By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — Jerry Tennis walked through the West African heat to meet the headmaster of a primary school, where Jerry would soon teach English to fifth-graders in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer.
When Jerry got to the school, the scene jarred him.
It had no doors or windows, just empty openings. The dirt floor was uneven and full of holes. The desktops were rough. The walls were bare.
The headmaster explained, “Jerry, we don’t have any doors to keep the animals out, and they dig the floor up in the night.”
Soon, Jerry organized a village effort to make doors and windows. That kept animals out, and allowed the floor to remain level. Eventually, the school expanded its library, thanks to scores of donated books that Jerry rounded up on a brief holiday trip back to his hometown of Terre Haute. With the interior shielded from the weather, they put maps on the walls.
“It just changed things completely,” Jerry recalled.
“I never saw a group of people so appreciative,” he added.
Such seemingly small successes left Jerry and his wife, Jean, pleased with their efforts, when their joint Peace Corps stint from 1990-92 ended. They undertook their 27-month commitment in The Gambia — an impoverished former British colony of 1.5 million people — with a realistic outlook, together.
“You do what you can get done, and you have to be satisfied by that,” said Jean, who taught Gambian nursing students.
Looking at Jean across the living room of their South Sixth Street home, Jerry added, “We didn’t expect to change the world going in. Some young kids did. But we had enough experience, we didn’t expect that.”
That’s because the Tennises joined the Peace Corps 17 years ago as retirees. Jerry, a former teacher and school principal, was 64 years old. At 62, Jean was a former nurse.
In a sense, they helped blaze a trail into the 21st century for the Peace Corps.
That volunteer organization began in 1961 through the inspiration of President Kennedy, who urged young Americans to serve in foreign countries and help promote better relations with the United States. Forty-six years later, the Peace Corps is looking for volunteers old enough to remember Kennedy and 1961.
Earlier this year, new Peace Corps director Ron Tschetter announced his plan to recruit retirees from the nation’s 77 million baby boomers. That massive demographic group of Americans born between 1946 and ’64 comprises 28 percent of the U.S. population. Right now, though, just 5 percent of the 7,749 active Peace Corps volunteers are older than 50.
Essentially, the corps hopes to see more people do what Jerry and Jean Tennis did more than a decade ago.
“They are definitely representative of the types of older volunteers that would be attracted to the Peace Corps, and that we would be looking for,” Christine Torres, public affairs specialist, said by telephone from the Peace Corps’ Chicago office.
The ranks of older volunteers is already growing. For decades, the number of 50-plus age Peace Corps workers hovered around 1 percent. Today, the average age of the volunteers is 27, but 382 are older than 50, and those seasoned workers are serving in 66 of the 73 host countries.
The sheer volume of baby boomers isn’t their only attraction.
“The older volunteers have an advantage in many ways, from their experiences and skills and knowledge,” Torres said.
“Oftentimes, they end up being mentors and giving advice to the younger volunteers,” she added, “because they have experienced challenges and realize they aren’t overcome overnight.”
Maturity an asset
The Tennises’ maturity came in handy many times in their 27-month African adventure.
Jerry calmly accepted greetings of “Hi, toubab,” from local folks, while some younger Peace Corps volunteers bristled at that label Gambians use for white people. Though they knew the importance of equality for women, the Tennises didn’t let The Gambia’s male-dominated society stymie their efforts to teach. And when a less-experienced teacher grew frustrated with a few Gambian pupils’ lack of interest and suggested those kids should be ousted from that class, Jerry voiced his disagreement in some “lively discussions.”
“I said, ‘Those are the ones you need to teach,’ ” Jerry recalled.
The community grew to trust Jerry so much that he became the first white man allowed to teach grade-schoolers first hand.
The African frontier tested the Tennises’ toughness, too. A rainstorm once sent a swarm of termites out of their earthen holes and into the Tennises’ house. Jean, who was reading by candlelight, dropped her book and ducked inside their bed, which was covered by nets to keep out lizards, while Jerry set off a bug bomb. On a visit to a nearby village, the Tennises found T-shirts poking fun at the prevalence of bugs, saying, “A million mosquitoes can’t be wrong.”
They also formed a bond and friendships with Gambians through their work. Locals loved Jean’s cooking, especially her pancakes, no-bake cookies and popcorn. They gave her a nickname “Anta,” which means lunch, while Jerry’s were “Old Dad” and “Solo,” meaning tiger. The students in his class were so relaxed that when one pupil’s pencil needed sharpening a classmate pulled a double-edged razor blade from his shirt pocket and threw it to him.
“You don’t do that in Vigo County,” Jerry said, chuckling.
When the town needed an outdoor stove, primary students from Jerry’s school helped build it. The boys gathered dirt from termite hills, while the girls picked up cow dung from the streets. With a little water, that mixture formed a clay-like compound perfect for a pit stove.
Hard times nothing new
Living through hard situations was nothing new to the Tennises. Jerry, 82, and Jean, 79, both grew up during the Great Depression. Before they married in June 1946, Jerry spent more than two years overseas in the Marine Corps.
“I’m sure it helped me, because I slept in fox holes and went to the bathroom outside,” he said.
Jerry’s Marine battalion was among the first occupation units at Nagasaki, Japan, after U.S. forces dropped an atomic bomb on that city. Nearly 80,000 residents of Nagasaki died instantly, but some survivors soon took their own lives in fear, jumping from cliffs into the bay.
“I imagine there were thousands of people floating on the bay, having committed suicide,” he said.
Once the war ended, Jerry came home, married Jean, and they raised a family of five children. When the two Indiana State University graduates ended their careers, the idea of joining the Peace Corps wasn’t planned at all. Another Terre Haute couple wanting to volunteer asked the Tennises to serve as a personal reference.
“We really hadn’t talked about it, like, ‘Jean, there’s not going to be running water,’ or ‘Jerry, the food’s not going to be very good,’ ” Jerry remembered, with a laugh.
Soon, though, they had something to offer people abroad, and they’re glad they volunteered — even though they were sixtysomethings at the time.
“I would think it would be a good experience for people retired, but young enough to volunteer,” Jean said.
The Tennises “met many wonderful people,” Jerry said, and felt they were good representatives of the United States — just as President Kennedy initially envisioned.
“I really think God put us in Gambia as an example,” Jerry said.
When their stint ended in 1992, their adopted Gambian community toasted them with a party, including gifts and a procession of 200 locals.
“We had a great experience. I wouldn’t change a thing,” Jerry said. “I wouldn’t go back again, because I’m too old. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.