor from the psychologist I talked this way honestly and--but that had been years ago and I haven't--and she unbeknownst to me had advised me the Peace Corps that I was at great risk if I went somewhere hard to drink again. Well, that isn't true, wasn't true and I just wanted it of course to be seen as anything less than perfect, but when I found that out somehow by talking on the phone to--while I 103:00was living in Kentucky waiting on the mail um I then wrote the Peace Corps and said in effect you have made a tremendous error in judging me and I want a hearing and I want a--I want some people to look at me and tell me that they think I'm going to go somewhere and drink when I tell you I'm not and so another phone call came from another counselor who interviewed me and that gentleman to his eternal credit, a Dr. Cook Kirk, whom I've called but not spoken to since I've got back um reversed that and made the judgment that I wasn't likely to and he was 104:00in fact totally correct and uh so I was granted permission in January 2001 to go to South Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer for the training period and then to make the decision and to have the Peace Corps make the decision if I would stay for two years in that country.
WILSON: Okay, so tell me something about training.
SILER: Well, prior that that I should say I'd only wanted and agreedto go to Africa and they, the Peace Corps, had rummaged through all of my history and the requirements of all the African countries and the fact I didn't speak French even though I had two years of high school French and uh was in a Spanish speaking country which I tried--I'd gone to Spanish classes at Howard trying to learn to speak Spanish, 105:00I think it is so beautiful. So English being one of the languages at least in South Africa they had connected me with and, but somehow in the wisdom of the Peace Corps or the timing of the situation they sent me to South Africa a support person to the primary schools of the northern province of South Africa that was the program and I'd imagined that I'd be an architect of some stripe but no. So, I said "yes" I can be ready by the 19th of January to be in Philadelphia for the staging and there I met my group SA6, the sixth group of folks 106:00to go to South Africa. By the way I think it was Vice President Gore at the direction of Mr. Clinton who negotiated the Peace Corps's presence in South Africa and Mr. Clinton was seen by my host father, the Indhuna Mageza of my village as the person who saved South Africa. I believe saved it from the Chinese he was working in a way that when South African became free of history it became a majority black country ruled by those who had not had much say so prior to that Mr. Clinton worked hard and effectively to keep it out of the influence totally of 107:00anyone except perhaps us. So anyway I got to Philadelphia and there were 22 of us at that time, about 16 of them young and fresh and six of us old and not and I was among the old, the only male, there were only I believe four guys among those sixteen young people and a lot of graduate students who were a year or two of teaching kind of experience or work, no tweeners, nobody that wasn't in their twenties or--there were some among the elders that might have been in their late fifties but not by much, mostly we were in our sixties and after a couple of 108:00wonderful days in retrospect that the Peace Corps did in Philadelphia they put this group together or did exercises that made us think of ourselves as part of something as SA6 was a, a distinct group and I remember one of the most effective still was--I sat just accidentally next to a young woman named Tina from Montana and, and it was part of the of the exercise that I introduce her to the group not myself but her and she interviewed--introduced me and, and Tina I got to know and by implication all these other people were people too and, and so there was a lot of kind of collecting of, of personalities into a group 109:00that stayed quite congealed, still is that group. But we went after a while, after a lot of shots and talk we went on a bus to uh Kennedy International Airport and got on an enormous plane, biggest one that I'd ever been on and I am not a newcomer to the world but I had not been on a plane that had two floors and double aisles and all of that before and flew forever and ever and ever and landed in Johannesburg flying overnight with the shades down and all of that but flew over Africa in the morning and with the window shade up and looking at the 110:00desert, northwest of South Africa and the land beginning to get greener and greener and much the way America is as you fly across it from across sections it changes and as we arrived closer and closer to Johannesburg it more and more life started, patterns of roads and housing and all the rest. It was a South African airplane and raising the window shade when morning light happened and seeing the insignia on the end of the wing beautiful against the sky and the world. It was a memorable thing 111:00and this country boy was getting a long, long way from home and I'd been to Canada barely by crossing from Detroit and had gone one time to Guadalajara on a retreat and that's about it, the extent of my foreign travels and not much in the United States either. But we arrived and, and then the--met by a big country director, cheerleading crowd and taken on a bus to a retreat kind of place, resort where you have two or three days of orientation and sleep adjustment and be introduced to our language teachers and be given our language and our--not our assignment 112:00but some--there were three language groups being a part of depending on where people were going to go and all that I learned later had been sort of worked out by our absolutely wonderful program director and our manager, and if I don't think of her name I'll be ashamed but I will in a minute but the Peace Corps people up and down were absolutely wonderful, they were prepared for us to the degree that they could be and our program director was an absolutely wonderful woman and so we went about being shepherded from the very