WILSON: Peace Corps Oral History Project interview with Lee Colten,
January 27, 2006. Interviewed by Jack Wilson. Lee, if you would, start
by just giving me your full name and where and when you were born.
COLTEN: Lee Arthur Colten. Born in Minden, Louisiana, 1958. March
WILSON: And did you grow up in Minden?
COLTEN: Yes. I was born and raised in Minden, Louisiana. Accused of
being a Yankee frequently because my parents are from the Midwest and
transplanted down there, so I carried a little bit of an accent that I
picked up from them. So we took a little flack for that.
WILSON: Or as people from the North would say, non accent, right?
COLTEN: Well, yeah, I think mine was really pretty generic.
WILSON: So tell me something about your family and your growing up.
COLTEN: Well I guess there were a few things that made us a little
bit misfits in Minden, Louisiana, in the Deep South. Several things,
actually. My parents being from the Midwest, being transplants. I
didn't know that I particularly identified with that until I got older.
But my father was Republican. And so that was, in my upbringing, I
remember that as going down to campaign headquarters to campaign for
Goldwater and things like that, setting up banners. I remember that
as part of my childhood. My father was also a prominent individual
in that he was a newspaperman. He owned and was editor for the local
00:02:00newspaper. So his name was in the press. And growing up with it, I
didn't think much of it at the time. But it was a big part of my life,
seeing his name in the paper and going down to the press room with him
regularly. So I'm sure that affected my thinking and outlook on life.
Also, he was with the Chamber of Commerce after he sold the newspaper.
I was in probably junior high at that time. He worked for the Chamber
of Commerce for a couple of years and then was persuaded by some of the
local businessmen, he was a very business minded individual, very pro
business, to run for mayor. So he was mayor for eight years, through
most of my teenage life. Eight years as mayor. And so, growing
up, a lot of his observations on life centered around looking at the
community and how the community was functioning, how businesses were
00:03:00coming and how the economy's doing things like that. So that really
skewed, these little tiny comments that you hear from your parents.
It's the subtleties of life that influence you the most sometimes.
And so those things influenced the way I looked at things a lot. Dad
also being kind of, I started to say from the North. I don't know if
that 's really the factor, but he was very much a figure in the civil
rights era in Minden. Minden was going through the court cases and
court-ordered desegregation. And Minden in particular was under some
orders. And so that was the ambiance in which I grew up in. So as
he became mayor, he took some pretty strong stands in terms of putting
00:04:00paving and streetlights on the other side of town.
WILSON: The African American side of town.
COLTEN: Exactly. So he became a real friend of the black community
in Minden. And that was a real significant voting bloc for him, I'm
sure.Female: He put up blacks, females, as receptionists in City Hall.
COLTEN: That was one of his first high profile things that he did that
made a statement in the community. So those, one other story I'll
share that's very, that I didn't hear until I became an adult was he,
as a newspaperman, he got a call from one of his newspaper buddies
in the next county. Maybe down the road in the same county, I can't
remember. Said, "Look, Tom, we ran an editorial in our paper that
apparently offended somebody. They came and trashed our presses. The
whole paper's been destroyed." And Dad said, "Come on up here. We'll
00:05:00help you meet your deadline." So they came and-- (clears throat) I'm
getting choked up. So they came and brought all the materials to the
presses in Minden and met the deadline.
WILSON: This would have been when?
COLTEN: In the early '60s, probably.
WILSON: Early 1960s. So you graduated from high school there then?
COLTEN: I graduated from high school in Minden in 1976. And then
went off to school at Oklahoma State University. About that time
my parents, my father was done with the newspaper, done with being a
00:06:00politician in small town Louisiana. And he got a job with a--
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: State Chamber of Commerce
COLTEN: The state Chamber of Commerce in Baton Rouge. So they moved.
And I'd jokingly tell everybody they moved so I couldn't come home from
college and find them. (laughs) To avoid me. But anyway, so I went to
Oklahoma State University and got a degree in biology. Four and a half
years of schooling there. It was after that, it was at Oklahoma State
University that I met a Peace Corps recruiter. And my brother actually
probably kind of piqued my interest in Peace Corps because he was a
geography major, and was always looking for opportunities to travel
for free. And one of the things that geographers like to do is Peace
Corps and these kind of things. So I went in to see the recruiter.
And ended up getting an application and went. The summer after I
graduated, I graduated in December. Ended up going into training the
00:07:00summer of 1980. And so that's what took me into the Peace Corps.
WILSON: Okay. And tell me something about that application process.
COLTEN: Well, I'm sure it's fairly familiar. I was young enough and
naive enough, I hadn't dealt with government bureaucracy too much. And
so the many pages of fold out forms were just mind boggling, and all
the references. I think that's just my main impression was I was just
overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork. And all the following up
with calls, making sure people did their references. One interesting
story related to that, I had a neighborhood lady, lady who lived across
the street when I was growing up, write one of my reference letters.
00:08:00And apparently she did the paperwork, mailed it in. They weren't
supposed to mail them back to us. They were supposed to write their
recommendations on this form, send them in to Peace Corps headquarters.
And she filled it out and said something about Lee Colten and some non
flattering things on this thing and sent it back to me.
