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Member of First VISTA Class Reflects on Lifetime of Service

by Lamar Marchese

“I am a guidance counselor and a teacher, den mother, referee, and confidant. I am a newspaper reporter, editor, and printer. I am a public relations man, chauffer, and pawn shop operator. I am also a scribe, medic, friend, buddy, and informer. I’m the low man on the totem pole, but the buck stops with me. I’m the middle man between Corpsman and staff, between staff and staff, and between Corpsmen and Corpsmen.”

I wrote that paragraph almost 50 years ago, along with William “Tex” Arnold and Ed Nungesser, after my assignment to the nation’s first Job Corps Center, Camp Catoctin, located in the piney woods just up the hill from the Presidential Retreat at Camp David, in a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in rural western Maryland.

On Dec. 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers with this advice: “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.” (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)

Training for my Job Corps placement began in January 1965 as I joined the first group of 22 Americans selected for VISTA service. As an untraveled 21-year-old native of Tampa, FL, seeking adventure, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out that the training site was across the bay in St. Petersburg! However, I was encouraged that my letter of invitation expressed confidence that I could “make a significant contribution to our nation’s war on poverty.” The commitment to put my noble fresh-out-of-college thoughts into action were resolute, but I was a little shaky on how to get it done.

Foot Soldiers in the War on Poverty

Lamar Marchese during his Job Corps assignment with VISTA from 1965-1966.After six weeks of intensive classroom sessions, assigned reading, and temporary field placements, the class was down to 19. To mark the significance of graduating the first foot soldiers in the War on Poverty, Lady Bird Johnson gave the keynote speech, along with VISTA Director Glenn Ferguson and a 35-member press contingent representing major newspapers, magazines, and TV networks. It was a major national story.

She reminded a rapt audience of 500 how throughout our history, Americans have always confronted great problems. “Now we are boldly taking hold of an aspiration which men have known for as long as there have been human beings….the eradication of the bleak winter of poverty from the climate of the whole country.”

She hit a very personal chord when she said, “For many of you this experience will be transforming. You will know, as nothing else could make you know, that we are all brothers, every one of us to every one of us.”

After my year at Catoctin and the end of my VISTA hitch, I got married and dragged my new bride to West Virginia where I taught reading at the new Harpers Ferry Job Corps Center where we resided in an onsite trailer and hosted many a lonely and homesick Corpsmen. Moving back to Florida, I taught Head Start to Seminole Indian children. After grad school, I joined an experimental university-based agency in Kentucky mandated to improve adult education in Appalachia.

After moving to Las Vegas, NV, in 1972 to work for the Clark County Library District, I immediately noted the lack of public radio. My wife Pat and I were founders and board members of Nevada Public Radio with the mission to establish and operate southern Nevada’s first NPR-affiliated public radio station. Incorporated in December 1975 as an independent non-profit, it took till March 1980 to put KNPR on the air. I oversaw the growth of Nevada Public Radio in audience, reach, infrastructure and influence for over 30 years, retiring in 2007 as President Emeritus.

That year of VISTA training and experience set me on a course that led eventually to a rewarding and successful career in non-commercial broadcasting. I firmly believed, both then and now, in the power of media to reach tens of thousands of people with programming that informs the listener and therefore strengthens our democracy by providing a more educated electorate.

Inspired to a Life of Service

I was influenced by the activism and optimism of the ‘60s but, more personally, it was my shared desire with so many others of my generation to meet the challenge laid down by President John F. Kennedy to match in dedication and service the sacrifices of the great generation that preceded us.

2015 will mark the 50th year of VISTA. I was fortunate to be a there in the beginning of both VISTA and Job Corps, and be a pioneer as Mrs. Johnson predicted in a long and proud line to come. That “long and proud line” is approaching half a century of domestic service. As Lady Bird said to us “America is many things. But above all … more than any other nation in the history of man …we have been a nation of volunteers. We have been a land in which the individual says … my neighbor needs me. I will do something.”

Lamar Marchese served as a VISTA with Job Corps from 1965 to 1966. The AmeriCorps VISTA program was founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 and designed specifically to fight poverty in America. In 1993, VISTA was incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs.

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