Peace Corps Iran: The Early Years

Richard Eaton, John Lorentz, Thomas M. Ricks, Chris Speake

The beginning of the Peace Corps in Iran was marked by a hybrid administrative structure that was decidedly un-Peace Corps like, and by the lack of any precedent. The presence of the first PCV groups coincided with the origins of Peace Corps Iran under the guidance of the first director, William Cousins. Several volunteers from these early groups provide their perspectives on this development and observations on their own experiences as “pioneers.”

To view a video of this presentation provided by Nathan Lorentz, click here.


Eaton, Richard    

A member of the first Peace Corps volunteer group to Iran (1962-64), Dick was stationed about fifteen miles outside of Tabriz where he taught English at an agricultural normal school. In August 1963, he and two other volunteers decided to make an overland trip to India and back. Having lived the previous year in Iran, much of what they experienced in South Asia seemed astonishingly familiar. Ever since, Dick has sought to understand the endlessly fascinating relationship between Iran and India, mainly by exploring the extensive Persian-language historical sources scattered across South Asia. After receiving an MA from the University of Virginia in 1968 and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1972, both in history, he went to the University of Arizona, where down to the present he has been teaching Middle Eastern and South Asian history. He has also published a dozen books on Iran, Islam, and India, the first of which was published in Tabriz after returning from that fateful, overland trip.

Lorentz, John

John was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s (Iran Group I) and has returned three times since to do research on a PhD dissertation, a visit as a Senior Fulbright-Hays Research Fellow (1975-76), and most recently as the tour scholar for a Distant Horizons Cultural Tour in April-May of 2014. He has a PhD from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies (history) and earned his MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. From 1971 to 1984 he held teaching and administrative positions at Portland State University before becoming the executive director of American Aid for Afghans and working as a consultant involving trade development and political risk analysis in the Middle East. In 1990, he joined Shawnee State University where he became Founding Director of the Center for International Programs and Activities and taught Middle East history. For the past six years he has been Associate Provost for International Education. He is fluent in Farsi and is the author of various articles on Iran and the books, The Historical Dictionary of Iran and The A to Z of Iran.

Ricks, Thomas

Tom served in the Iran III TEFL program in Mashhad (1964) and in Mahabad (1965-66). He came back to the United States for graduate studies at Indiana University (Bloomington), with a master’s degree in Persian Studies and a PhD in Middle East History. He returned to Iran in 1971 with his wife, Janice, to work on his thesis; eventually, they both taught at the Tehran International School (Iranzamin). In 1973, he and Jan returned to the States to continue their academic careers in Minnesota, in the D.C. area, and in Philadelphia. Tom also taught for two years at Birzeit University in the West Bank, Palestine before both retired from teaching. Tom has published a number of books and articles on the social and cultural history of modern Iran and Palestine. He is currently completing works on Howard C. Baskerville and Tabriz during the Iranian Constitutional Movement, and on the life of Sarah Wright McDowell, for nearly 40 years a social worker in Iran.

Speake, Chris

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1963, Chris trained with Group 3 in Portland and served in Rezaiyeh (Urmia) in the TEFL program, 1964-66.  She and her husband Bill were one of the few married couples to serve in the Peace Corps together.  She feels that this helped them make friends with Iranian families more easily than single volunteers.  Her interest in cooking resulted in her spending happy hours with Iranian women in their kitchens.  Later, when Bill got a job in ESL with TWA and Saudi Arabian Airlines, the couple (now a family of three) moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where they spent the following nine years.  Chris taught ESL in an American international school run by TWA.  Her son Kareem was born in Beirut in 1970.  The past 40 years have been spent on the Mendocino coast of northern California.  Chris was a Resource Specialist for Mendocino Unified Schools and is now retired.  She and Bill continue to cook, study languages and travel.