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‘I thought I might have wrecked the Peace Corps’

Margery Michelmore Heffron ’60 unknowingly creates an international incident

by Christina Barber-Just

 
Smith major: English
Smith house: Lawrence
Hometown: Exeter, New Hampshire
Career: Semiretired; writing a biography of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams
Peace Corps experience: Volunteer in Nigeria, 1961; staff member in Washington, DC, 1961–1962
 
Margery Michelmore Heffron ’60 graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Smith, joined the Peace Corps in its first year, and distinguished herself as an outstanding

Margery Michelmore ’60
Margery Michelmore ’60, in white shirt, at Peace Corps training camp.

trainee, according to one account. She hardly seemed capable of creating an international incident that threatened to bring down the fledgling program, but that’s exactly what happened on October 14, 1961.

 
During Peace Corps training at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, Michelmore (she was not yet married) wrote a postcard to a friend back home that noted the country’s “squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions.” Before the postcard was mailed it was found by a Nigerian student who, offended by its contents, proceeded to distribute copies of it all over campus. Crowds gathered; riots ensued. Peace Corps staff, fearing for Michelmore’s safety, whisked her out of the country. But the Associated Press had already picked up the story, and it became front-page news around the world. In twenty-first-century parlance, the postcard had gone viral.
 
Staying in Nigeria was not an option for Michelmore, but staying in the Peace Corps was. She went on to work for the agency in Washington, DC—and even received a personal note of encouragement from John F. Kennedy himself.
 
Margery Michelmore buried the Peace Corps chapter of her past when she married Frank Heffron, a lawyer, in 1962, and later had three children. She talked to no one about the postcard incident, avoided opening the two boxes of memorabilia amassed by her mother, and has never consented to an interview about her experience—until now. She decided to relax her rule for Smith, and in an exclusive conversation with the Quarterly she offered her version of events.

What made you want to join the Peace Corps?
It started with Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” I responded to that. I really wanted to be part of that whole dream. And I was very excited and proud when I was selected to be in the first group to Nigeria.

You were still in training at the University of Ibadan when you wrote the infamous postcard.
I have blocked it pretty much, so I don’t remember the text, but I remember that it was stupid and insulting. There was a leftist group on campus who thought that the Peace Corps was a front for the CIA, and they were ready to seize the first chance they could get to embarrass the Peace Corps. I either dropped the postcard or it was taken out of the mailbox. I have no idea how it was found. The students gathered, and there was a riot, or certainly an uprising. There were torches, I remember, and shouting, but I didn’t see much of it because people on the staff came and got me away.
 
What happened next?
There was a possibility of violence; the students were making a lot of noise. I was moved to safe places for a couple days. Then I was taken to [Nigerian Governor-General Nnamdi] Azikiwe. I apologized, and he was very gracious about it. Then I left in a plane. It was all very cloak-and-dagger. I came to New York via Rome and London, and in each place there were large press presences. By the time I got to New York, the press was pretty huge. I just had to deal with it.
 
It was in London that you received a cable from President Kennedy.
I’ll read it to you. It’s dated October 18, 1961. It says, “Dear Miss Michelmore, I want you to know that we are most appreciative of your steadfastness in recent days. We are strongly behind you and hope that you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps. Sincerely, John F. Kennedy.”

What did his support mean to you?
It really mattered, because I was devastated. I felt that I had let down the president; I possibly thought I might have wrecked the whole Peace Corps idea, and I let down my friends in the group and actually put them in some jeopardy. I’d been through quite a lot of stuff. So for him to say “we’re strongly behind you” was just amazing.
 
How have you coped?
I never talked about it—ever—to anybody, even my best friends. I never knew whether they knew about it, because of course my name had changed. So when I went to a new town and made friends, I obviously didn’t ever bring it up. From the beginning I felt it was a stupid and insulting thing for me to do, and I was ashamed of it.
 
Have you been able to forgive yourself?
Oh, I live with some regrets.

What remains of your Peace Corps days?
Two boxes. My mother kept everything—all the letters that came from all over the place, and the press stuff. I don’t think I want to go through those cartons. I’ve tried a couple times, because we’ve been carting them around, house to house. But I start reading the letters from angry people—there are a lot of wonderful letters in there, too—and it brings it all back, and I close the cartons.
 
Clarice (Reese) Heller Berman ’61 told me she felt only sympathy for you because “it was something anybody could have done.” Is this how most of your fellow volunteers reacted?
Yes, it was, but I didn’t know that until I finally went to the fortieth reunion of Nigeria I ten years ago. Reese told me that; other people told me that. It was just so warm and welcoming. That healed a lot of the pain I’ve always felt about the whole thing.