ENGLEWOOD — Ed Lynch and Barry Hillenbrand wanted to make the world a better place when they joined the Peace Corps and went to Ethiopia in 1963 to help make the lives of the citizens better.
Fifty years later, they and about 30 other Peace Corps members who served in Ethiopia in the ’60s are reuniting today in Englewood for a 50th anniversary at Englewood Garden Beach Club.
“There were approximately 145 of us,” Lynch said. “We trained at the University of California, Los Angeles.”
The group learned to speak Amharic, the native Ethiopian language, and learned about the culture.
“As a member of the Peace Corps, we were to live their way (and) at the same time raise the standard of living,” Lynch said.
Lynch, an Englewood resident, was stationed in Adama, also known as Nazareth, about 70 miles from the capital of Addis Ababa.
“I was teacher and coach of a basketball team at Atse Galawdios secondary school,” he said. “Nazareth was a combination of paved, dirt and gravel roads.” Life in the village was difficult at times.
“Some of the players (on the basketball team) didn’t have shoes,” Lynch said. “We had a dirt basketball court. When we had to go to travel for a game at the capital, we had to be transported part of the way by a horse cart. Then we got to the capital (by) bus. We played St. Joseph’s Mission.”
Lynch said Nazareth had electricity four hours a day.
After the Peace Corps, Lynch became an attorney and raised a family.
Barry Hillenbrand, who helped organize the reunion with Lynch and Dannie Russell, was stationed in Debre Marqos on the opposite side of Ethiopia.
“There were lots of things we didn’t understand (about our surroundings),” said Hillenbrand, a Washington, D.C., resident. “Our contact with the real world was minimal. We had occasional magazines and newspapers. We also had a shortwave radio that carried programming from BBC Radio and Voice of America.”
One of the memorable and surprising moments in their service, Lynch and Hillenbrand said, was John F. Kennedy’s assassination a few months after their arrival and its effect on the Ethiopians with whom they worked.
“We first heard about (the JFK assassination) through a vegetable vendor,” Hillenbrand said. “It was JFK’s idea to start the Peace Corps. He was seminal to the group. I remember the somber music on the radio.”
“During the JFK assassination, the headmaster addressed students in assembly,” Lynch said. “He asked students about the president. They thought very well of him and these kids are 15, 16 years old. Many of the kids were crying.”
Hillenbrand said he saw Lynch twice during their time in Ethiopia. The group left in the summer of 1965.
After Ethiopia, Hillenbrand had to acclimate to life in the U.S.
“When I got back, I had to be explained who the Beatles were and what a discotheque was,” he said.
Hillenbrand went to New York University and worked for Time Magazine as a foreign correspondent.
“When I joined the Peace Corps, I’d never been on a plane before,” he said. “My experience prepared me for later in life. It made me amenable to foreign cultures. If you have to spend two years in Ethiopia, you have a different view of the world.”
The reunion is planned at 10 a.m. today. People are traveling to Englewood from as far as California and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Lynch said.
Lynch and Hillenbrand said they object to the current politics and free speech suppression by the Ethiopian government since they left Ethiopia, but remember the lives they touched and will always cherish their service in the Peace Corps.
“There’s talk of us going back and visiting next year,” Lynch said.