Longtime Ashland residents Phil and Polly Arnold were members of the Peace Corps during the 1960s.

'It Changed Our Lives'

Hailing from rural western Tennessee, Phil and Polly Arnold had seen precious little of the world before they met in college almost 50 years ago.

"I came from a town of only about 1,250 people, and Polly's town was about 2,500," he recalled.

"The town was 2,500, but I lived out in the country," she added with a laugh.

The longtime Ashland residents had just completed their junior years at what is now Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., some 20 miles from their hometowns, when they married more than 47 years ago. He was majoring in history, she in home economics.

Upon graduating, both knew they wanted to do something for humanity. And they wanted to see what waited outside of Tennessee.

"We had a sense of wanting to be of service, and we also wanted adventure," she said. "This was a calling we just couldn't ignore."

What was calling to them was the Peace Corps. They became volunteers and taught in Nepal in 1964-65, then returned for three more years through 1969 when he joined the Peace Corps as a supervisory staff member.

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy. In addition to promoting world peace and friendship through helping others, the mission was to broaden understanding between Americans and people in the countries they served.

The 68-year-old Arnolds — he is now a circuit court judge in Medford, and she is a retired nursing director at Ashland Community Hospital — are two of more than 140 former Peace Corps volunteers living in Jackson and Josephine counties. Those volunteers served in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Zambia, Brazil to Uganda.

"I felt Kennedy spoke to me when he said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country' " Phil Arnold said. "That just grabbed me. We both wanted to participate in that kind of public service."

During their five years with the Peace Corps, they immersed themselves in the Nepalese culture, including becoming fluent in Nepali. Before heading to Nepal, the Arnolds took a three-month crash course at the University of Oregon in Eugene to learn the language.

In fact, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary in Eugene preparing for their adventure in Nepal.

"When we arrived in Katmandu, we couldn't understand a word anybody was saying," he said. "But, by having that base, it all quickly came together for us."

They were fluent within a year, he added.

The "village" they lived in had about 100,000 people but only one partially paved road.

"When we were there, there was no electricity, no running water or sewage," he said. "We had a well, kerosene lanterns and outdoor facilities."

He learned how to create a rudimentary oven out of a kerosene can.

It was while he was on staff that they began their family. The first of their three children was born in Katmandu; the second just across the border in India in a little mission hospital.

They will tell you their time in Nepal forever changed their lives.

"To learn about the world at that level is a magnificent thing," he said. "Even though we were living in a village, we were learning a great deal about the world."

The people they had read about became real, living individuals with dreams and aspirations, he noted.

"You learn these villages in other countries are populated with families and emotions and all of the aspects of life we experience," he said.

"They may experience it culturally in a different way, but you can no longer read about an incident anywhere in the world without understanding what it means to those people who live there," he added.

"You also begin to see yourself differently because you are placed in a situation at first where you don't speak the language and don't understand the culture," Polly said.

It made them understand how it felt to be a minority, she noted.

"And it cemented our focus on community service, something that has been with us ever since," he said. "When you are in a program to help people develop and better themselves, you take that with you. It gives you a real sense of community."

After their Peace Corps experience, he would earn a law degree from the University of Tennessee.

"I went to Nepal thinking I would go to graduate school in history when I returned," he said. "But this was a time when the law was making some very important changes in civil rights. I decided I wanted to do what I could to help make these changes in the United States."

He spent more than a decade working with a law firm in Memphis, focusing largely on civil rights issues. She became a nurse, initially working with the poor in the Memphis area.

The Arnolds, who returned to visit old friends in Nepal in 1994, formed lifelong friendships with fellow volunteers and established strong ties with several Nepalese.

"The Peace Corps was a wonderful experience," Polly said. "I feel lucky we took the steps to do that. It changed our lives. We see the world differently now."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at

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