Tom Purcell joined Peace Corps at age 23. It was the summer of 1965 and his first assignment was to go work in Bassi, a small village in North India, about 20 miles east of Jaipur. The villagers, none of whom spoke English, took him for a British when they saw him the first time. Sensing a faint resentment that had built for him, the headmaster of the local school explained it to people that he was from “umreeka”, a different country that was also a British colony once. A lot of people then didn’t know about the US and then he would make a reference to Hiroshima. I personally find it amusing how those people knew about Japan when they didn’t know the US but that’s a separate discussion altogether.
Many years later, in the 1990s, I spent my early teenage years in Bassi. It was then I came to know about Tom Purcell. I also came to know that my father who was a college student back then often played the role of his translator. He was in fact 1 of the 2 college students in the whole village who spoke some English and thus being given the responsibility was inevitable. Tom lived in the village for about 2 years and worked tirelessly during his stint. People, who knew him, remembered him fondly – he’d helped start scholarship program at the local school, helped set up first public lavatories in the village, and most importantly, he was master at consensus building for solving problems compared to the other “foreigners” before him who came to rule, always used force and often guns.
The story of American greatness or the rise of the superpower is often chronicled with events in history that encompass the Second World War, the Cold War, and Sputnik etc. However, the great economic leap and military super strength tells only half the story. The other half resides in the rise of the great American Human story, the story of human service that is often ignored – the many volunteers of Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Red Cross and more recently, the commitment of many of its billionaires to give all their wealth away for humanitarian causes.
The Shanghai residency showcased the rise of China as world super power like I had not expected. There were signs etched all over that spoke loudly of the inevitable – the tall skyscrapers, optimism among people, massive infrastructure. As I felt in awe of what China had been able to accomplish in essentially 2 decades, multiple thoughts came to my mind about the world order in which China would be #1. Sure, like any superpower, China would throw its weight around the globe – for oil, minerals, markets etc or just for the sake of it. But would there be a rise of compassionate and human side to that super power as well? Would there be Chinese Peacecorps that would spring up from its masses when people would be compelled to look beyond the horizons they had confined themselves to and find prosperity as insufficient measure of success in life? Does its continued business with Sudan amid genocide serve as a blue print for what China would be when it becomes world’s #1 power? Or would China feel the moral need to go in and defend another Bosnia when the time comes?
Tom Purcell is a well-regarded public figure in St. Louis. Corps, he served in Vietnam, later became police commissioner of St Louis, Mo and helped lead many civic projects like he did in Bassi. It took me time to find him but I did and spoke to him in June this year (2011). Now I wait to meet a Chinese Tom Purcell.