Odilon Long says he has worked every day of his adult life except one - the day between retiring from AT&T and starting his 20 years in the Peace Corps. That was way back, when he was only 65.
Since then he has constructed houses, roads, classrooms, and bridges in Togo, Sierra Leone, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Haiti. He has left his own mark on communities in Africa, in the form of schoolhouses with a specially designed cupola to bring in fresh air in sultry climates. In addition, he has learned French fluently and is picking up Spanish.
And at a time when he might be luxuriating in a retirement village, the nation's oldest Peace Corps volunteer is at work building houses in impoverished Costa Rican villages, working with six other senior citizen volunteers.
``They say when you get old you're not flexible. You learn flexibility,'' says Mr. Long, with a wild chuckle, in a voice that sounds very slightly foreign after years abroad.
``Older Americans'' are among the Peace Corps' most committed workers, according to spokeswoman Jane Sample, who recently accompanied Long to Boston, where he received an award from the National Public Service Awards Committee. There are currently more than 500 volunteers over age 65 working for the corps, she says.
``They've had a lifetime to think about their purpose in life. They want to give, want to feel needed.'' Also, Ms. Sample says, ``their age is respected in other countries.''
But it was not always this way. Back in 1961, the year the Peace Corps began, the emphasis was on youth. When Sue Sadow, 64, applied for candidacy back then, she was turned down. She was told she was overqualified. Ms. Sadow, formerly the chief nutritionist for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in refugee camps in North Africa, went to Washington to speak directly with Sargent Shriver, then director of the corps. Her case was reviewed and she was sent to Sierra Leone, where she spent 20 years.
Sitting in a Boston hotel room decorated with tepid pastels, Long looks at home; and then you think he would be at home anywhere. He seems like the sort of person who carries his home within himself.
``You have to have a little bit of longing for something like intrigue. I've always had a love for moving; I worked [for AT&T] in 19 states. I was never anchored or rooted.... I was never rooted that deep,'' he says, laughing again.
Long grew up ``in the middle of a forest'' in Maine, he says, where he started out as a lumberjack. ``I come from a building family,'' he explains. Which is probably why he doesn't make a big deal about the difficulties of construction in places like Burkina Faso. ``Building is building,'' he says. ``Building a line, or building a lean-to, is building.''
Resources are scarce, of course, and a lot depends on picking the right people to help you, he says. He once chose two assistants by watching six men dig with a shovel: ``To handle a shovel well takes a little bit of intelligence,'' he explains.
Long is a short man, about 5 feet, 2 inches, barrel-chested, with long arms and big workman's hands. He is is proud of his skill; a skill is ``something adventurers have to have,'' he says.
``The school I designed - my trademark is the cupola. That's a trademark I left in Africa. It's for ventilation: The downstairs is washed automatically,'' he says, moving his hands in a sweeping motion, pushing out imaginary hot stale air.
He is now introducing his cupolas to Costa Rica. ``All the buildings in Costa Rica are sealed tight. I just cut holes.''
The conversation sprawls dizzyingly but matter-of-factly from one small, obscure country to the next. Long talks with compassion about the hardships people experience in Africa, telling about people who walked 4 miles, from zero to 1,200 feet in elevation, to work for him, for which the government paid them 42 cents a day.
``They have to pay more for their rice than you pay over here,'' he says emphatically, and you think about the unfairness of it. ``They would not even be able to buy a bag of rice for a month's work. Eggs are 70 to 80 cents here; there, they're $3 to $4 a dozen, because they can't raise a chicken the way you do over here.
``It's not because people don't want to work and don't want to take care of themselves. But there's no work. Some people here don't quite understand that. You have to be exposed to it the way I have, to realize the full impact.''
The heartbreaking side of his work is one reason he gets a little impatient with any romanticizing about life in Africa.
``I went there because I knew I could render service,'' he says. ``I did not go to Africa to learn their way of life.''
He does not feel that the Peace Corps is for every retiree. ``Lots of older people say, `I'd like to do something more,''' he says. ``It's difficult for them to cut loose. The language is what stops them. Even for some of the young people.''