WILSON: To you?
COLTEN: To me. And I'm thinking oh my goodness, I can't believe she
said this. And not realizing it was a joke. So anyway, that was
comical. So Pat got me on that one. (laughs)
WILSON: So you sent your application in. This would have been when?
WILSON: 1980. Probably spring or winter of 1980.
COLTEN: Right. Right.
WILSON: Did you indicate a country or part of the world preference? Was
that a possibility?
COLTEN: I said Latin America. I don't think I mentioned any particular
00:09:00countries. I knew I was interested in learning Spanish. I had no
language skills at all. I had, well, I had a year of French in high
school, but none of it stuck. And hadn't been out of the country other
than a couple little overnight trips into Canada as a child. So I
really had no international experience to think of, or language skills.
I think again my older siblings had done some traveling in Latin
America, so that was of interest to me. So I specified that.
WILSON: So then you were notified.
COLTEN: I was notified of Ecuador. And then, that I would do my training
in Costa Rica. I'm not sure when I found out that I was actually doing
the training in Costa Rica. But my assigned country was Ecuador.
WILSON: And did you, was there a staging of some sort or something?
COLTEN: Yes. We had a selection process that Peace Corps experimented
with I think only a couple of years. It didn't turn out to be to their
liking. We ended up going to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. And I
know you just interviewed my wife, so she probably told some of the
same stories. We'll see if they coincide or not. We had a weeklong
selection process where they took all the volunteers, I think, from
two groups, special education and ag extension. And they had us in a
really nice hotel there in Harper's Ferry, overlooking the Potomac and
Shenandoah rivers, right where the rivers come together. And basically
it felt like we were under this psychologist's microscope. They would
follow us around with notebooks. And some of the notes that came back
00:11:00later, it was just amazing some of the things they wrote down. But a
lot of these encounter group kind of sessions, and role playing groups
and simulation games, those kinds of things, where they could observe
us in different situations. Really long hours. And it was interesting,
too, because there were some people, I did a lot, I was familiar
with those kind of discussion groups and things like that because our
church, and retreats, and you do some of those kinds of things in those
settings. But to some people, it was very foreign, and very awkward
for some of them. I mean, I enjoyed it. It was an interesting group
of people. And that's what was so stimulating to me about it, I think.
WILSON: And then at the end of the week?
COLTEN: Well, probably one of the more significant things for me in
my Peace Corps experience is that I met my wife there. I remember
00:12:00noticing Marianna. Very short hair, very attractive woman. She had
cropped all her hair off, really tomboyish haircut right out of college
because she was wanting to go through some change in her life, and I
think women do that sometimes. So I remember thinking that she was
very attractive, but she's out of my league. You know, one of those
kind of thoughts that runs through your mind. So I never felt really
comfortable approaching her and introducing myself. And we weren't
in the same groups. So we're out, it's going on toward the end of the
session, the whole week. And here we are at Friday. And we've had
these long sessions, and I'm worn out. So I get out and I'm going to
go for a walk by myself. And here she comes. I'm leaving the grounds
of the hotel. Here she comes back with a group of other people.
00:13:00They'd just finished a walk. And we're passing each other, and she
peels off from this group, puts her arm around me and says, "I want
to get to know you." I'm thinking okay, this is good. And all the
other folks are like, what's going on here? (laughs) And so we go for
a walk. And we head out across this cemetery. You cross this cemetery
in Harper's Ferry, then you go through the woods on the other side,
and there's a spectacular unofficial overlook. It's not on any of the
trails, the guidebooks or anything. There's no fencing or anything.
But you're sitting on this rock overlooking this cliff, right where
the two rivers come together. Spectacular view and the sunset and
everything. Sort of very romantic, as it turns out. And so we end
up talking and just sitting there and time slips away. And before we
know it, it's probably five hours later. And somebody comes looking
for us and says, "Hey, you guys going to be here for this--" We were
in a play that night. And said, "You guys going to do your thing, or
00:14:00not?" Because I was supposed to play my guitar, I think, and do some
music. So we thought oh my goodness, we better get back. Anyway,
we connected there. And the session ends and between that weeklong
selection process and our flight to our respective training countries,
there was probably a month or so. Time intervenes there. So I get a
packet in the mail of some sheet music, of some music that Marianna had
wanted me to learn, for one thing. So I call her and thank her for it.
And it's a very awkward conversation. I felt like, she doesn't really
want to talk to me. Maybe I called at the wrong time, or she's not
really interested in me, or I didn't know what was going on. So I get
00:15:00another letter, and then another letter. And I think well, okay, this
is a little more encouraging. So I arranged to, we were supposed to
actually leave from Florida with our respective groups. She was going
with the special education group and I was going with ag extension.
WILSON: And she was going to Ecuador.
COLTEN: She was going to do her training in Ecuador, and I was doing my
training in Costa Rica, right. And-- (pause)
WILSON: Okay. I think where we stopped, you were talking about going to
training and your connection with Marianna?
COLTEN: Right. So we were going to separate countries. And we were
actually supposed to meet in Florida, and had different departure
dates. And had I just gone with the ticket or the Peace Corps had
lined up for me, I wouldn't have seen her in Florida or in Ecuador for
some time, because I was going to a different country. So I called the
00:16:00airlines and said, "Can I change the date on this without any penalty?"