beginning in these days at ? Valley, this Resort and near Johannesburg and then uh went to Soweto 113:00as one of our visits while we were there and uh--taken around by a guide who lived there and ultimately I came back to visit two or three times in Soweto because my host family had once lived there and so um it could be a whole other story how I was the second time being shown around as uh being led like a little puppy on a leash because I was the thing that they had to display when they showed me where they had gone to school and where they went to the market and when we walked through their neighborhood and all the rest and they lived by the way--my, my host family's name is Mageza and they had lived a couple of blocks from where Desmond Tutu had had his house and oh my goodness 114:00help me with the with the first premier's name Mandela is some three years younger and shares the same birthday as my host father and lived with Desmond Tutu awhile and then had his own house and now Mandela's former wife, Winnie, lives a stone's throw behind the Indhuna, behind their home in Soweto. So, Soweto I learned later is, is filled from one end to the other with as many varieties of housing and people as one can imagine. But anyway my, my orientation was that first view of Soweto and being driven around some and introduced to the language 115:00which I am--as I say--I have grades that show that I couldn't learn French and that I couldn't learn Spanish and I've barely been able to learn English and now I was assigned uh, uh some language called Tsonga, Xitsonga which I had to work at pronouncing and it was it was foreign with a capitol "F" and so--but that's what I was here for and, and then we went on another bus for hours and hours and hours to our training site which was a former school of education, black university, black college, Hosani College near golly--I should have taken notes 116:00Jack before I came but over near Nelspruit and I can't think of the nearby town we use to go to from this college but we lived in, it's a Dutch name, I can't remember the name now I will before I'm done here or I'll call you with it but it was ten incredibly hard weeks and I lived with a host family named Nguma and a family that had a husband that I never saw who lived in a nearby town but I lived with Manana [mother in Xitsonga] and her daughter who took wonderful care of me 117:00Numsa, and helped me with the language and Numsa had a child a teenage boy named Bright, who was a wonderful soccer player and so--and then a van would come, a khombi as we would now call it who would come around every morning and pick us up and we would go to the college for our training, our Peace Corps administered training and then we would go in the afternoon to some sort of seminar conducted by a sort of think tank of South Africa that had been hired to help us understand where we were and the nature of the culture and the nature of the teachers there which was peculiar to say the least. All of the primary schools that we would be a part of had teachers that had been trained in black 118:00primary schools established by the Afrikaners administrators to teach but with the Afrikaners having the opinion that black people needed training, they needed to aspire to the drivers, policemen, servants, um some sort of underlings any education beyond that was suspect and in fact in the Indhuna's period I learned was illegal beyond the third or fourth grade-- it was more why are you wanting more than that? What are you thinking about? Quite, I mean illegal, Afrikaners many that I talked to and tried to say that to would say that isn't true but apparently it was true earlier and it kept getting higher and 119:00higher how much one was prevented to but the only colleges that black people could go to were these teachers colleges resulting in the fact there's a whole bunch of people in these colleges who didn't want to be teachers but if that's the only college they'll go to it and then the only jobs by in large for people afterwards was to teach and so you found people teaching that didn't want to be teachers and fifty percent of people who graduated from those colleges had not, did not get a job because the training. One of the most vicious parts it seems to me of the Afrikaner public policy was to overload the teaching profession with people who didn't want to be teachers which maybe in some way was part of the motive because it kept the schools incredibly poor, there weren't any really passionate teachers or rarely would you find one. 120:00Most teachers had a job and their job began when they got to school and if they were at school they were working so it wasn't necessarily in the classroom teaching some kid, being an inspiration to some Mandela that would take this whatever spark and go somewhere with it and you don't know who those people are and so you teach everybody.
WILSON: But your job as a Peace Corps volunteer was related to theeducational system?
SILER: It was in capitol letters to be a support person to the primaryschools identified in your assignment and in my case they were the five primary schools of my village, my village, Mohlaba Cross, a Xitsongan homogenous speaking village next door to another village that spoke 121:00Sepedi, all these black people were quite different from each other one came to understand didn't even like each other, had had wars against each other so the language you spoke identified as not one of us and, and there were eleven uh formal--what's the--official languages of South Africa and there are another however many, hundred that are unofficial and there are dialects within a language, people from one section don't exactly speak the same language the way the other groups speaks it. So, my job was to go to this village, I was brought there-- 122:00the, the Peace Corps connection to this village was that one of the principals of one of those five primary schools had applied to the Peace Corps for a volunteer and the Peace Corps to their credit had investigated this village and those schools to a fare-thee- well. They had forced my host family to build another outhouse--
WILSON: For your use?
