Artifacts from couple’s time in Peace Corps accepted to Smithsonian
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
When Connie Bird and Jerry Mays returned to the United States in 1973 after a two-year Peace Corps mission in Micronesia, they arrived home with wedding plans, as well as artifacts to remind them of their stay.
Now, three children and three grandchildren later, the Mays’ marriage is still going strong, but the couple was unsure of what to do with their collection of items from Micronesia. Their solution: see if the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. was interested. The Smithsonian was, and the items were picked up from the McGregor Public Library Friday morning, May 9.
Situated in Oceania, east of the Philippines and north of Australia and New Zealand, Micronesia lies across an area the size of the U.S. Connie said it helps to think of the country as a balled up chunk of bread that is scattered into 2,000 pieces. Of those small islands, roughly 100 are inhabited.
When Connie and Jerry traveled there in 1971, natives spoke around 95 different languages, so volunteers were needed to teach English so that people would have a common way to communicate.
Connie, a Kansas native, had recently received her teaching degree. In Micronesia, she taught mostly English, as well as some other subjects. Jerry, a Nebraska native, had a business degree and largely worked in the economic development office, helping the people learn about importing and exporting products. The two were stationed on Falalop, in the Yap District, a U.S. Naval base during WWII.
Between Connie and Jerry, it was not love at first site—at least not for Connie. Speaking alone Friday morning (Jerry was volunteering at Effigy Mounds), Connie recalled their meeting. Connie was waiting for take off on a plane in Denver, headed to San Jose State University for a few days before traveling to Hawaii for training. Jerry was on the same flight and asked to sit next to Connie, despite a number of empty seats on the plane. Connie, nervous about the upcoming trip, declined his request.
Once in San Jose, Connie went to catch a cab, only to find Jerry waiting for her. He wanted to share a cab, mentioning that she was also in the Peace Corps. (She hadn’t told him; he just sensed it.)
“My mom told me about guys like that,” Connie said, recalling how she was upset with his forwardness. “I said, ‘I don’t know what kind of girl you think I am.’ He says he fell in love with me that minute. It wasn’t like that for me.”
As luck would have it, Jerry was always around, throughout their time in San Jose and in Hawaii, looking for opportunities to speak with Connie, but her group of friends often rebuffed his advances.
In order to skirt her protectors, Jerry figured out when Connie took a break and went to the juice machine each afternoon. One day, he was leaning against the machine when she arrived, and said, “It’s pretty hot. Wouldn’t ice cream be great?”
“I said, ‘The nerve. You have to be the meanest person to suggest this when it’s hot and we can’t have it,” Connie said, explaining that the nearest ice cream shop was 10 miles away. Without transportation or a lot of money, it wasn’t a viable option. But Jerry wouldn’t relent, asking what she would choose if she could have something. Connie finally admitted she would choose a vanilla milkshake.
The next day, Connie once again found Jerry leaning against the juice machine, with his hand behind his back, which he brought forward to reveal a vanilla milkshake. Jerry had run to town and back to get it. He said he had ordered the milkshake ahead of time, with orders to keep it frozen so that, by the time he ran back to training with it, the ice cream would be the perfect consistency. Over the next 30 days, he continued to do the same thing, winning over Connie’s friends’ hearts, and eventually her own.
“He turned into a really nice guy,” she said.
In Micronesia, Connie and Jerry adjusted to the different culture. Connie said there were no cars or electricity and the native people mainly lived outside. Fish were a staple in their diet along with rice. Currency came in the form of stone money (large, donut-shaped stones that usually did not move) and shells.
Connie said Outer Islands High School, where she taught, was like a boarding school, with students from a number of islands traveling there by ship to receive an education. Combined with the large number of languages and the fact that nothing was written down, communication was difficult at times.
“Interacting was how you learned the language,” Connie said. “You had to sit and talk.”
Connie also had to get used to a different male/female dynamic.
“Women walked behind men and couldn’t be higher than men,” Connie said, “but it wasn’t agonizing.”
She said the town had a men’s house and a women’s house, with no one from the opposite sex allowed inside. Women liked this set-up, she explained.
“They talked and told stories and had fun,” she said.
Connie also marveled at the role the ocean played in life in Micronesia.
“The ocean was their domain,” she said. “They could read the waves.”
Among the items Connie and Jerry brought home from Micronesia were colorful lava lavas (skirts worn by women), a grass skirt and purses. Connie’s neighbor Gabriel carved some human statues, showing what native men and women looked like, while another man carved her some monkey statues. Jerry also created a language book. Since the couple would soon get married, Jerry also received shell money—enough to buy Connie as a wife.
Since their Peace Corps trip, Connie said she and Jerry have not returned to Micronesia.
“We didn’t want to tarnish the pristine memory,” she said.
As they grew older, Connie said she and Jerry, who moved to the area in 2008 and live near Effigy Mounds, worried about the fate of their Micronesian items, wanting them to end up in a good home. The idea to donate them to the Smithsonian came when Connie was on a trip to D.C. with her sister and saw a display of stone money.
“I couldn’t believe they would have anything,” Connie said, wondering if there were other things the museum might be interested in, so she located an email address and shot off a message.
A few weeks later, Connie said she heard back, with an email requesting photos and information about each item, but that it did not sound very encouraging.
“[The items] would have to fit a specific need,” she said. “They gave the impression it was a long shot.”
After submitting the information, it wasn’t until three months later that Connie received a reply from a Dr. Keppler in the Oceania Ethnography department that she was personally interested in the collection, but that the acquisitions committee would have to agree. After waiting all summer for word from the committee, Connie and Jerry finally heard on Sept. 11 that the whole collection was accepted.
Although they had the option to deliver the collection to the museum, Connie said she and Jerry decided it would be easier to have someone pick up the items instead. However, it’s not as easy as sending it via UPS or FedEx. The Smithsonian contracted with a shipper who would pick up the collection while on a two-week journey picking up art and other items for different museums. Because of the truck’s size (it’s like a semi), Connie and Jerry decided to have the collection picked up at the library, where there would be easier access. Once the collection reaches the Smithsonian, Jerry and Connie will officially sign over ownership.
Once the collection is on display, Connie said she and Jerry, and possibly their family, will make the trip to Washington, D.C. to see it. She said a Peace Corps memorial is also in the works in D.C., so they may plan a trip to coincide with its completion.
“This is very big,” Connie said of the event. “They don’t take just anything. We couldn’t think of a more perfect place for our artifacts to go. The value of them needs to be in the Smithsonian.”