Seattleite Spotlight: Former Peace Corps Volunteer Ann Lounsbery Owens

The longtime Seattle resident’s memories of the JFK assassination will be included in a new TLC documentary.

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In 1962, Ann Lounsbery embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, the 24-year-old teacher accepted an offer to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the East African nation of Ethiopia. Although Ann’s two-year stint was filled with ups and downs, her experience took a tragic turn on Nov. 22, 1963, when she first learned (via shortwave radio) of President Kennedy’s assassination. That evening, she penned a heartfelt note to her mother describing the utter grief and helplessness she was feeling halfway across the globe.

Ann’s mother forwarded a copy of the letter to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy later that year, and it was eventually archived in Boston’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Library & Museum along with more than 8 million other pieces of correspondence. Author Ellen Fitzpatrick discovered Ann’s note in 2009 while researching her book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation, which was published two years later. To mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, TLC will air Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy on Sunday evening. The televised special will feature 20 celebrities, each of whom will read one of the letters that appeared in Ms. Fitzpatrick’s book; actress Zooey Deschanel (New Girl) will be reading Ann’s letter.

I spoke to Ann, now 75, about her memories of that fateful day in November 1963, as well as the profound effect her volunteer service in Ethiopia has had on her life for the last 50 years.

What inspired you to join the Peace Corps in 1962?

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York, just a few miles outside of Ithaca, and lived there until I began attending the teachers college in SUNY Teachers College at Geneseo. My father died while I was in college, so I moved back to the farmhouse and taught third grade at a local school for two years. That was the beginning of my teaching career.

I really latched onto JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech. I had always been fascinated with different cultures, and read a lot about schools and life in other places. The idea of being abroad and representing the United States in a non-official capacity was really appealing. I just wanted to help.

After I applied, I started reading more about different programs. I assumed I’d get sent to the Philippines because they were asking for teacher trainers. But then I got a call from Washington, D.C., one day, and they asked if I wanted to go to Ethiopia. I paused for a minute because I didn’t really know where Ethiopia was. But I immediately accepted. I was ready to go.

What were your first impressions of Ethiopia upon your arrival, and how did they evolve over the course of two years?

THEN: Ann Lounsbery, 24, wearing a traditional Ethiopian garment

We were the first Peace Corps group to visit Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was the emperor of Ethiopia at that time. Not many people realize there was a really strong connection between the the emperor and the Kennedy family because he and Rose Kennedy shared the same birthday. Haile Selassie had great respect for JFK, and he was the one who made the decision to invite the Peace Corps into Ethiopia.

It was very overwhelming at first. I had spent a summer in Germany, but I had never been to a place that was so poverty-stricken. We landed in Addis Ababa. I remember flying over and seeing all the slums, people living in these tiny huts that sprawled all over the place. When we stepped off the plane, I smelled burning eucalyptus, which is a wonderful smell. And the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. The afternoon we arrived, we were invited to Haile Selassie’s palace for a champagne reception. We each got to meet the emperor and shake his hand. Now, the elevation of Addis Ababa is 8,000 feet. Here we were tired from the journey, with a little headiness from the champagne and the elevation. Like I said, the whole day was very overwhelming.

Tell us about the nature of your project work in Ethiopia. What were some of your most notable accomplishments as a volunteer?

I was assigned to work in Mek’ele, which is two days overland by Land Rover north of Addis Ababa. I assumed I’d be assigned to an elementary school, but when I arrived in Mek’ele, they were putting Peace Corps volunteers in the local high schools. There were nine Peace Corps volunteers who taught in the high school. One taught math, one taught home economics, but most of us were English teachers. I taught four 8th grade English classes and two 11th grade English classes, and that was my assignment for two years.

The classes were huge, each with 40 or 50 students. It was the only secondary school in Tigre Province.  Desks meant for two students usually had three or more. Supplies were also limited, so there might be three children sharing a desk intended for one person. When I first arrived, I had a really hard time telling the students apart. So I used their clothing, since most of them wore the same shirt every day. I had seating charts, but the students tended to move around a lot. It was very overwhelming at first.

I also started a girls’ choir at the school and worked in the library, although there was a very sparse collection of books. In the summer between the two years, each volunteer chose a project for their vacation time. I chose to be on a medical team that traveled around Ethiopia, administering smallpox vaccinations and tuberculosis tests. If someone tested positive for TB, we gave them a vaccine. I did that for a month.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a teacher in Ethiopia?

