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One of the first to sign up in early 1960s, Peace Corps volunteer from Minnesota dedicates new historical marker

Ken Fliés of Eagan was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in 1962, and the youngest at age 19. He has written a book about his experiences in Brazil, "Into the Backlands." (Courtesy Ken Fliés)

EAGAN, Minn. — The toughest job you'll ever love. It was a Peace Corps slogan in 1961 and it became truth for Ken Fliés of Eagan who was one of the first to sign up.

He and other former volunteers recently gathered in Plainview, Minn., to dedicate a historical marker to the four Plainview residents who joined the first 3,000 "Peace Corps Pioneers" in 1962.

Fliés, 75, grew up on a dairy farm near Plainview. He was just 19 when he answered President John F. Kennedy's call to find "what you can do for your country." He chose to represent the U.S. in Correntina, Brazil, where he would use his mechanical and agricultural skills to help fix a dam and improve the town's farming skills.

"My epic journey to the remote central highlands of Brazil where I did not speak with my family or loved ones for 21 months, proved to be...just as its slogan promised...the toughest job I would ever love," he said.

This summer, Fliés published a book about his experiences, something he was encouraged to do by the Minnesota Historical Society. Titled "Into the Backlands," Fliés combines his memories with historical events to create a complete picture of what it was like to be in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.

While there are several Peace Corps books on the market, Fliés said his may be the last book written by anyone from that first group, since he was the youngest and many from the first tour have passed away, including the other three Peace Corps Pioneers from Plainview.

He joked that his book would be the omega to Rhoda Brooks' alpha, "The Barrios of Manta," the first book written by a Minnesotan about that first endeavor.

Dairy farmers don't quit

Growing up on a dairy farm in Kellogg, Minn., Fliés understood hard work and how to make things work when times were tough.

These were the character strengths he would draw on during his 21-month tour in what proved to be a very unorganized inaugural launch of the Peace Corps.

"It was pretty chaotic," he said. "We were spread out over 15,000 square miles of the São Francisco Valley. There was no administration there. We were just left there to figure out what we were going to do."

And it wasn't just the lack of structure, he said. The political atmosphere was dangerous even before he left the states. His training in Alabama happened during the race riots, which caused his group to be sequestered in trailers guarded by Alabama state troopers.

His group flew to Brazil in October 1962, at the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which incited a political coup and rioting in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. A year later, on Nov. 22, JFK was assassinated.

Of the 90 people assigned to the valley, 30 left after the first few months, he said.

Why did Fliés stay? Because dairy farmers don't quit.

"I would never in a million years have come home to my dad and said that I gave up," he said.

To cope with the isolation, Fliés found similarities between Correntina and Plainview. Both were small towns. At the time, Plainview only had 1,400 residents. Both were primarily Catholic. Both had a big river running nearby. Both were agricultural based.

"I had a really good support structure in the town I was in," he said. "There was a very dynamic priest there. You weren't going to fail on his watch. He was very helpful."

Fliés was most interested in working with the farmers, but the pressing need in Correntina was to finish a partly-constructed hydroelectric dam.

"I had a strong basis on mechanics that I learned on the farm," he said. During his second year, he was able to get back out in the farm field.

Thought he died

Brazilians can't say the letters "th" very well, Fliés said, so instead of calling him Kenneth, they called him "Señor Kennedy."

When word reached the village that President Kennedy had been killed, they thought at first it was Fliés that had died.

"When I walked into the marketplace, they all stared at me," he said. "It was like Jesus at the resurrection."

Fliés mourned the passing of JFK, but found the villagers' reaction both bewildering and heartwarming.

They looked at the U.S. transition of power from Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson with curiosity as Brazil went through its own political upheaval. Their president had been ousted by a coup. They also feared that the Peace Corps would be pulling out, since it was Kennedy who had taken Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey's idea for the Peace Corps and made it law.

"There were three days of mourning in Brazil," Fliés said. "There were people that came to our door in a line to offer their condolences. It was so amazing."

Lessons learned

One lesson Flies learned from his Peace Corps tour was that he did not want to work for the government. He preferred to have more control over his circumstances, so he became an international entrepreneur.

Another lesson he learned was a better understanding about how to help in foreign countries.

"What did the Brazilians lack?" he asked himself. "They lacked information. If they had the information, they could figure out how to do things. That's what the computer revolution was all about."

He used technology to bring helpful information to farmers in Brazil and other countries. In other words, he continued to do Peace Corps work, just on his own.

On the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011, Fliés dug out his old diaries from the trip that changed his life and offered them to the Minnesota Historical Society. They encouraged him to use the diaries to write a memoir.

He started writing, and then his wife Millie, his high school sweetheart he'd been married to for 52 years, was diagnosed with cancer. His wife, who had been the driving force to get the historical marker erected in Plainview, the only marker like it in the country, was bedridden for 16 months before she died.

The dedication ceremony Saturday was as much for her as it was for him and the other volunteers, Fliés said. More than 200 people came out, several of them former Peace Corps volunteers. Gov. Mark Dayton declared Sept. 22, 2018 "Minnesota Peace Corps Volunteer Recognition Day."

Since the Peace Corps' creation, over 230,000 volunteers have served in over 100 countries. Twelve of those came from Plainview.

Why so many from such a tiny town? Fliés credits religion and hard work.

"Plainview has seven churches," he said. "Religion played a very strong part in teaching people morals and to give back to others in the world. We've had some tremendous teachers in school that taught you paths in life that you should pursue."

Also, he added, farmers "know how to get things done."