SILER: No, well they did--you can't have this American come and, and,and my host family was a man who was in his late eighties when I arrived and his wife some fifteen years younger, he was the Indhuna sub chief, Chief Muhlava, the chief of this region of all the land owned 123:00by this group of people, this tribe the Xitsongan, who spoke Xitsonga had thirty-four regions, thirty-four sub chiefs of which the Indhuna, Indhuna Herbert Mageza, had been born to this royal position and royal is the word properly used by him and therefore me. He had run away from his father the Indhuna as he was a young man and he spent some forty years in, in Johannesburg every--his father died years and years ago but, but my host father would always get them to get some fill-in person for a while longer and he would stay in Johannesburg and he would work as the principal assistant, its hard to say it but as the head 124:00boy to a white man who owned many businesses so my father, host father, Herbert, became the person, the chauffeur and the person who could go into any of these businesses as the representative of his employer and knew how to direct the people who worked in that business in whatever it was the business was, many businesses. And so as a result he was a very refined and well educated man relatively and speaking of education the writer, Alan Paton who wrote Cry My Beloved Country was one of my host father's teachers back in the forties when it was illegal for black people to know things, go to school above whatever level they had 125:00gone this Alan Paton and a Catholic Father would offer evening classes somewhere and it was illegal to be out after curfew for black people but they worked that elevating themselves. And as another aside being at my host father's table to eat for two years I could hear about the Germans bombing Johannesburg, I could hear about the collusions between the Afrikaners and the Nazis and hear about the problems between the English and the Afrikaners or about what life had been it was without- -it's, it's rich, very, very rich. But what, what I got, when I got to 126:00this village was a preparation as best the Peace Corps could give for three different language groups going out to three different groups of African speaking people in villages the poor beyond my ability to describe as poor. Getting enough water, getting food is what, what the first task of the day is about and coming to school is a very, very complicated cultural business for people because parents of the children coming to school by in large had gone to school also and been 127:00beaten like crazy, corporal punishment beyond my ability to describe I've heard described and having an attitude that that's a good thing. Teachers think it's a good thing even parents might think it's a good thing unless they were beaten so severely that they quit school and will have nothing further to do with school but certainly a place where the parents do not very much support school, think their kids ought to go, thinks an education is always good to have but they won't have much to do with it and they think because they pay school fees, fifty-six dollars, fifty-six rand a year, five dollars and sixty cents a year at the time I was there that bought the education and the teachers ought 128:00to be doing it and not expecting the parents to do anything because they already--the teachers already been paid. So I came to that place to be support to the teachers and the schools and the villages.
WILSON: What does support mean?
SILER: They like Mr. Lincoln the best policy was to have no policyto do whatever it is that you as a Peace Corps autonomous person saw that needed to be done. Now, I was given pretty good insights into who those teachers were and where they had come from and where those schools had come from and how they--.and we had some in training we would go out to a couple of schools that were suppose to be so bad, so poor that they would get us ready for no matter what and they weren't 129:00as bad or as poor as some of the ones that I came to know. So, support in my case was to be helpful in whatever way that was and, and I didn't know how to help, I was like you-what does that mean? And so for the first several weeks in these five schools that were within about two to three miles apart I would go to the school and I would attempt to go to everyone of the classrooms in the presence of everyone of the teachers and I would sit in the back of the class with one of the kids if it was a what they called an "R" grade a reception grade, our kindergarten all the way up to the sixth grade I'd sit in whatever chair it was 130:00no matter what size it was and in many cases there were not chairs, there was no furniture, half the cases there was no furniture. There was a teacher by and large lecturing, college-type lecturing to people two and a half feet-tall or six and a half-feet tall but talking and talking loud, I discovered after while extremely loud. I discovered after a while a theory that some teachers held that if you talked very, very loud the principal, several rooms away could hear you talking and could know you were working, loud was where it was at. And another 131:00theory someone told me you talked very loud it was proof you knew what you were talking about. It was a phenomenon to hear it loud and I investigated a little bit why is it so loud, why is it no unnecessarily loud? And I've been accused by my daughters and others having stood up and talked to a class a long time that anytime that I'm asked something that's semi--to be semi-instructive I start to get loud, I know a little bit about what that might be.
WILSON: Professional occupational hazards.
SILER: This lady friend once said we were walking along and somebodystopped wanting direction--where do you get so-and-so, where do you know where so-and-so--and so I did and I started and she said, "not so loud." But anyway, I I went around each of these five schools and 132:00forty-five classrooms, sixty something very different teachers there are in the upper levels teachers of language, teachers of math and so on. In lower grades there's a teacher and a room--I would have my pad and I would take notes just trying to absorb and at the start after a while there was real fear, who is that guy I mean obviously I'm not only uh um the wrong color I'm, I'm not from around here and, but I, I was innocent of any inspector stuff that after a while it came to be known I wasn't there to hurt anybody. I was not going to go tell any uh officers of the school department anything at all that I had 133:00learned, I was trying to figure out--and after a while the patterns I noticed in one of the most dramatic and the one I think I made the biggest difference was that that there was a business of workbooks, teachers would handout workbooks with kids' names and they would copy things on the board or do whatever and then teacher would take them up and it wasn't any paper beyond that there wasn't any erasers or pencils in enough quantity and the and the pencil sharpeners were often double-edge razor blades regardless of the age of the child, there was a double-edge razor blade up there at the front go up to the teacher's desk and sharpen it and a friend of mine, a Peace Corps volunteer had seen a little second grader girl carrying a double-edge razor blade in her mouth, I never saw that but I saw little bitty hands--so what I 134:00did after I discovered--I had a teacher say to me we're poor we don't have paper and I said okay you're poor and you don't have paper I hear you. But in this town of Tzaneen this is farming area and there's a sort of town central to it that has 50,000 people or so in the support of the farms around there, the businesses. I would go in and I would ask businesses, grocery stores, anybody, everybody, photo shops, I'd ask may I have your scrap paper, your good one side scrap paper. Banks wouldn't give it to me, they were afraid of me but others would and 135:00I would come to school with a backpack full of scrap paper and I'd give it out to the classrooms and one of the--I did as a pattern. And then I tried to introduce the, the organizational technique to get from each school a teacher when they went to town go to those places, I would take the teacher around and get him to introduce to this same person who was giving it to me and he would just when he came to town please come to the shop and pick up whatever they've got. I was an absolute total failure at that--I never could institutionalize the organizational structure that would do that.
