Letters from the Peace Corps recall treasured experience

Fresh out of college, Dorothy Crews Herzberg was in the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas, to Nigeria, from 1961 to 1963.

For decades, she has wanted to publish her stories, and now she has done just that. In her new book “Me, Madam,” Herzberg shares letters that she and Hershel Herzberg, her former husband, sent home describing their experiences teaching school in the newly independent nation.

“We wrote 100 letters to my parents and my father kept them all,” said Herzberg, 78. “For a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to make the letters into a book, but then it all came together. Some people have said maybe I needed all this time to get a perspective on it all.”

Looking back on her time in the Peace Corps, Herzberg said it was an “enriching and rewarding” experience. “People didn’t know much about Africa then, and it gave us something to talk about when we came back,” she said. She laughed and added, “For years afterward, we talked to everybody about Nigeria until people asked us to please talk about something else.”

A retired teacher who now works as a substitute, Herzberg lives in El Cerrito with her husband, Douglas Frew. Herzberg credits a local writing group with inspiring her to complete the book, which includes excerpts from the letters, some narration that provides context and photos.

Her book also provides an explanation for the title. “Students were expected to stand when the teacher entered and left the room, and to sit silently and take notes when the teacher spoke,” Herzberg wrote. Instead, she called on students to do math problems on the board, and soon they were competing for the privilege, calling out, “Me, Madam! Me, Madam!” waving their hands in the hope of being chosen.

“Being in Nigeria in the country’s first years of independence was exciting,” Herzberg said. “We watched the people struggle and learn. They were open to everyone, and people from all over the world were there helping. The book is my impressions and my reactions to what was going on.” In addition to her teaching duties, Herzberg writes about teaching women to sew, helping in well-baby clinics and learning about local superstitions.

Herzberg grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., the child of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Southern Baptist father, an attorney, who both became Unitarians. Both were active in politics and even ran for Congress, though unsuccessfully. Herzberg’s mother was part of the Westchester County delegation that helped write the Democratic platform when John F. Kennedy ran for president.

Considering her background, entering the Peace Corps in 1961 was “an easy transition,” according to her son Sam Herzberg, a planner for San Mateo County Parks. “Her father was fighting patent law at high levels and her mother was a highly educated community activist, a buyer for Macy’s, active in women’s suffrage, a garment union leader and friends with Eleanor Roosevelt,” he said.

In Nigeria, Dorothy Crews met fellow Peace Corps volunteer Hershel Herzberg. They married in May 1962 at the Israeli embassy in Lagos, which at the time had the only traffic light in the country.

“That was the first Jewish wedding in Nigeria,” recalled Hershel Herzberg, 80, a retired educator who still works as a substitute teacher. “We were married by one of the diplomats, with a chuppah and everything.” When the couple left the Peace Corps in 1963, they visited Israel and then moved to San Francisco, where they raised three children and attended Congregation Emanu-El.

“While raising us, my mother secured a law degree and worked at a variety of different jobs,” said her son, who with his family attends Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “She eventually returned to teaching in the late 1980s, when my parents had an amicable divorce. They are still close friends.”

And still active volunteers. Hershel Herzberg visited Nigeria again in 1983, while serving on a California curriculum committee through Stanford University. Dorothy Herzberg is active in the Democratic Party, the Unitarian Church’s Social Action Committee and the United Nations’ educational efforts at the local level. She has raised more than $300,000 to send Richmond High School students on visits to Washington, D.C. for the Close Up Foundation program, and she tutors inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

“I am proud of this book and I am proud of my parents,” Sam Herzberg said. “I think their lives tie back to the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam. You can talk it or you can walk it, and my parents walk it.”

“Me, Madam” by  Dorothy Crews Herzberg (170 pages, Arc Light Books, $15