English had been chosen as the language of instruction in Ethiopia a couple of years earlier, so the students I had started learning basic English in fourth grade. By the time they got to eighth grade, they knew some English but it was pretty hard to understand ― and I’m sure they had an equally hard time understand me. So we had to slow way down.

They actually had a strike against me my first year. The students in eighth grade were very concerned because I was trying very hard to introduce learning English the way we learn it, which is through speaking and having conversations. They went along with it for a while and thought it was pretty cool, but then they got worried about the exam they were required to take at the end of the year in order to attend high school. One day, unannounced to me, they went to the principal and demanded an Ethiopian person to teach them English because I wasn’t preparing them for the exam. That was pretty startling. They went on strike for two days and didn’t come to class.

When they came back, I talked to them about it. I told them we would spend more time studying for the exam, but not all of our time. The exam was very grammatically-oriented, with a lot of questions about the rule for past-participles and things like that. In addition, all eighth graders in Ethiopia at the time were required to study a book called The Vicar of Wakefield, which was written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1766. It’s the most obtuse, ridiculous book. I think somehow England ended up with more copies than they needed one year, so they sent all the copies to Ethiopia and it became the textbook for eighth grade students. I didn’t even understand the storyline, so how was I going to use that to teach Ethiopian students? The whole social context of the novel was beyond their realm of understanding. But they were so worried that there would be questions about The Vicar of Wakefield on the eighth grade exam.

So I made the two-day journey to Addis Ababa and spoke with the Director of Education. I asked him if questions from The Vicar of Wakefield would be on the eighth grade exam, but he wouldn’t tell me. I expressed my thought that it wasn’t helping them learn English, since they didn’t even understand the story. But I had to go back and tell them that we would have to study the novel, but not full-time ― just enough to prepare for the exam. When the exam came, there weren’t any questions about The Vicar of Wakefield.

I brought with me a book of Ethiopian folk tales that had been translated into English. So I dutifully sat down at my typewriter and typed out a ditto sheet of stories from the book ― no copier machine or Xerox ― and then ran them off on a mimeograph machine. Believe me, it was very laborious! The first time I brought one of those stories in, I didn’t say anything and just handed it out. They started reading in English, and then they looked up at me and were so excited. I know this story, they said. That was my best moment. Little triumphs, you know.

NOW: Ann Lounsbery Owens, 75 and still smiling.

Every Peace Corps volunteer has at least one wild story that most Americans find simply unbelievable. What was your craziest experience during your time in Africa?

One Christmas between semesters, a few volunteers and some of our students drove a Land Rover up to Eritrea and headed west toward Sudan. We were told there was a huge herd of elephants that roamed up and down the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, so we wanted to see them. It’s amazing, the things you do when you’re 24 that you would never consider doing later in life.

We trekked across the desert through little villages, asking if folks had seen the elephants, and traveled from waterhole to waterhole. The whole trip was pretty wild, but then we actually met a farmer who had seen them. He looked us like we were crazy, which of course we were. We followed the herd into the jungle. We were very quiet because we’d been told that elephants don’t see very well, but they have very strong senses of smell and hearing. We heard some loud crunching and saw a nice warm pile of dung, so we knew they were close. Then we found the herd.

Now, these were wild African elephants ― they’re huge. The male heard us, and then he turned to face us. He made loud noises, lifted up his trunk, and flared his ears. The females and babies scattered in the other direction, but he stood his ground. One of the people with us had a video camera and it annoyed the elephant, and then he charged us. We all ran for our lives, and everyone eventually made it back to the river bank.

That’s probably my best story, but there were also lots of wonderful encounters with people in the villages outside Mek’ele. On weekends we liked to go backpacking into the villages and stay overnight. The people were so kind to us. They looked at us strangely, at first, but then they’d shoo the cows out and let us stay in their stables.

How did you communicate with friends and family back home?

There was only one way: these little blue, tissue aerograms. I wrote my mom a letter every one or two weeks, and she would write me back using the same thing. My mother, bless her heart, saved all my letters, and today I have a stack of 96 letters I wrote her. They’re just precious. Once in a while, I’ll just pick one out and read it.

I never thought about calling. I’m not even sure the phones would have worked. It was just sort of an assumption that when you joined the Peace Corps, you would be isolated for two years. If I’d become deathly ill, I probably could have placed a call somehow ― but the blue aerograms were all I used.

Many people can recall the exact moment when they first heard about the death of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. What were you doing when you received the tragic news?