WILSON: You could get it but the teacher couldn't?
SILER: I was a white guy that could walk up to a black guy, walk up to a136:00white guy, walk up to anybody and ask for the simple thing I was asking for and by in large people would be happy that what was going to be wasted wasn't going to be wasted. And to see it used so wonderfully, that a kid has a piece of paper and he can write his name, he can draw, he--how on earth if every mark you make has to be so special because its going to go in holy writ, well I didn't like that so I proceeded to find a free way, a way without cost, and the teacher who asked me who told me we're too poor, I destroyed her excuse happily--now I never 137:00near as I could tell affected her in anyway that I ever saw but she never used that again on me because I made that not true anymore. So, for some other reason you are not that you probably should be with these children and you say you want to be so that was support and, and getting from others by, by home had friends at home, high school classmates, best man at my wedding wanted to send things, sent toys and pencils and things--and I started to write about where I was in Africa which I had never done in my life and letters home because I thought my platform was such that I didn't say something and not found out to 138:00be mistaken and so I, I proceeded to help in these schools in ways that I could and I of course had professionally been getting things done a long, long time and so I got these schools uh--I was able to help them get things done that they were trying to do, get things built, get things planned, I was of some help to the high school that was in the town because I helped them plan and provided them the drawings that they were able to use to get a grant to build a science building and a library that's just being an architect I knew how to do that and then planned things for the one principal school, the largest that I worked with best and helped other people get books by asking uh--well first 139:00of all what I did was when I would go to Pretoria on my breaks I would at the equivalent of flea markets be able to buy for the equivalent of ten cents, used children's books and the exchange rate then was like one-dollar equals ten rand. So, for 1 rand, ten cents I could buy a wonderful, used, dirty, well-read book in English.
[Tape two, side one ends; tape two, side two begins.]
WILSON: Side 2 of tape 2 of Peace Corps Oral History Project interviewwith Harry Siler, December 7, 2004. Harry you were talking about some 140:00of things you did to--as a part of your support role in the schools.
SILER: Well seeing the, the absence of books in the classrooms andby in large the, the only books available in the classrooms were not enough copies of very old textbooks uh to where maybe three, four children would have to share a single book and many classrooms didn't have any textbooks so the teacher would write things on the board and that was the extent of the reading material that children would work from, reference material that they would work from. So, my trips to Pretoria introduced in ----------(??) of Pretoria a flea market that 141:00happened every Sunday morning and I proceeded to go there and buy books appropriate from two vendors that go to know me over those two years and gave me bargains on the books and I would take them back and as much as I could carry and on occasion when--we stayed at what was called a backpacker my introduction to backpackers was South Africa -- I would keep books more than I could carry, I would keep them there and on vacation occasions would have a rental car and would take them back to my village and then I would get them in this huge backpack and I would go around to the schools and distribute ten books to 142:00each classroom, maybe one or two or three at in the beginning but to get them to each classroom, age appropriate books for each class and introduce the idea of a library. The library took the form of being these little hand baskets that you get in a grocery store because one of my paper suppliers, the best one, was a place called ShopRite, maybe part of the chain but the manager of the ShopRite in Tzaneen had I discovered in his trash about sixty or so of these rubber baskets, old and gray and out of fashion apparently so he gave them to me and I took two baskets to each classroom and we would--the teacher would write on there library and this basket would then have these, these books that I 143:00was bringing the introduction of the library, the read for fun library. Read because it is fun which was part of my support and service because the teachers of South Africa, black teachers tell me that it's not a reading culture, one might parenthetically say okay its an oral culture so therefore that's okay you didn't grow up reading but let me tell you it's a good thing and it's more fun than you can have most places and unlike the oral culture you can have generations after generation of pretty exact support from whoever proceeded you and if you get started it will be fun and you learn something and you will never be the same 144:00
WILSON: Sorry, go ahead here.
