IN 1981, after 31 years in the discount retail business and five years of retirement in southern California, Bernie Lovitky decided his life didn't have enough purpose. ``I thought I should do something more redemptive with my life,'' Mr. Lovitky says.
So he joined the Peace Corps. ``A lot of people didn't understand,'' he recalls now. ``They were amazed. They'd say things like, `How'd you get into the Peace Corps?' or `Aren't you too old?' and `Aren't they a bunch of hippies?' ''
Lovitky's decision and the questions it raised among his acquaintances symbolize the dramatic changes that have overtaken the agency in the 25 years since its birth during the Kennedy administration. Although the Peace Corps is the agency of choice for many third-world countries seeking expertise, ``you can't call the volunteers Kennedy's Kids anymore,'' says Loret Miller Ruppe, the agency's director. ``We've traveled quite a ways since then.''
The road has not always been smooth. Born in the idealism of Kennedy's New Frontier, the Peace Corps suffered from bitter internal conflict over the Vietnam war and, later, from what many agency observers see as uncertain leadership.
The Reagan administration and Mrs. Ruppe's tenure have given the agency a stronger sense of purpose. But the cost, some observers say, is the linkage of agency programs with Reagan administration policies.
``I'd say it's worrisome,'' says R. Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps's founding director, of the possibility that the corps is being used to further US political interests abroad. As examples, Mr. Shriver and others cite recent decisions to double the number of volunteers in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize, and Honduras over the next five years, as well as the continued absence of volunteers in Nicaragua. ``The Peace Corps was established to be apolitical, and it should be kept that way,'' Shriver says.
But Peace Corps officials vigorously deny any political meddling. They point out that they send no volunteers to Nicaragua -- or El Salvador, whose government President Reagan supports -- because the agency can't guarantee volunteers' safety in those countries. ``We have requsts from these countries for [personnel] and we do our best to fulfill those requests. That is how these decisions are made,'' says Mrs. Ruppe.
Other aspects of the Peace Corps's evolution are less controversial, however. For starters, its recruits are getting older: The average age of current volunteers is nearly 29, compared with an average age of just over 23 in the '60s.
Of the 6,000 present volunteers, 403 are, like Lovitky, over 50 -- an all-time high for that age group. Peace Corps officials say they are looking to expand that figure even more.
Lovitky, who spent two years in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga whipping a faltering consumer cooperative into a profitable enterprise, now spends much of his time recruiting older volunteers in the Atlanta area.
Volunteers have also become more specialized. Recruiters say they still look for the unskilled generalist willing to hunker down in a mud hut to teach villagers about irrigation. And many volunteers can expect to live in cramped quarters with outdoor latrines and without running water and electricity.
But the corps can't get enough urban planners, computer specialists, and agronomists to fulfill Nepal's requests, for example. In Fiji, Peace Corps volunteers have added math, physics, and accounting to a teaching roster that once consisted mainly of English lessons.
In the '60s, more than half the volunteers were generalists with liberal arts degrees. Now, such volunteers account for 16 to 18 percent of the total. The rest are engineers, mechanics, medical specialists, and people with experience in agriculture.
And while the Peace Corps has yet to go Yuppie, today's recruits temper their idealism with an appreciation of how a stint with the agency can add luster to a r'esum'e. Peace Corp officials view this as a positive development. In fact, recruiting literature now emphasizes the career advantages of service with the agency.
Some of the efforts play off of the perquisites offered in the business world. One tongue-in-cheek advertisement features a breathtaking image of the rugged Nepalese countryside accompanied by the line: ``An office with a view.''
In addition, the corps has arrangements with 90 graduate schools across the country: Returned Peace Corps volunteers get special consideration when applying for admissions and scholarships. It also has a program that allows aspiring teachers in the corps to enroll in Columbia Teachers College upon completing their two-year tour of duty. Ruppe says she wants to broaden the program to include other professions.
``There's more dual questioning going on -- `How is the Peace Corps good for me, how am I good for the Peace Corps?' -- and that is a healthy development,'' says Bruce Cohen, the agency's director of recruitment. ``The Peace Corps has always been fearful of naive idealists, because it takes realists to understand the limitations to what you're able to accomplish out there.''
When Mr. Kennedy launched the corps in 1961, unbridled idealism was in great supply. The program was supposed to extend America's helping hand to less fortunate countries. At the same time, it was intended to counter volunteer movements sponsored by the Soviet Union and Communist China in the third world.
Many diplomats have seen the corps as a plus to US efforts overseas. Ronald Palmer, ambassador to Togo and later Malaysia, says that by the time the Peace Corps closed its program in Malaysia in 1983, ``very few [Malaysians] had not had at least general contact with Peace Corps people.'' The corps, he says, is ``an excellent instrument of American policy, because it explains what the US is all about.''
Vietnam was a difficult time, however. Volunteers were granted draft deferments, which attracted many people who openly protested America's foreign policy at the time; a few of the volunteers avoided US embassies and outposts. ``There were a lot of confused feelings at the time,'' recalls Peter White, an investment analyst at the World Bank and a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad and Cameroon between 1969 and 1972.
In 1971, President Nixon brought the corps under the umbrella of ACTION, an agency of several federal volunteer organizations. Many Peace Corps officials at the time felt it robbed the agency of its identity and led to a period of low morale. Enrollment slumped from its 1966 peak of 15,566 volunteers to a low of 5,280 in 1982.
By the time the Reagan administration took over, some government officials wanted to dispense with the agency altogether. Indeed, the agency is now considerably smaller then it was at its 1966 peak. In addition to the drop in volunteers, the budget for this year stands at only $130 million. Adjusted for inflation, that is three times less than the $114 million budget in 1966.
Mrs. Ruppe is widely credited for saving the Peace Corps and boosting morale among its administrators. But many said it meant a growth in the political conservatism of the Corps's administration. Ruppe was cochairman of the Reagan-Bush state committee in Michigan during the 1980 presidential campaign. Most previous directors, critics note, held diplomatic assignments or posts in government before they led the corps.
While the number of applicants fluctuates drastically from year to year, it is generally headed upward, agency officials say. A drive in January to recruit 600 agricultural specialists to help deal with Africa's famine drew 10,000 responses.