W. Dennis Grubb, an Eagle Scout who in 1961 joined the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers before continuing to serve the less fortunate around the world throughout his life, died on Oct. 25. He was 80.
Grubb was born in 1941 in Allentown, Pa., and was raised in Westport, Conn., where in 1955 he became an Eagle Scout.
He was a sophomore at Penn State University in 1960 when then-candidate John F. Kennedy announced the idea for a volunteer organization that would send service-minded Americans around the globe to help others.
In his campaign-trail remarks, delivered after 2 a.m. on the campus of the University of Michigan, Kennedy asked a crowd of 10,000 students whether they were willing to serve their country and promote peace around the world.
The answer, for Grubb and 240,000 other volunteers in the 60 years since, was a resounding yes.
After the Peace Corps was formally established in March 1961, Grubb dropped out of college and applied. Though he was just 19, making him one of the youngest Peace Corps applicants, Grubb was chosen to join Colombia One. That was the name for the first wave of 62 volunteers sent to the South American nation.
Looking back on his selection, Grubb told a fellow returned Peace Corps volunteer in 2012 that “I was accepted because I was an Eagle Scout.”
Grubb served in the town of Zipacón, located 8,700 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The community had no running water, no paved roads and no sewer system. Most of the residents of the town had never used a telephone, watched TV or driven a car.
True to the Scout Oath, Grubb arrived in Zipacón ready to “help other people at all times.”
Along with fellow Peace Corps volunteer Thomas Whalen of Michigan, Grubb worked with local officials to secure funding for a variety of projects. They worked with youth groups, taught residents how to use tools and equipment, and started a chest X-ray and vaccination program.
In his two years in Colombia, Grubb helped build a co-op food store, a small medical center, three schools, roads and a pipeline for water. He also built many lasting relationships, speaking to residents in Spanish and riding a horse from one side of town to the other. He taught residents how to play basketball and helped the sick.
To put it in Scouting terms, Grubb left Zipacón better than he found it.
The Peace Corps’ poster boy
When he returned to the U.S. in 1963, Grubb told anyone who would listen about his transformative experience in Colombia. In addition to spreading the word about the Peace Corps, Grubb trained hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers.
He traveled to the University of New Mexico to train volunteers headed to Latin America, and he visited Southern Illinois University to mentor volunteers bound for Asia.
Around this time, R. Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director, called Grubb “one of the first and one of the best” Peace Corps volunteers. Grubb also got praise from Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who introduced into congress the bill that funded the Peace Corps. In 1964, Humphrey told Grubb that it was “due largely to your efforts that the appropriation for the Peace Corps was obtainable.”
Photographs of Grubb’s work in Colombia became more than cherished keepsakes for the Eagle Scout. They were also used as a powerful recruiting tool.
A photograph of Grubb in action was used in a flyer displayed in post offices throughout the country to promote Peace Corps service.
“What in the world are you doing?” the flyer asks. “Peace Corps service provides you a world of opportunity to do a lot in … and for the world.”
An advocate for good
Grubb’s work took him to two dozen countries across five continents, tirelessly searching for ways to promote peace and help people live better lives. He believed in the power of humanity — the hope that no matter our skin color or place of origin, we’re all more alike than different.
He advocated for funding for the Peace Corps on Capitol Hill and developed generations of Peace Corps advocates. And in his professional life as an economist, Grubb helped bring financial reforms to countries like India, Thailand, Romania and Ukraine.
Grubb was also a devoted Christian who served many years as an usher at the Washington National Cathedral. He was active in St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and even delivered sermons as the church’s lay eucharistic minister.
In a St. Augustine’s sermon in 2014, Grubb summarized what he learned in a lifetime of being helpful, friendly and kind to others.
“I have worked in 23 countries, which included some of the world’s poorest nations,” Grubb said. “I experienced suffering and plain, simple happiness first hand. I have left many of these countries leaving behind most of my belongings, as I felt the poor people needed my clothes and shoes more than I did.”
Thanks to Joe Weingarten and Ana Carmen Neboisa for the blog post suggestion.