SILER: Okay. This reading business is the, the sort of self-assignedassignment which I think is probably true of most Peace Corps volunteers regardless of what you've been asked to do if it even if it was specific you see things that need doing and you work on those to and this idea that reading is not held in the same esteem that I think it should be I took as my part of my assignment and I would bring to class, I subscribed to Time magazine and two or three other things and I would after a while had enough magazines I could supply to each school a dozen magazines, they might be old but they were--so then I 145:00would move those magazines around school by school by school to be in the teachers lounge if there was a teachers lounge or wherever teachers stuff was collected so that they could open it and something might happen. And, and so I--these books I was bringing this same idea I would read when I would introduce the book to a classroom. I remember reading to one group at, at Mohlaba school, which is one of what they call the senior school it was the fifth, sixth--fourth, fifth, and sixth grades but I remember reading to I guess the sixth grade class a story of Ray Charles's life and that he was blind and that when he had gotten blind and of course they know his music and all and I remember reading from this thing and one of the things Ray Charles did was when 146:00he was a kid his mother would cook potatoes and they'd cook it on the open fire in the house in a fireplace and he would, he stole one of these potatoes one time and when he heard her coming he stuck it in his pocket and he started--it was hot and then he started jumping around, and I started jumping around and reading and they just laughed like crazy at Ray Charles and at me and that kind of animated that sort of potential for a thing. I remember the scrap paper one time, I brought it one time to a to a class at Ponani school and, and we passed it out, each kid a piece and then I took a book that I'd gotten from the library in Tzaneen and it was book on paper airplanes and so I hold this book up on the board and I'd read, they couldn't read it of course but I'd read it and then we'd do what that page said and so we built, 147:00their piece of paper, me and reading each kid built an airplane and then he's holding an airplane in his hand, people helping each other we finally got it done but that's what you can do with paper with pieces of scrap paper. And then in the end the teachers here all the time and then I threw my--and then they went crazy of course and the teacher sort of--that's not normal in the classroom but, but that was the book, the paper, and this crazy person and the joy of what can happen daily in life and so a third thing besides that and I--there are other things I did but in Tzaneen it had been an all white town, curfew get out of here black man after dark without a pass of some sort, permission to be there and, and every South African person had 148:00an I.D., white people didn't but--you had to produce your I.D. anytime you were challenged or you're in jail. That's the town, farmers town, tough folks nearby fifteen, twenty minutes away by coming from where I lived and I went to this primary school, lower schools its called in Afrikaners, but primary school and found a man named Victor Rijnen absolutely waiting on me to show up an Afrikaner trying to figure out how to make his school, his people, his white kids part of this country that they now lived in and I came just sort of looking for some kind 149:00of connection I didn't know why but he was so receptive that I couldn't ask for something that he couldn't meet and so I organized a--every one of my teachers, every one of my classrooms represented by three selected students to come, first grade with first grade, second grade with second grade to come and spend the day at this primary school in Tzaneen, not all white anymore but eighty percent white with a parallel school so there were four classes of Afrikaans and one class of English so we could come to the English class all seven grades, so we did. We organized this, I presented it to the all the schools we all came 150:00together, we all agreed this was a good idea but for me it was-I want to get folks to rub up against each other, I want to let folks see you can survive, people are kind you don't have to be afraid. And this school and, and Vic the principal supplied their bus, a giant bus, fifty kids or whatever we had seven times three classes and teacher and administrators come, would come and get us uh in, in the village and we would go and get there at the beginning of class time, assembly time we would go be part of the assembly and then we would go off in to the classes, teachers would see, students would see and be seen and then they'd go back and report and we got--we made the full circle of 151:00that and then this man Vic would offer that his administrators and he's like the brigadier general in charge of his division and there was no get out of step quality. What he was going to have his school do they were going to do, he was supported by his board of trustees who wanted their school to be part of the world too, part of South Africa and he went so far as to appreciate what this was and could be that it was his intention to present it to his sort of formal but informal collection of Afrikaner primary school association so that he would he would advocate that this same thing that his school was doing would be done in 152:00other schools throughout the country. To select one school or a group or some situation and partner in a way and so that happened and then they had their--one of the things we did above and beyond that was to introduce computers of course there's not even electricity in three of the five schools that I had so we--his bus would come another day and get in one school thirty children to come and sit at fifteen computers as pairs and touch a computer for the first time from the smallest to the biggest. Every student was supposed to do that, I don't know how far we got with that but that went on and on but that school, Tzaneen 153:00primary school, supplied all of the expense associated with that and they could do it only when they had a free--when one of the teachers male bus driving teachers had a free period beginning first period of the school that could come get us uh in the school he could demand that he stay after school and drive us home but as a part of that what I wanted to tell you about to one of those--I couldn't just quit with that so near within a short walk from this school, Tzaneen primary school, is a museum Tsongan museum, about the history--two-hundred years--kids these people and had a wonderful young man named Bernard 154:00who could put on a real show with all the sculpture and artifact so when the kids would come to school that was part of it, after school Afrikaner kids went home but my kids went to the museum and they went to the next door library, the public library of Tzaneen and of course I went to the library early just cause I go to libraries but after a while I asked can I bring my kids here to the library and they wanted--yes was the answer but then how you behave in the library is part of the problem and my kids the first time we came they just take the books off the shelf and put them back on the shelf and they'd be 155:00upside down, sideways, backwards all kinds of stuff so we had a little bit of instruction required but kids laying on the floor reading those books or sitting at one of the those little kids tables reading--seeing that world, the library world the museum world, and then the school world and the bus and Tzaneen they never--kids hadn't been to Tzaneen and it's fifteen minutes away and I--the very best thing that happened it seems like the most memorable, there's a very nice young woman a fifth, sixth grader at Ponani school when we were riding back she asked, you know my name is Harold it was in England, you know Harold, she said from behind me, "Harold , can anybody go to the library?" and it was glorious to say, yes. So, I mean there's--.we got computers, 156:00we built an addition to Ponani school that included some cabinets, carousels that the architect designed that could store all kinds of things including six computer stations that we would get when, when the Tzaneen school recycled and got better computers we would get six of theirs so um they had electricity so they could have computers and I continued to send books and uh by mail bag in the--postage is enormous and I think experience was rich and I haven't told you about the family and I don't know that that, that this tape or recorder is equal to me 157:00to tell you what it's like to be in the in the presence of an older couple old enough to be my parents when my own father died when I was eighteen and here's a man responsible for me in every sense of the word to the Peace Corps and to his own chief, tribal chief. He's going to see that I am safe even if I am sixty years old, sixty-one I guess at the time when I started with him I don't--I guess sixty-two maybe even so I--it was a incredibly rich experience that I will treasure forever and try to understand and to do something else I had thought for the rest of my life I would go to China and I'd teach English and I'd go to Greece and I'd do something or other. I think what I will do when I finish doing construction projects for my children I will go back to 158:00Mohlaba Cross and live in, in the same house with the same family and work for Ponani school, whom I worked with the best and, and uh I know how to do it, and how to be helpful and they need the help. So, seems like a pretty good trade the Peace Corps and I made.