And they said sure. So I moved it up a couple of days so I could go
to Florida and overlap and see Marianna, get a little time with her.
So we connected there, got to spend about twenty-four hours together.
And then I went on to, she flew on. I had to spend an extra night
in a hotel. And then I went on to Costa Rica, she went to Ecuador.
I'll finish this meeting and romance part. We can come back to the
Peace Corps part in a little bit.(laughs) She, so I get to Costa Rica
for my training. I have two months of training in Costa Rica. And
she's doing her training in Ecuador. It's the same story. I kept
getting, I got a letter almost every day. This lady was incredible in
terms of her letter writing. So I kept getting letters, and then I'd
get these little packets of trinkets and souvenirs she'd bought for me
00:17:00at the store. And I'm thinking, I don't even hardly know this woman.
And we've spent a week at Harper's Ferry and a day in Florida, and
I'm getting all these letters. And of course I'm writing her, but not
quite as frequently. You know men, we're just not as good at that.
So anyway, I finally go to Ecuador. I have another month of training
there. And she is leaving for her site, because they only had two
months of training. So we overlapped a day or two there. And then
I go to Otavalo area. And I think I come back and I see her prior to
leaving Ecuador for maybe a day or so. No, I'm sorry. I don't even
see her then. So sum total before I come back to the United States, I
have maybe ten days with this woman. And I don't know what makes the
00:18:00best story here. I'll go ahead and finish this story. So I come back
to the United States and she's still in Ecuador. I come back to the
United States for another year and a half. We have this long distance
romance by mail. Again, only ten days in each other's presence. Spend
a lot of, send a lot of money to Ma Bell. A lot of postage stamps.
A lot of tapes going back and forth. This is all before email. So
I decide to go see her in her site in Cuenca, Ecuador the Christmas
before she's to come back, that probably would have been December of
'82, something like that. And I fly down there with the intent of
just seeing her, visiting, spending a little time in Ecuador and coming
back. Two weeks during my vacation time. I was teaching at the time.
So I get down there and lo and behold we're having a good time, and
00:19:00we're sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, visiting. And we're
making these little strings out of clover. You know how you take the
little clover flowers and you string them together and make a necklace
or a crown or something like that. And I make one for a ring and put
it on her finger. And she says to me, "So what do you want to do?
We need to do something fun while you're here." And I say, "Well, why
don't we get married?" She says, "Well, I was wondering when you were
going to ask me." So that's kind of how that happened. So she accepts.
We end up having a fight before I go back. I go home. By the way, I
have no clothes. My luggage got lost on the way down there. So I'm in
Ecuador with her for two months, or two weeks, with no clothes except
what I had on my back. Borrowing some of hers and getting by. I go
00:20:00back to the United States for another six or seven months before she's
done with her Peace Corps service. So we have this more long distance
romance. And it's killing me, you know, at the height of being in
love and all of that. And she comes back to the United States. We end
up living together for a year and actually getting married, and it's
worked for, it's been twenty-one years this summer. So we would see
some of our Peace Corps volunteer friends after that for years later.
And they would say, "You're still married? I can't believe it worked.
Because you guys didn't even know each other." I mean, we'd, by the
time I proposed to her, we had less than two weeks in each other's
presence. So it was pretty remarkable that it worked. But you get to
know a lot about people, I guess, a lot of long letters, a lot of phone
calls. So in a way it kind of removes some of those pretensions that
00:21:00you can put on in normal relationships, I guess.
WILSON: Well that helps answer a question that comes at the end of the
interview about impact of Peace Corps on you.
COLTEN: Well, yeah. That's right.
WILSON: Well, let's go back to the point of the Peace Corps training.
You go off to Costa Rica. What were you training for, and what was
that training like?
COLTEN: I was in ag extension. In applying for Peace Corps, I really
didn't know what I wanted to do. I was majoring in biology, so I was
looking down the list of things they offered that were biologically
related. I have no ag background. As far as qualifications, I
remember putting on my application that I had some, had done home
00:22:00gardens. That was it. So we, they actually took pretty good care
of us in that regard. The training based, there were three aspects
of it. There was cultural part of the training, there was language,
and then your area of expertise. I'm trying to recall. I think
everybody at our center was agriculture. There were people there at
different levels with different groups and different time frames that
were coming and going. The language training was outstanding. I went
into it with nothing more than a year's worth of French and came out
conversationally, I don't want to say fluent, but very conversational
level Spanish. In contrast to the people who spent their training in
Ecuador, they were very uncomplimentary of their language training.
And when we got together and compared what we could do, it was pretty
00:23:00remarkable. So I felt very pleased with the training we had there.
It was difficult, I mean obviously, I'm a visual learner, so I kept
wanting to have the instructor, "Can you write that word on the board?
Let me see what it looks like." And I would even say that in broken
Spanish. And she would say, "No, we can't do that." They were really
forcing our ear to train it. They did something that I thought was
unique about with the training was they had different instructors from
different countries. We had Jamaicans, Costa Ricans, Nicaraguans. I
mean, you got one trainer for a week. And then by the time you got
used to that accent, they would rotate them out and you got a different
trainer for a week. And so you were constantly having to adjust
your ear to their unique accents and sometimes different phrasing and
vocabulary. You know, you call platanos one thing in one country, and
something in a different, another country. So that was challenging.