We had a new group of Peace Corps volunteers arriving, and we were having a little get-together one evening to welcome them. The doctor was with them, and he came in with a shortwave radio in his hand. He told us the president had been shot, and we didn’t believe him. I wouldn’t joke about that, he said.

How did you explain the situation back home to your Ethiopian counterparts?

They had also heard it on the radio. It took a little while, but everybody found out. The stores shut down, flags were at half-mast, people came to our house in tears. It was really amazing. Ethiopians adored Kennedy, and had a lot of respect for him, so it affected them immensely. A lot of people just couldn’t understand how this could have happened in modern America. The governor was married to the granddaughter of the emperor, and they invited us up to their palace to express their sympathy. There was an outpouring of grief for a long time.

It was amazing to be overseas when this happened, to hear about it on a shortwave radio and not be able to go in front of the TV like we all did on 9/11. We were deprived of that. My mother saved a lot of magazine articles, and when I got home in August of ’64, I finally was able to read about the whole thing.

An excerpt from Ann’s letter to her mother, which will be read by Zooey Deschanel in Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy, a new documentary premiering Sunday evening on TLC.

What inspired you to write a letter to your mother in the wake of the president’s assassination, and how did this letter end up in the hands of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy?

I wrote the letter to my mother that very night. I had to let it out. Of course I knew it happened, but I didn’t want to believe it. She made a copy of the letter and sent it along with a UNICEF Christmas card to Jackie Kennedy. Thousands of other people wrote letters too, so I have no idea whether or not Jackie ever read it, but it was saved in the JFK Memorial Library in Boston.

What did you do after your Peace Corps service concluded?

It’s hard to make decisions about your future when you’re overseas. When I came back, I attended Columbia Teachers College in New York City for a year. I was torn about what to specialize in. I chose elementary education and administration, but I never actually did that again. I went back to teaching English as a Second Language because I enjoyed it so much in Ethiopia. I never would have thought about it before, but it was a total career change for me after my two years in the Peace Corps.

In 1965, I moved out to Seattle to be with Jim Owens, who I had met when I was 16. Eleven years later, we finally got together. He worked at the Public Health Hospital in Seattle. We got married, had two sons, and we’ve been here since 1965. I taught ESL at an elementary school for a while, and then I worked with young adults at North Seattle Community College. Most of them were students from other countries who finished high school and came here to learn more English, either for themselves or for college entry. I really enjoyed that. I also tutored kids for a while, but I’ve been retired for several years.

When did you first get involved with the Letters to Jackie project?

Ellen Fitzpatrick wrote to me in September 2009. She had spent a lot of time going through all those letters and picking out the ones she was interested in publishing. She had to get permission for the use of the letter, so she gave me a call. She was having a hard time finding some of the people who wrote these letters, or at least a son or daughter of that person. But I have a genealogist friend in Seattle who can find anybody, so Ellen actually hired my friend to help her locate these people.

Actress Zooey Deschanel will be reading the letter you wrote during Sunday’s televised program. Were you familiar with her work prior to this project?

I wasn’t! Bill Couturié (the Letters to Jackie filmmaker) asked me if I knew who she was, and I said I hadn’t. But when I told my two sons, they thought it was so great that she would be reading my letter. Then I Googled her, of course, and saw that she was in Elf, so I had to go back and look at that. I never got the chance to meet her, but I would love to contact her and say thanks.

Screen shot 2013-11-13 at 11.57.11 AMAre you still involved with the Peace Corps?

I get their newsletter, I keep up with what’s going on, and make sure the Peace Corps gets funded, but I’m not actively involved.

Have you been able to return to Ethiopia since your service ended?

I have never been back. Life kind of got in the way. My husband, who’s a physician, traveled to Ethiopia with World Vision in 1984 when there was a serious famine. But I haven’t been able to return. Which is sad, because I would like to. Maybe I still will.

Fifty years later, how would you say Peace Corps service has affected the course of your life?

Oh, terrifically! It was a milestone. I’ve never read the newspaper the same way. I think I became much more culturally sensitive, and learned that the American way isn’t necessarily the best way. If you live in another country for two years, you won’t love every minute of it ― but it will certainly affect the way you look at the rest of the world, and the way you look at yourself. I love the Ethiopian people, and the experience has remained a huge part of my life.

Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy will debut on TLC at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17. Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation by Ellen Fitzpatrick is available for purchase online; web users can enter the Letters to Jackie Book Sweepstakes for the chance to win a copy signed by the author. If you would like to learn more about the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, as well as the 65 other countries where volunteers currently serve, please visit the organization’s official website.