Columnist John Paradis: Where did you serve?

  • John Paradis Stacy L. Pearsall

Published: 3/11/2021 3:46:00 PM

Sixty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that established the Peace Corps. Today, over six decades, more than 240,000 Americans have served in 142 countries.

Ted Nelson, a kid from Natick, was in his senior year at Amherst College on Oct. 26, 1963, when President Kennedy came to campus to speak at the groundbreaking of Robert Frost Library and to honor the poet Robert Frost.

“The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad,” Kennedy said that day, asking Amherst students to live a life of service. Ted was in the audience, captivated.

Serve, Kennedy said, “to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom.”

“His words lit a fuse,” wrote Nelson in “JFK: The Last Speech,” the title of both a 2018 book and documentary film about President Kennedy’s speech at Amherst. Twenty-seven days later, an assassin ended Kennedy’s life. Nelson knew what he had to do. He answered Kennedy’s call.

Ted joined the Peace Corps in 1964 right after graduation. In a remote, rural village in Turkey, Ted helped construct a series of closed springs and fountains that protected drinking water from pollutants. In his village, through their efforts, the Peace Corps reduced an appalling infant mortality rate. He then later worked for the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C.

The experience shaped his world view and set him on a course that would prominently include a multitude of social justice and community service endeavors.

“What I got from those two years in the Peace Corps was a completion of my visceral education,” Nelson told me over the phone from Flint, Michigan, where he now lives with his spouse, Jan Worth-Nelson.

Jan was at Kent State University in Ohio on the day of the May 4 massacre in 1970, and in the ’70s, she wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful for our nation. But she said the ugliness today is even worse. She would later serve in the Peace Corps in the 1970s and went on to become a social worker, college teacher, community activist and writer.

I asked Ted and Jan about my belief that our nation needs a national service program for all young people and that it’s needed more so today than ever before. Could it be the antidote to the other virus that infects our country today — disunity and discord?

“I am absolutely convinced that the notion of say a couple years of service when you are still very young is absolutely critical particularly at this point in time,” Ted said. “What seems to be missing so much in this country right now is knowledge of civics — basic civics. What does it mean to be a citizen of this country and what are our responsibilities.”

Jan says national service would give young people optimism and would help heal what divides us today.

“I really feel like the notion of national service is a fantastic idea,” says Jan, one of three editors for “JFK: The Last Speech.” The other two were Ted’s Amherst classmates, Neil Bicknell and Roger Mills. All have talked emphatically about the importance of public service.

“When I went into the Peace Corps I felt like I was doing something that restored my own ability to be an American with some pride and some practicality,” she says. “I could be an American and feel like I could be part of something good.”

Today, Jan and Ted are the consulting editors of East Village Magazine in Flint, one of the oldest, grassroots community media outlets in the nation. They are still making a difference and still looking for ways to mend what divides us as Americans.

And like me, they want young people to experience what we have lived — a life of public service.

Not only would compulsory service create a pool of much-needed energy and youthful vigor to help tackle our nation’s problems, it would also result in something more ethereal — it would bind us in spirit by creating a common and shared experience. It would alter and change what it means to be an American and would invigorate all who serve with a sense of duty and, as Ted says, civic responsibility.

Much like the Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression, a new national service program of such great magnitude would also provide some much-needed dignity for millions of Americans who so desperately want meaning and purpose in their lives.

What we need now is a wide scale national public service program in which every young person contributes two years of their lives to something bigger than themselves. This would mandate compulsory service for young adults and should match the interests and lifestyles of the individual — whether it’s military service, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or a modern-day version of the WPA or CCC.

Through national service, they will mature, gain real-world skills and will experience humility, empathy and compassion. Most importantly, they will return with a purpose to do more good things in their communities — just like Ted and Jan did for the entirety of their lives.

This is not some idealist talking. This is from those of us who have experienced, witnessed and observed what young men and women can accomplish when in common pursuit of something greater than themselves.

And when they see a fellow American when they return home, they will be able to ask, “where did you serve?”

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at

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