00:24:00I remember having a breakthrough on the language. They sent us
away for a week about two thirds of the way through the two months of
training there in Costa Rica. They sent us off, they'd say, "Go to
this village and you've got a week. Figure out how to get there." No
real assignment. I just remember they say, "Go there and spend a week
there." And what we did was pretty much up to us. After that week, I
came back feeling like I could really do it. And my instructors were
complimentary like I had made some breakthrough at that point. So in
living with the family, as during the training, we were living with
families, and that was a very good experience as well. There was a
husband, wife and two children. Loden, Flores, and Alonso and I can't
remember the last one's name. But that was a real good experience.
WILSON: There was a cultural component about Ecuador? History and stuff?
COLTEN: Actually the cultural training that we had in Costa Rica was
not so much about Ecuador. We had a month of training in Ecuador
that covered that. But the month in Costa Rica was more things like
oh, I don't know that I can even tell you. The more generic cultural
sensitivity kind of things probably is the best way to characterize
it. And then agriculture. We actually had some test plots where
they showed us how to set up four plots and run some tests, you know,
different fertilizer or pesticide applications. Basics of plowing with
primitive implements. Carrying, sharpening tools. Just really basic
stuff in some cases. Selecting seeds. Hybrid, specialized seeds versus
just collecting your own seeds off of the previous season. I remember
00:26:00drying beans and beating them till you got the beans out of the husk
and things like that. So it's a real eye opener for somebody who's not
used to depending on growing his own crops to survive. So that was,
we even had a, I remember some kind of party. I can't remember what
the event was. But we killed our own turkey. Got it drunk beforehand,
which is the tradition there. You fill it up with a trago [Editor's
note: a shot] of beer or something to get it drunk. Then you kill it.
WILSON: Chop the head off.
COLTEN: Right. So we each got a turn to kill a chicken or a guinea pig.
We got to raise our own guinea pigs there and feed them. You know,
you'd get assigned a couple of days to be responsible for them. So it
was interesting experience.
WILSON: So the Costa Rican portion was how long?
COLTEN: Two months.
WILSON: Two months. Okay.
WILSON: And then you went from there in country to Ecuador?
COLTEN: Right. We had a month in Quito. Again, same kind of mix of
language, cultural, and really actually, at that point there wasn't
much agricultural, I should say. The cultural was more memorizing
the provinces and the capitals and the history and that kind of thing.
Again, they would give us assignments. Go to this destination and
come back and report to us what you saw and learned and some things
like that. They had some field trips where they'd take us out and tour
us around certain things.
WILSON: And then, was there any selection process at either of those
junctures? Either Costa Rica or the end of the Ecuadorian--
COLTEN: No. I mean, not that I'm aware of. Yeah, in Harper's Ferry
00:28:00they explicitly cut people out. Once we got down there, it was more
attrition to people that didn't feel like it was for them. We had one
fellow, the only real agronomist we had in the group, who everybody,
he picked up the language like that, he actually had some Spanish
training, he was a real trained agronomist, and he had some real
farming experience. After a month and a half he says, "This isn't for
me. I'm going home." And you know, we never really understood why.
He never did give us a good explanation. There were a couple other
people that made it to Ecuador. But after they got there, one of them
was actually a Spanish teacher so clearly Spanish language was not a
difficulty for him. He was black. I don't know if that was a factor.
I never heard him complain about it. The other one was a teacher.
But they left right after they got to Ecuador. They did the swearing
00:29:00in, and then said, "I'm leaving." So we lost three that I remember out
of about twenty or twenty-five.
WILSON: So what, then, you were assigned to a particular job or place?
Where was that?
COLTEN: Yeah, I was assigned to a little village. Gosh, I can't believe
I didn't look it up, and I can't remember. A little village outside
of Cuenca, which is towards the north, north of, northern part of the
country. Probably about a four-hour bus ride north of Quito. And a
little community, probably a thirty-minute bus ride north of Cuenca.
And I was actually staged in Cuenca for a short while before I was
taken to the community and shown -- wow, some of this is real fuzzy
00:30:00-- I was taken to the community and shown around and introduced to a
family that he was on some kind of United Nations grant for preserving
traditional woven goods. So he was kind of a, he was more worldly.
I'm not sure how educated he was, but very worldly, and very good
at his craft. And evidently able to network and get money through
other channels. So he was trying to document and keep some of the
traditional weaving. I want to say the word in Spanish--tejidos.
It's the woven goods, like blankets and tapestries and that sort of
thing was his specialty. And they have this specialty of these fajas.
00:31:00It's basically like a cloth belt or woven fiber belt that they did.
And they had some ceremonial or artistic ones that were just for
wall hangings. And the idea being they preserve this culture and then
they sell them elsewhere and make money from it. So he actually had
a motorcycle from the grant, and took me into his home, put me up for
a couple of days, showed me around. There had been a previous Peace
Corps volunteer that had done some work there putting in livestock
shed with a concrete floor where they could save the manure. I can't
remember what they called it. But anyway, they took the manure and
cooked it down and were able to, they captured the heat to heat the
00:32:00water, and it was the only shower in town, an outdoor shower, which I
thought was kind of interesting.
