Peace Corps Nexus

What do Bob Vila, Paul Theroux, and David Magnani have in common? No, they have not appeared together in “This Old House,” on the cover of The Mosquito Coast, or on the floor of the state Senate. But these Massachusetts residents did give two years to the Peace Corps.

They’re in the company of thousands of other Bay Staters who have helped residents of remote villages in other countries grow food, get clean water, obtain an education, and start new businesses since President Kennedy launched the Corps in 1961.

In fact, Massachusetts ranks fifth among home states of all Peace Corps volunteers (even though it’s only the 13th most populous state), according to a recent survey by the organization. Only California, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania — all at least twice as populous — have produced more.

As one might expect, much of the credit goes to the large number of colleges and universities in Massachusetts. Harvard has provided the fourth highest number of Peace Corps volunteers of all colleges and universities across the country. UMass-Amherst ranks 20th on that list and Boston University is 24th. Tufts, MIT, Smith, and Williams all made the list of the top 20 small schools sending students to the Peace Corps.

Currently about 270 Massachusetts residents are serving as Corps volunteers overseas, out of 6,500 in all.

Theroux, the author of The Mosquito Coast who lives in East Sandwich on Cape Cod, served in Malawi in 1963-65. Vila, former host of the PBS show “This Old House” who lives in Cambridge, served in Panama in 1969-70. And Magnani, a state senator from Framingham, served in Sierra Leone in 1970-71.

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Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Other prominent Massachusetts Peace Corps-niks include Leo I. Higdon of Wellesley, president of Babson College; Newell Flather of Boston, executive director of the Boston Foundation; and the late Paul Tsongas, U.S. Senator from Lowell.

The Peace Corps has another key Massachusetts connection: Mark Gearan, the executive director, is from Gardner and went to Harvard.