Peace Corps led Belle native to an adventure-filled life abroad
BELLE, W.Va. — In El Salvador in the late 1980s, Bob Holliday remembered taking his children up to the attic to watch military helicopters exchange fire with rebels.
“They used to shoot so many rounds the helicopters didn’t need their propellers,” Holliday said. “They would just sort of float there.”
Brass would rain on the tops of houses.
In post-soviet Moscow of the mid-1990s, as Vladamir Putin rose to power, Holliday weathered threats of violence against his family while he built homes for returning Russian soldiers stationed in the Baltic states.
“Negotiations could get tough,” he said. “If you pushed, they pushed back harder.”
“The general director, the guy who replaced me, got 11 bullets between him and his driver, two weeks after I left,” Holliday said.
From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he served as the Director of Project Management for the University of Chicago, where he worked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and was befriended by a talented, young attorney named Michelle, who was married to an up-and-coming Illinois state senator named Barack.
Sitting around the dinner table of Shauna Steadman, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Morocco, Holliday’s story comes out in a gush.
He has a lot to say. Over the course of his nearly 70 years, Holliday has helped to build roads, homes and factories in Central America, the United States and Russia. He met and married the love his life.
Together, they raised a family.
He was also a witness to the world changing in the last couple of decades of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st.
He has lived a life he could never have imagined — and none of it, Holliday said, would have been possible without the Peace Corps.
Holliday was born at Kanawha Valley Hospital in 1950. He grew up in Belle. One of three brothers, his father worked for DuPont. His mother worked at the hospital. He went to DuPont High School and graduated in 1968, uncertain of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
He enrolled at West Virginia Technical College in Montgomery, which was close to home and allowed him to keep his job at Kroger.
Civil engineering interested him, but not everybody thought he was cut out for it, he said.
Through a girlfriend, he heard one of his former teachers had said, “He’ll never get through it.”
Holliday called it a “watch this” moment.
He needed the challenge.
Holliday said he buckled down, earned his degree and even got the chance to thank the teacher for pushing him.
With graduation looming for Holliday in December 1972, the then 22-year-old still wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with his life, but he liked what he’d heard about AmeriCorps VISTA.
The program was the idea of President John F. Kennedy, who imagined it as a national service program to help alleviate poverty — a domestic Peace Corps.
VISTA was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnston in 1964. Future governor and West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller served as a VISTA volunteer in 1964 and 1965.
“I’d always admired the Rockefellers,” Holliday said.
He signed up to join the program at college. A couple of weeks later, a VISTA representative called him at home and said, “Sorry, we can’t use a civil engineer right now.”
Baffled, Holliday said, “You can send me to a reservation in New Mexico or a playground in Detroit. I don’t have to do engineering. I just want to serve.”
The VISTA recruiter forwarded him on to the Peace Corps.
“But I didn’t want to do that,” Holliday said. “The Peace Corps was two years outside the country.”
The Peace Corps said they had lots of places they could send him. They asked what he thought about Iberia or Venezuela.
“If I was going, I wanted to go to the Fiji Islands,” he joked. “I had dreams of meeting women in grass skirts — and then I would write my mother for a lawnmower.”
His mother didn’t think he was that funny.
He said she told him, “I’m not worried. You had a lawnmower in the garage for years and you never used it.”
A couple of weeks later, just as he was leaving for his last final, Holliday got another call from the Peace Corps.
“What about Costa Rica?”
“Where’s that?” he asked.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the agent told him. “We just need you to tell us yes or no.”
Holliday asked, “If I say yes and I don’t like it, can I go someplace else?”
“Oh, sure,” the agent told him, which Holliday said wasn’t true.
The graduating engineer said he needed time to think it over. They told him they’d call him the next day. So Holliday talked it over with his family and friends, and he was on a plane to Puerto Rico at the start of 1973 for Peace Corps training at Catholic University.
He also had to learn to speak Spanish.
“I was terrible,” he said.
After three months, the Peace Corps sent Holliday to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a group of volunteers. They landed on a Monday during Holy Week. “It’s a big celebration,” he said. “The Peace Corps couldn’t do anything with us. They told us to sit tight and find something to do until they could get us all placed.”
After a couple days of loafing, Holliday and some of the other volunteers wound up in a Mexican restaurant eating tacos when a group of young, local women walked in.
Holliday’s friends got him to go over and talk to the women for all of them.
“You’ll talk to anyone,” they said.
Holliday went over and asked the women in broken Spanish if there was a club nearby where they played American music.
The women nodded. They were happy to give directions.