WILSON: So they captured the methane from it.
COLTEN: I never saw if it was just the heat from the fermentation,
or there was methane. I never fully figured that out. But it was
outdoor shower stall with no walls or anything, which I thought was
interesting. And there was actually a room, like a common area with a
roof and walls where they could have dances and things like that above
where the cows were. I don't think it was used much. It probably was
intended for something like that but never used much because of all
the flies and smell and everything. So they, the people there were
telling me that this was a good idea, but it didn't work. Nobody used
the shower or any of the facilities there. I spent some time with that
family. And it's real fuzzy, I can't remember. I ended up leaving
00:33:00that family, going back to Cuenca for a week. He had only, that's what
it was. At that time, I was having some illness problems. I went back
to a central place in Cuenca where the volunteers kind of had a common
house where some of them lived there in Cuenca. And rented a room for
a few days. I was, now I remember. I was waiting for, Tomas Guerrero
was my Peace Corps contact. And he had not come into town. Okay.
Now it's coming clear. The first village. I'm sorry, I'm skipping
around because it's fuzzy. The first village where I had stayed with
this gentleman who did the tejidos, I had a bad experience. I was
walking through the village, visiting and meeting people. And there
00:34:00was this party going on, and all these people mingling around, standing
around drinking a trago [Editor's note: of chicha], which is a corn
drink, fermented corn drink. And I walk up, and I'm making small talk
with these people, visiting. And there was an indigenous gentleman
who was a good six, eight inches shorter than me but more pure blood
Quechuan, and more indigenous and looked down upon or less, lower class
in the community. And I'm visiting with all these people, and this
fellow is very drunk. And he's offering me a drink of the very strong
stuff. And I say no thank you. And he wasn't accepting that. And
he kept insisting, insisting, and pushing my arm and shoving me. And
finally, next thing I know, I'm laying on the ground. He punches me
out. Very insulted by my refusal, I guess. So several of the people
00:35:00help me up off the ground, dust me off, and run him off. They were
very physical, and ran him off. And the irony of it all was as soon
as they helped me up they say, "Here, have some of this. This will
make you feel better." So I ended up having to drink some of it anyway.
So that happened. And they were very apologetic and I made some good
acquaintances there. Somewhere along the way I remember having, still
waiting for this Tomas Guerrero to show up. He makes a decision, I
can't remember how I got the word, but why don't you come out of that
community. So I moved back to Cuenca, spent a couple, a week or two
there waiting for him to introduce me to another community. So I go
down to Lago de something, I can't remember where it is. He takes me
00:36:00up, introduces me there. All the meanwhile, I'm having these health
problems. I'm having a fever like every other day. I would be on the
bed just sleeping and very uncomfortable for a day, and the next day
I'd feel fine. Literally almost every other day. It went on for a
week or so. And I actually found a place to live in this other village
and was ready to move in there. And I think the cycle of the fever and
my experience in that village, homesickness, all of these things, and
a feeling of inadequacy. I ended up finally just saying, "I think I'm
hanging it up." So I drive, take the bus into central office in Quito
and pour my guts out. And they say, "Well, if you feel that way, we'll
send you home." So that's what I did. So I'm actually in country in
00:37:00Ecuador probably about three months.
WILSON: So it was really a combination, well, of medical termination and
COLTEN: Well, yeah. I mean, that didn't help. But you talk to other
Peace Corps volunteers. Marianna had very serious health problems. It
sounds like mine were nothing compared. Yeah, sometimes I beat myself
up about maybe I should have stuck it out. But I didn't. And it was,
it still left an impression on me. I don't think I made a mark there
by any means, but it made an impression on me. I learned a lot.
WILSON: What was it like coming back? Before you answer that, let me go
00:38:00back and ask an earlier question, which is what was it like going into
the country in the first place?
COLTEN: I'm not sure the initial impact was maybe as stark as it was for
some people because I think one thing I misspoke about earlier, I had
no real out of country travel except for six months prior to leaving
I had gone to Mexico and spent about a month with my sister traveling
around. I went down and did a volcano climb, and down around through
the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala and Belize. So I had at least seen
some of the poverty, the primitive conditions, and the experience of
being a minority and not able to understand everything that was going
on around you. So it wasn't a total shock by the time I got there.
So first impressions, though, was the spectacular scenery. I mean,
00:39:00Ecuador is just truly spectacular because of the mountains. Where I
was, I was up in the high Coreras which is the high mountain valley
between the mountain ranges of the Andes. Just, I mean, the mountains
are there. It's just truly amazing. You're at nine thousand feet
elevation. Clear, dry air that gets cold at night and just perfect
weather during the day. And seeing the culture, and seeing the way
people live. It's just a real education every time you see another
country or culture. So I certainly enjoyed that part.
WILSON: And coming back? What did you do when you came back?
COLTEN: Well, when I came back I wallowed in my misery a little bit,
00:40:00probably. Ended up living with my folks for about three or four
months. I remember getting a job in a restaurant waiting tables.
