Gift from Tragedy

Posted on: Thursday, January 8th, 2015 by Monica Hoel
Kaye Matthews Sharon ('64) was E&H's first Peace Corps volunteer, but it was a national tragedy that put her on that path to Peru.

Kaye Matthews Sharon was back on campus in October 2014 to celebrate her 50th anniversary class reunion. Now retired from a career as a psychiatric social worker, Kaye still has many strong memories from her student days but none more powerful than getting the news of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The events of that day are etched vividly in her memory, right down to grateful recollections of the gentle nurturing offered by house mothers throughout the day. Kaye says that memory is important because it was "So Emory & Henry." She says, "I will never forget Mrs. Armbrister turning over her parlor to a gaggle of us Academy residents and our guys for hours and hours.  I think it was a stew she fixed for us.  She hovered in the kitchen doorway, watching the television from an uncomfortable angle, and refused to take the seat that was constantly being offered to her.  I remember thinking how she reminded me of my mom."  

Kennedy's assassination changed everything: and it changed the course of Kaye's life, resulting in her becoming Emory & Henry's first student to serve in the Peace Corps. Included here is her account of her response to that fateful event.



By Kaye Matthews Sharon, E&H '64:

The doors to the old gymnasium admitted a clawing hand of frigid air that startled players on all four volleyball courts. As the portals clanged shut, the young women nearest had already clumped on either side of their nets like penguins in an artic winter. The physical education instructor ploughed ahead, and games imploded and collapsed.  A slim redhead behind the serving line on the last court held the ball in suspension as someone said,  “They think he’s dead. The President has been shot.” Out on the campus, early winter snow had frozen the pathways and the late morning mist still swirled in low areas.  Few students had not yet heard as the women dressed and tramped to their groupings.  In dorm lounges, student watering holes and the living rooms of rooming houses, faculty and village residents and students alike huddled in shock, awaiting the next revelation as blurry gray-tone images of the convertible, the ambulance and emergency room doors flickered across the nation. Housemothers served  soup and homemade cookies. The server and her fiancé sought comfort from each other; a new and lasting form of coronary thrombosis had entered their sheltered universe.   Everything was changed. 

          Several years later, on a Yugoslavian winter evening the communist leader of Svornik left his black Mercedes in front of a small rural tavern and plied the young woman with questions about that November afternoon.  He told her his story in unremitting sobs and flung his slivovitz glass to the floor where it shattered with those of the dancers. Europeans across the continent had shared their stories of Kennedy’s death with her.  She believed that November 22, 1963 had united the world – that is, until a cold Dallas day in 1982 when her brother spun her rapidly around Dealey Plaza by the Texas School Book Depository and intoned:  “And from there came the shot that was heard all the way around the block,” initiating the demise of their relationship.

          The fiancés had taken a U.S. Peace Corps application examination after a recruiter had visited the campus in September of 1963.  Both qualified in Spanish.  Huddling in front of the black and white television for days after November 22, they planned:  they would serve in Latin America, doing something about literacy.  They updated their applications and planned their wedding.  But the ennui of that winter day had metastasized in both.  She had dropped her music major and was perplexed and rootless.  He was thinking of Saudi Arabia and money.  By graduation they had parted, and her parents encouraged her to move West with them. Soon an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps in Peru followed.  She accepted.

          No one in the high Andes had ever seen a redhead – and therefore a young Canadian sitting at a corner table watched with interest as she and a colleague drank too much of the national libation and lamented the lackluster U.S. President. The Canadian had spent a decade without familiar companionship, and was delighted with the ferment and encouragement brought by a contingent of American and German and British volunteers.  Elegant and stoic, he had watched the selflessness of their service with admiration.  He was devastated when President Kennedy was assassinated, for Canada had claimed the Camelot of the U.S. president as a province or its own.  After her post-PC year in Europe and across the continents, the two reunited and married.  He entered U.C.L.A. and earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.

          The assassination of John F. Kennedy propelled a groundswell of altruism in the young of the 1960’s.  To serve, no matter where, was invigorating and enriching.  American volunteers were known everywhere as “Kennedy’s kids.”  That life of service, so indelibly inculcated into Emory and Henry students and solidified on that tragic and frigid day, has beckoned even into progressing age. She was Emory and Henry’s first Peace Corps volunteer, touching down in Lima, Peru on Christmas Eve 1964 and providing school children in forty-two Andean villages with a warm breakfast for the next two and a half years.  After two masters’ degrees she served for decades as a psychiatric social worker, bringing what comfort and support she could to mentally ill people.  A former section head of the E & H concert choir, she performed the Dvorak Requiem in Dvorak Hall in Prague in 2013 with the Berkeley Community Chorus and the Czech state orchestra, spreading her college’s gift of sublime music wherever she can. The Canadian’s trajectory had placed him at the forefront of a movement to protect the botany and traditions of native healers of the Andes – a tandem life of service.

          One micro-second in time, when a sniper’s bullet bench-marked the lives of millions of individuals across the modern world, changed one college student’s altogether.  The U.S. Peace Corps was the invention of John F. Kennedy.  Inspired with the values of Emory and Henry, she became one of his kids – and that determined everything else.  She remains one of Kennedy’s kids.

          Emory and Henry gives back.

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