WILSON: Okay, a couple of other things relating to your experience andtime there beyond uh, uh the work that you actually did. What did you do for recreation? Did you travel in the country, elsewhere? What kind of interactions--you talked about interactions with, with your peers uh and with some other schools, did you have interaction with other expatriates, with Afrikaners, some of those kinds of things. 159:00
SILER: Well this village, Mohlaba Cross that I lived in where theIndhuna is, is mayor, counselor, police chief, uh everything rolled into one people come to see him all day long with issues. He is the tribal representative and the go between-between them any citizen and the and the wider world but it's uh--essentially I mean the Afrikaners that one would see would, would be driving by in their bakkie, their pick-up truck or merchants of some kind or retailers or wholesalers coming and selling things to the market in the village but there were there were no Afrikaners around but in the town of Tzaneen fifteen minutes away they were by in large uh all of it at least in the 160:00proprietor sense of the word there were many black employees of those businesses but they by in large were all Afrikaner owned, perhaps English owned and my interaction with them was--oh uh one thing you should hear and anyone who wants to sign up that has these credentials to be in South Africa in a rural village as a man, as white, and as old is the top of the food chain, you can't get any higher so you get an automatic respect unearned except by those people in that country that have been taught to pay such a person--I mean I mean it's hard 161:00to be a white person and see how you are deferred to, doesn't feel good. To be a man and see how you are deferred to by women who by in large as Manana would say are slaves without American history of what that word means but they, women are slaves, wives are slaves. So um so I was well treated at every turn and one of the wonderful stories in this village which I guess I have to tell-the first day I was there the Indhuna eighty-eight or nine at the time with his umbrella against the African sun giving me one--I didn't walk around with this umbrella 162:00remember I'm big and tough and what I need with an umbrella and it's not raining. We walked for two to three hours all through his village to representative parts of it, I was introduced and seen and I learned later that he was telling his village, his people this guy is with me don't hurt him, respect him, do whatever you want to do but you, you know this is my guy, and so I was never in this village ever challenged in anyway at all. In Tzaneen, I was out from under his umbrella, so I had a few challenges and in Pretoria I had a few challenges and I was 163:00a white person in a black country and I, I might be robbed or shot or hijacked or what's-- Once, I like to run and I ran on the public roads and I ran with my host brother who is the age of my son, a black kid obviously thirty-six or --seven years old--and once I--he was going to go somewhere one weekend and I said I'll run this same route next time was really far out, fifteen--we run fifteen to twenty miles and so we run ten miles out and come back and he said no, you don't want to come out here by yourself and I'd say why-- I've got on old tennis shoes and an old Timex watch, what's anybody want with me-he said they want your body parts and so that got my attention and I didn't run outside 164:00the world I was known in. If somebody wanted my liver, my heart or something I want them more than anybody so I didn't do it, I didn't challenge--I didn't get outside the lines of safety when I knew better, but I felt comfortable. I guess I haven't said that I wanted to go to Africa because I was at Howard impressed with African people a kind of innate wisdom and goodness that I saw that I'd like to get some somewhere, sometime and so I thought I'd go there and see if I could get some. So, coming back to the United States I had brought an awful lot back with me and talked an awful lot but I haven't touched on what this host family meant to me.
WILSON: Well, tell me something about your actual coming back and--well,165:00first of all you better tell me what the length of your tour was.