Playing music a little bit in some places. Working in a hardware
store. I guess I got, my dad thought I got a little too comfortable.
After about three months he finally said, "I'm going to have to start
charging you rent." And so that got me out of there. Took a class at
LSU in Spanish. And moved out and got an apartment downtown in Baton
Rouge, right off campus there. So in the middle of taking that class,
I was working at a Cajun restaurant, playing music some on weekends
at a little restaurant down there. Stumbled onto, was writing to a
friend of mine that I had known through some of my previous summer
00:41:00jobs in college. And he told me about an environmental ed center in
North Carolina, or, excuse me, in Tennessee. So that opened a door
for me to do some teaching in environmental education. I should back
up. The connection here, too, is this same individual I had worked
with at a summer camp in North Carolina. And he and I had started
this environmental awareness curriculum at this summer camp. And so it
piqued my interest in environmental education. And so that was part of
my interest in education in going to the Peace Corps in ag extension,
fit in with that very loose vision at this time of what I wanted to
do with my life. It was educating, it was out of doors, and it was
environmental, saving the world and all that stuff. So it seemed like
00:42:00a good next step for me to do something here in the United States that
was back in education and environmentally related.
WILSON: And then?
COLTEN: Well, then, I don't know whether to kind of a quick overview.
I mean, at that point, well, I spent two years teaching in Tennessee.
Cedar Creek Learning Center, which is an old '60s vintage elementary
school in far eastern Tennessee. Right up against the Cherokee National
Forest. And I ended up starting there as an intern, which meant
getting paid, getting room and board and maybe sixty dollars a month or
a hundred dollars a month, it wasn't much to speak of, this fledgling
00:43:00center that really had no students. Doug Ratledge had been trying to
get this off the ground for a number of years, and my friend Anthony
San Felipo had been there when they first did a lot of renovation of
facility. So I went there. And my job was to help develop the program
and get students in there. So I ended up going to, developing an
in-class curriculum, going into classes during the wintertime when we
couldn't get any kids into the school. And then in summer time, it
was warmer, spring and fall, we'd get students to come in. It was a
residential facility. We had kids come from anywhere from one day day
trips to, actually we had two, three, and seven day trips.
[Tape one, side a ends; tape one, side b begins.]
WILSON: Side two of interview with Lee Colten, January 27, 2006. Sorry.
COLTEN: That's all right. So we had kids come there from anywhere from
00:44:00day trips to two, three or seven day during the summer. The curriculum
involved a day of hiking on the mountain, looking at the flora, looking
for wildlife and tracks and scat and all those kinds of things, trying
to teach biology but also ecology and environmental awareness. We
ended up using it as a springboard to talk about environmental issues
and choices about lifestyle and that sort of thing. A day on the
mountain, a day on the river, and a day in a cave. We spent literally
anywhere from four to six hours in a cave underground, wet and slopping
around. So that was an ideal experience for a kid in his twenties who
wanted to be stomping around in the woods and preaching the gospel of
environmentalism and things like that. So that was a real, that allowed
me to kind of satisfy some of my idealism at that age, but be closer to
home in a familiar setting, I think, and not be sick. (laughs)
WILSON: And that, that was a year or so--
COLTEN: This was within--
WILSON: You came back and before Marianna came back and you were married.
COLTEN: Right. This was, I got that job within probably five or six
months after returning from the Peace Corps. And then she returned
another year and a half later, probably.
WILSON: Let me go back for a second and ask you a question about the
job situation. Because my recollection is that there were a lot of
issues in the '60s and '70s about jobs for volunteers in Latin America.
00:46:00Whether there were real jobs there. Was the job that your, people
in your group expected to do well defined? Or pretty loose and you
COLTEN: It was not defined for me. And I don't know what my
expectations were. Because I had heard stories of people being dropped
in the middle of nowhere and having virtually no contact with anybody.
But during the training, I was introduced to this gentleman who was
supposed to help me. And so there was, based on that, I was expecting
some support and a little more placement, if you will, that I didn't
see for some time. So that did allow me a fair amount of time on my
hands to maybe think too much. He did finally plug me in with a local
00:47:00extension service there in one community. But it was still pretty ill
defined as to what I would be doing or how, what my role was. So that
was a little source of anxiety, perhaps.
WILSON: Okay. We talked a little bit about coming back. And to pull
the threads together, you were married, then, after Marianna came back,
which is another year or so down the road.
WILSON: And then tell me how you got to Kentucky and what you've done
COLTEN: Okay. So I'm at Cedar Creek Learning Center in eastern
Tennessee, she's in Peace Corps. And we're doing this long distance
00:48:00romance that I already mentioned. She comes back, had it not been
for me, I should add, she probably would have stayed, re-upped, and
stayed another term. She loved me enough to come back, at least.
So she did come back. We're in a small, rural community in eastern
Tennessee. When I say small, we're talking a rural elementary school
turned environmental center, a grocery store with a gas pump, and
two churches. That's it. And tobacco farms, some dairy all around.
That's it. So it's very rural. And so I've got long hair, I've got
a beard at this point. And not exactly blending in. but very well,
I should say the community really embraced me. They took me in, I
00:49:00went to church, and a lot of the old ladies used to have me over for
dinner and stuff like that. The old ladies were great to me. (laughs)
I got invited to play at some weddings, sing at some weddings, that
sort of thing. So anyway, Marianna comes back. And there was a real
pillar of the community that owned the grocery store. Had a house.
