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When Diane S. Gallagher first applied to serve in the Peace Corps, she was turned down. Gallagher wanted to be part of the bold, fledgling organization created under the direction of President John F. Kennedy. It was 1961, and she and her then-husband, a physician, wanted to serve together. Her application was denied, because she was pregnant with their first child.
The effervescent and tenacious Gallagher, nursing history and University archivist at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC), went on to have three more children and launch a career as a soap opera and stage actress, portraying a range of roles from Lizzie Borden to Eleanor of Aquitaine. She got divorced, worked in human resources, co-owned an art gallery, and did a stint as a talk show host on WBZ-TV. But her dream of being a Peace Corps volunteer continued to quietly simmer.
She went for a second interview in 1990, after her four children had graduated college. It was time, she says, “to give something back” and make good on a “dream deferred.” She was accepted, and at 53, set off for the Republic of Cape Verde, an archipelago 380 miles off the cost of Senegal in West Africa, where she served for two and a half years. Today, 7 percent of the Peace Corps’ 8,070 volunteers are over 50, and the oldest is 83.
Now 77, Gallagher has worked full-time at HGARC since 1998. After years of procrastination, despite the good-natured nudging of friends and colleagues, she has recently self-published a memoir titled Lure of Service: My Peace Corps Adventures in Middle Age, with an introduction by Beverly Brown, director of development for the BU Center for Global Health & Development at the School of Public Health and the wife of University President Robert A. Brown. Travel writer Julie Hatfield says the book is an enthralling story “of difficulty, courage, and humor.”
As she recounts in her memoir, Gallagher spent her years on Cape Verde helping to develop a children’s library and a sewing association, both still thriving, that provided income for women who were “living in tin shacks—the poorest of the poor,” she says. With a collection of refurbished Singer sewing machines and several international grants, she helped the women form small businesses that enabled them to replace those tin shacks with concrete homes. Her grassroots efforts met with indifference, and on occasion, anger from men in the community, who felt threatened by the women’s success, she says. At one point, when the women had earned enough money to open their first bank accounts, they were turned away because they came to the bank in bare feet. With characteristic chutzpah, Gallagher dispatched the women to her room to grab shoes, and they returned wearing ill-fitting, mismatched footwear that got them in the door. Upon returning to the United States, she worked for five years as a senior regional recruiter in the Boston office of the Peace Corps.
“It’s never too late to serve,” says Gallagher, who had to fight off initial feelings of dread that she’d be lonely, get ill, or “die of anaphylactic shock.” Instead, as Brown writes in the book’s introduction, Gallagher “quickly learned that one is never too old to love, to cry, to dance all night, to experience the moon and stars of another continent and to touch so many lives around the world.”
Despite the fact that the women in her village lived in dire poverty, she says, they “had a sense of humor, extraordinary courage, and extraordinary soul. They had nothing, but they gave me everything.” In her time as a volunteer, she also helped create educational materials for the prevention of HIV, which is pervasive in the region. Living on an island with flush-bucket toilets, no electricity or running water, and no medical care was an experience that gave her an enduring perspective on the world. The toughest challenge, she says, was the language, a Portuguese-based Creole that varies from island to island.
Gallagher returned to Cape Verde in 1994 to bring four-year-old Paulino, a boy she had met as a Peace Corps volunteer, to the United States for adoption. His mother was dying and could no longer care for him, so Gallagher agreed to arrange for his travel. Raised by a family in Salt Lake City, Paulino, who is also Gallagher’s godson, now has a wife and a son of his own. Her personal mission to rescue Paulino, which many people dismissed as a pipe dream, ended up taking her two weeks.
“I told them I’m from New York; I know how to get things done,” she says. Raised in Manhattan, she is the daughter of a Harvard-educated lawyer father who often hosted political fundraisers at the family’s Gramercy Park apartment. In this, she has followed his example. She recently helped organize fundraisers for US Congressman Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who was a Peace Corps volunteer as well. “Also, we’re both redheads,” she adds.
In 2011, she was recognized for her midlife service with a 2011 Lillian Carter Award from the Peace Corps, honoring her commitment to public service. (Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter, became a Peace Corps volunteer in India in 1966, at the age of 68.)
Gallagher’s connection to Cape Verde endures, and not just through Paulino. Last year she returned to launch a fundraising campaign for that nation’s Children’s Coalition Advisory Board. She says her Peace Corps service taught her that at 50, you are in the prime of your life. Today, she urges others to volunteer, and share the wisdom of their years.
Gallagher likes to remind people of her motto, attributed to actress Helen Hayes: “If we rest, we rust.”