SILER: It was two years and in fact I share perhaps only with Mr. Bushthe day January 20, 2001 was his day of inauguration and that is when our plane landed in South Africa and in two years I would have done, would have been done and uh he was still working and is still working. I got sick, I had developed pneumonia the last week or two that I was leaving I was pretty emotionally drained I think and all kinds of ways I had some unexpected difficulties at the end of my tour which had been 166:00absolutely wonderful in all kinds of ways until the last six months, it was still wonderful but I had difficulty with four of the five schools that I was working with, Ponani School that I have mentioned the largest and included almost half the kids was not one of those schools that I had difficulty with and I still work with them and think fondly of them in all ways, but--then I was working extremely hard to finish those computer related carrels that we were building in Ponani School, this addition that we had built and I developed a bad, bad cold and I worked even though I was sick and I was getting ready to go to go back or the COS, the closing service physicals and all that kind of stuff in 167:00Pretoria in, in March of 2003 and to leave from exactly on time my ten weeks of training, my two years of service and then leave and come home and was looking forward to it and lots of ways and but surprisingly had this emotional connection with my host family that I had not expected to acquire, that I had a family and I was leaving them and it seemed as real and as difficult as leaving my two children to go to Africa and not to see them for two years. My son did come which is another story and I did travel a bit to answer your question because he wanted to travel and got me around to Victoria Falls and Cape Town, places I would 168:00not have done without him certainly would not have done without him. But, I developed pneumonia and when I went to, to Pretoria to close my service I, I was--I had pneumonia pretty clearly the, the doctor the Peace Corps doctor said you need to go check get checked by the pulmonologist and the pulmonologist said you need to be in the hospital and so I was for about sixteen days while my date to leave passed and I was very, very sick. So, when I got out of there and rented a car and this friend Tina, the girl that I introduced in Philadelphia as a part of my group, she got married to a South African while she was there so she was the only one in my group still left in Pretoria trying to get the paperwork that would let her bring her husband to America, she was 169:00at the backpacker and I was at the backpacker and she was helpful to me to get all these boxes of books that I'd brought to mail to mail to the United States of my junk acquired, books but books I'd acquired that were my books and, and stuff, artifacts, art, and so on. She helped me do that and also we--I rented a car and we went back to see my host family in Mohlaba Cross so I could prove to them that I was still alive because I'd left sick and I'd gotten sicker. So I came home to flying back to Atlanta that by some coincidence that my daughter who lives in California and her husband were going to be in Florida where my son lives in Tampa because she had a conference appointment, business 170:00conference, banking appointment in, in Orlando. So she arranged to stay a little extra in Tampa and I arranged to go to Tampa so I came back there to spend a couple of weeks at my son's house because I really was just out of the hospital and pretty weak and lost about twenty pounds and was--weighed less than I weighed in high school when I checked out of COS [Close of Service]. I stayed with my son in Tampa for a while, for two weeks or so and then bought a second car that he had acquired and drove back to Kentucky. I'd had a couple of girls living in my house while I was gone and they had vacated because they knew I was coming and I moved into my house in Williamsburg, Kentucky and am still there some year and a half later and uh pretty 171:00much hibernated I would say is the best word um if you can work hermit and hibernate into the same sentence it probably applies. I found it extremely difficult when I had witnessed Manana work hard at getting two or three days worth of water in a wheelbarrow and tanks, plastic tanks, and oil barrel and bring to my--bring to our house and make for me a pan of warm water in the morning so I could take a bath with--by standing in a tub and with a wash cloth and uh where water is the daily job and food is the job and hunger, children thin because you know they 172:00don't have enough to eat. And to have seen not Paris but Mohlaba Cross changed me so that I carry that image and I'm not comfortable with people I love, I know--for some reason don't have what I have and what the reason is isn't perfectly clear and it may involve somehow me and mine that they don't have as much as they might have had, might have. I don't--I'm not really sure of all that but I'm pretty sure of that 173:00question and I'm uh working in some private way towards answering it and part of the answer is being a Kentuckian and trying to see who I am and if maybe I am of enough worlds that I can be in several.
WILSON: And so that process of readjusting is still ongoing?
SILER: It surely is and I expect will be forever. I'm not able, Imean I'm able to eat a wonderful meal, overeat and I don't think about hungry people while I'm eating but sometimes sooner or later I might 174:00and I've got names and faces to go with the hunger. In the book and the effect I had I really wanted to do Peace Corps things that scrap paper and where it's abundant to get it, where it can go from where it's available and, and this exchange, Ncincano, the Xitsonga for exchange, between Afrikaners and South Africans of all colors, between- -that hasn't gone as well without me there as it did with me there. So, I didn't do such a good job. 175:00
WILSON: Well, in that respect what, what, what do you think your impactuh or impact of your service was?