Their son, who usually lived there, was in prison. So I was shopping
around, trying to find her a place. Before I found out about that
one, we put Marianna in another house over the ridge. And immediately
she was kicked out because I was spending too much time over there and
had a beer bottle sitting out on the table when the owner showed up.
So he didn't like that. He kicked us out. Kicked her out, I should
say, to be politically correct. So she's moved her stuff into the
school, which is a big scandal in and of itself. And we're trying to
00:50:00find a place. We're driving all over the place, looking for a place
for her to live. And George ambles up to me one day and says, "Lee,
you still looking for a place for Marianna to live?" And I said yeah.
He said, "Well, move down in Ace's house down there." So I mean here
we've been living in less than proper conditions on and off, pretty
obvious that we're sharing an abode. And going to church at the same
time in this small community. I mean, the whole community knew what
was going on. There's no way to hide it. And George, who could take
a lot of flack for this, offers her a place to live. And so that was
really quite a gesture on his part. And of course I end up moving
in with her, and then we have to watch what we say around my mom and
dad so they wouldn't find out this was going on. So we end up living
together pretty much a year before we finish there. She ended up
00:51:00teaching at a state institution. I remember going in and introducing
myself to the director of the institution and just bluffing my way
into her office and saying, "She needs a job." And she got it. So we
did that for a year. Then I got restless. She was definitely getting
burned out dealing, wrestling with the residents at the institution.
And I was getting burned out on teaching the same lines over and over
again, looking for something to further my path towards environmental
education. I decided after talking enough about environmental
education that I needed to understand some of the issues from another
perspective. That here I was talking about why we need to do all this
thing, but I didn't really have any insight into what the real issues
were behind it, the real ramifications of making a decision to be
00:52:00green on this issue or that. So I decided again, and wanting a little
more technical expertise. So I decided to apply for graduate school,
I wasn't sure where. We had a gentleman on our board at the learning
center that used to be a professor at Eastern Kentucky University. I
said, that sounds good. Still in Appalachia, I like this area. So
he made a recommendation, and I got a scholarship to do my master's at
Eastern. So that's what brought us to Kentucky. I spent probably a
year, I mean, excuse me, two and a half years, working on my master's
while Marianna was teaching at a school in Estill County. She ended
up getting bounced around because of her mixed background. She did
special ed, and they moved her around quite a bit. And then I finished
my degree, then got a job with a consulting firm. Again, with the
00:53:00intent of trying to understand environmental issues from the private
sector perspective. And then did that for two years while Marianna
got her master's degree in Spanish. Partly because she wanted to
learn more Spanish, partly because she needed to get a master's to keep
her teacher's certification. So she did that. And I worked for Will
Lander Associates writing grants and administering water and wastewater
projects and some economic development stuff. And then left there,
getting burned out with less than optimal salary and too many long
hours of consulting work, and driving all over the state. Very good
experience, I might add, working with local governments. A lot of
interaction with local mayors and judge executives, city councils and
that sort of thing. And then decided to apply for a job that I'd heard
about from my major professor with the state Division of Water doing
00:54:00toxicology work, which was actually what my master's work was in. So
here I was actually getting a job doing what I was trained to do, so
that was pretty remarkable. And again, still thinking down the road,
thinking okay, I'll learn about the regulatory side of environmental
issues. Thinking that I'll get my five years vested in the retirement
system, and then I'll move on. Well here I am eighteen years later,
still in state government. So that's pretty much my career path.
WILSON: That reminds me of one I believe that Marianna didn't say. She
did some Peace Corps recruiting while she was at UK.
COLTEN: That's right.
WILSON: She never mentioned that in her interview.
COLTEN: Really? And she interviewed Ashley Judd during that time. So
that's something she'll always brag about.
WILSON: Is that right?
WILSON: I didn't know that.
COLTEN: Ashley Judd never signed up, though.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that through Kay?
COLTEN: That was not through Kay.. That was in the same building.
WILSON: What was the impact of Peace Corps on you? Aside from a wife.
COLTEN: Yes, the wife, significant other. I don't know. I actually
predicted that question, tried to halfway think about it ahead of time.
I'm not sure I've got a good answer of that. I think, I mean, it's
definitely continued, I mean, my international travels, I've probably
spent as much time traveling in Latin America overall as I have time
in Latin America in Peace Corps, if that makes sense. I've done enough
traveling that I've gotten as many days over there as I did, out of
Peace Corps as I did in Peace Corps. So I have probably what you'd
00:56:00call a superficial very good familiarity with Latin America. Not
the kind you have living in a community for two years that some Peace
Corps volunteers have. Certainly having that international experience,
I think everybody should have if they can. I would like to see it
mandatory, if I could wave the wand and make it so that everybody who
goes through school or some point in their young adult life has to
spend at least a month in another country just to see the culture, to
see, feel what it's like to be the minority, to not understand what
everybody's saying very well, and understand the humanity that exists
in every country, even though we don't always agree on things. Even
though their culture may seem awkward and different. I mean I think
that's the kind of thing that just gives you that other insight into
00:57:00how different things are, but how much the same they are. So that
certainly reinforced, all my travels reinforced that, I think.