SILER: I had, I had one of these book bags cost sixty-two dollars worthof postage come back to me because I had addressed it to Ponani School box 590 and Ponani School box number, post office box number is 593 it went all the hell and gone to South Africa to the Northern Province to Letaba post office and Ponani School is famous surely in that post office but it got sent back to me. I made the mistake, I'm guilty but 176:00somehow or other it hurts so I called Shalati, the principal of that school, and talked with her Sunday and uh six hour, seven hour one of the other time difference right now and she said no, it's the wrong number and so we talked at length about how things were going and my host mother, Manana had said that she too was doing some AIDS work. When I was there, everybody had AIDS. They was dying all over the place but you don't die of AIDS you get the flu or something. Part of my AIDS work there the Peace Corps had gotten me sort of ready to talk about AIDS but in fact it was my job was to get the parents to grant permission to the teachers to talk about AIDS because--you talk about AIDS if you want to but, but if you start talking about sex, sex 177:00is outlawed, not even in the language the terms, the--are not part of the Xitsonga language because it's verboten ,not sex there are good at it apparently but, but you don't talk about it which is another issue, gender issue but for the AIDS aspect of it I got through this principal at Ponani School, Shalati, we got a public health nurse to come point blank talk to our teachers about--fact you've got to talk about AIDS, you've got to talk about sex, you've got to talk about where AIDS comes from because--you got to talk about it in the primary school because children in high school it is already too late they are already doing it they are already dying and you can't talk about sleeping together, children say "we didn't sleep together" you've 178:00got to talk about things sexual. The teachers said we can't do it, the parents won't let us do that, we tried to do something like that. And parents come and so I would be at a parent-teacher meeting, I'd be up there at the table, head table or at the front of the room with teachers of that particular school or if it was a village meeting I was a part of two villages, these five schools were part of two villages, two Indhunas, but principally it was all Xitsongan, it was in fact all Xitsongan. So I would go to meetings and I would say to the assembled parents and by large it might be all men at the parents meeting even though the kokwanas, the grandmothers, are really the people that that parent and, but and at village meetings which would be both women would 179:00rarely ever stand up and talk but they would be present but I would say something to the effect of what I just said that that AIDS is all around you and people are dying and it's coming and your children can live and its easy to avoid, nobody ever has to get AIDS but kids have to know how you get it. And teachers know and teachers have to be able to talk so turn them lose and let them talk about things sexual and guys would stand up, old guys would stand up and say start, talk that 180:00they would release these teachers from whatever kinds of thing they had been hiding behind and so in this phone call I asked Shalati and told her that Manana said she was doing some things with her women's group because people were dying all over the place and right across the street. The father of a young girl, high school age girl, grade school moved into high school while I was there, Cola, her father had died, her mother acquired AIDS like one of the million of children in South Africa soon she'll be an orphan and her grandmother isn't sexually active and so hopefully they'll be together for a while. But Shalati said they had had a meeting somewhere and people were admitting finally that brothers had died of AIDS, wives had died 181:00of AIDS and of course part of the problem is that the wives must be sexually submissive to husbands that are travelers and infect people and I mean its--so Shalati, this principal of Ponani School said that Harry would be so happy to hear that you are talking, you are going to be part of getting somewhere with this problem. And so I've had this ongoing connection with Shalati, so she's kind enough to admit or to say something that has some connection to me and uh course the books do and I get wonderful letters from children when the book bags arrive uh 182:00successfully as they've been doing since I've been back and I have my library, Whitley County library, saves children books as they come out of style somehow and I send them and seems like I could run an ad--I could do more than I do but I do something to support that and, and so it's ongoing and I think the reading--to introduce the newspaper uh to, to the teachers to read in the teachers meeting some information, items from the newspaper that I bought for twenty-five cents or the equivalent that South Africans are hated by the rest of Africans as witnessed at a soccer match when South African team played some other, to have them look hated, we're hated -- why are we hated -- said I read 183:00it in the paper, maybe you should read the paper and leave it. The newspaper got some news, right or wrong got some news, that I think, I've made--I hope some impact by doing what I do.
WILSON: So, how would you summarize the impact of Peace Corps on you?
SILER: It gave me an opportunity to go somewhere and do something thatwas beyond any question valuable, important. It gave me the chance to be an American, identified as such to be able to do something myself 184:00that I feel really good about that I was prepared by the Peace Corps training program to go and be two years in a kind of work that was valuable, is valuable, continues to be valuable to those places. I used to when I would arrive at a school one of them, Margureit school, Marguerit spelled in a curious way. I use to have kindergartners, R grade children see me coming, look out their door-one of them would see me or they--the sidelines were such that they would see me, they would all gang up at the door and say "Harry, Harry, Harry" -- it wasn't 185:00recess. They would cheer. For that group of children I supplied, probably out of my own pocket I had deep pockets by anybody's standards for like a dollar a piece I supplied chairs, they didn't have chairs. They might have sat on benches or something but I bought little plastic chairs that kindergarten kids sit in and the teacher proceeded to put their names on the back of them boldly, a piece of tape over it and the first business that I would help that class with was they would learn to draw the picture of their name because the teacher had had it 186:00on the back of the chair so they couldn't write-they were kindergarten kids, but this says Bright or it says Cola or it says--and I would read and that kid would write Hubert and I'd come look over his shoulder and say "Hubert" and you can't imagine the smile on that kids face when I would know his name and he would know I knew it because he had written it--that's, that's what they gave me.
WILSON: This is just about the conclusion of this tape, perhaps we canpick up at a later date if that's convenient for you.
SILER: Well, as you suspect I might not be done--
[End of interview.]