WILSON: What was the impact of Peace Corps on your family?
COLTEN: Well I mean, since I can't wave the wand and require everybody
to do a month overseas, but I can give my kids that opportunity. And
so we had the fortune of taking them, you know, we forced them to
listen to some stories probably they didn't want to listen to. They'd
seen some pictures, and see the knickknacks around the house. But
we did, my youngest son, we did ten days in Mexico when he was fairly
young. We took a group of middle school kids down, so he had a little
exposure there. But more recently we had two and a half weeks in Costa
00:58:00Rica. And my kids right now this summer when they went they were seven,
twelve and fifteen years old. So obviously they're going to see it at
different perspectives, given the age differences. But one thing that
really pleased me about that experience, we were staying at a hostel
in a town called La Fortuna. And it was mostly inhabited with college
age folks, you know, footloose and fancy free and traveling around,
and not much responsibility and care of the world that those with that
age. And they're mixing with them. And a couple of them take them
under their wing, and show them a good time, something that the parents
can't always do as well as some college age kid that they're looking up
to. And we're sitting there one evening and these guys, Matt and Ian
00:59:00especially are watching these young people talk in multiple languages.
Some of them three and four languages. And sharing all these stories,
like, "You've got to go here and see this, you've got to do this, oh,
this was cool, let me tell you about this experience." And Ian and
Matt are just listening. Like suddenly the light bulb's going on for
them that it's cool to go overseas. It's cool to experience different
things. And these, a couple of guys said, "You can't believe how
fortunate you are who have parents, you've got a marvelous experience."
And so I think that made a real impression on them.
WILSON: So what other international travel or experiences do you look
COLTEN: Oh, boy. Well, I think we'll keep, we'll still travel some. We
may not be able to do the international thing as much, but we'll keep
01:00:00traveling in country, for sure. We blew a big wad last summer. Now
we've got to start saving for colleges. But I think we planted a seed
with them, for sure. One of the things we'll do for them when they
graduate, we have a history on both sides of our family, is that when
we graduate from high school, we were given an opportunity to travel.
A thousand, two thousand dollars or something like that to pick a
country and go. So we talk about some scenarios how we'll make that
available to them when they graduate. And I think given the experience
in Costa Rica, they'll do that. Other than that, Marianna and I still
talk about, she wants to take me to Galapagos now. I've taken her to
my training country in Costa Rica. So maybe--
WILSON: Did you go to some of the areas in Costa Rica that were part of
COLTEN: We went to Alajuela, where our day offs were spent, mostly.
Other than that, we didn't go to any of my stomping ground. But yeah,
01:01:00I think we'll definitely travel overseas when I retire, when the kids
are out of college.
WILSON: What would you say the impact of the Peace Corps experience was
on the way you sort of look at the world?
COLTEN: Well, I can think of several conversations I've had with people
given current events where there's a school of thought that some people
are worried about this one world government in the United Nations, and
that we can't have other countries telling us what to do. Even though
we don't seem to have any qualms about telling other countries what
to do. I think it's really affected my thinking about this notion of
01:02:00neighbors. Somehow a lot of people seem to, I don't want to stereotype,
but people who haven't been out of the country, maybe, have this
notion that their loyalty and patriotism stops at the US border. And I
remember having a conversation with one gentleman who said, "Why should
it stop there? There's different levels of loyalty." I mean, you have
a loyalty to your family. But then maybe you have another loyalty to
your neighbors in your neighborhood. And then beyond that, you have a
loyalty to people in your community, to your county, to your state, and
then to your nation. Why should it stop there? Why not international?
So I think by living and traveling, it helps you see that next step,
that larger picture. How that affects what I do and really impact on
the world, I don't know. It's probably a little more intangible. But
01:03:00I think it does let you look at things differently, for sure.
WILSON: What do you think the overall impact of Peace Corps has been?
Over the last forty-five years, I guess.
COLTEN: Oh, boy. I don't know. You know, every now and then you'll
hear about a congressman or senator that has a background in Peace
Corps. I think clearly there's people that go on in it. You know,
whether those people would have gone on to those roles or not without
that experience or how it affects them, I don't know that I've got a
good answer to that. You hope it makes a difference.
WILSON: What should be the role of the Peace Corps today?
COLTEN: Well, I guess when you look at it from that standpoint, I still
01:04:00believe there's a role for Peace Corps. I would hope it continues
to be funded and continues, just from a standpoint that even if it's
a limited number of people that have the opportunity to gain that
experience and maybe change their perspective on the world, that we
need to keep doing that in the hopes that my discussion with my friends
might open an eye or two, that something I do will make a difference
and so on with all the other people that have had the same experience.
So I think it should continue, and it's worthwhile, for sure.
WILSON: Okay. That's sort of the general outline of the structured
questions. Are there things that I should have asked you and didn't
01:05:00ask and that you'd like to answer? Or any other stories from your
experience that you'd like to relate?
COLTEN: No. It's been fun.
WILSON: Okay. Well, thank you. Thank you for your time.
[End of interview.]