Remembering Jack Prebis (1933-2015)
by Dick Lipez (Debre Marcos, Addis Ababa 1962–64)
Edward John “Jack” Prebis, 82, died at his home in Leverett, Massachusetts, on October 22, 2015. Jack had suffered from a number of ailments the last few years, and in the end they all ganged up on him fatally. In the weeks preceding his death, Jack had been looked after by many friends and neighbors who loved him. Among them were pals from Ethiopia I Peace Corps days, 1962-64.
Jack’s obituary in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on December 5, written by his nieces back in the Midwest, describes his childhood on a Wisconsin farm and then growing up and going to college, Loyola University, in Chicago. After two years in the Army, Jack worked at a bank. Pretty bored by that, and with a strong sense of wanting to be socially useful, he joined the Peace Corps and soon found himself in Gondar, Ethiopia.
In Gondar, Jack taught math and science at the secondary school. His organizational skills, calm demeanor, and his nice way with people soon led to administrative duties. He was a kind of assistant headmaster who was much respected at the school.
After two years, Jack was one of a number of Ethi Ones who followed Ethiopia country director Harris Wofford back to Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. Jack’s job for a year was developing the Book Locker that each Volunteer household received back in those days. He later described it as “the best job I ever had.” Jack picked all of the 250 titles and managed to include, despite State Department anxiety, Catch 22. (He gave in and deleted No Exit. Which was just as well — “Hell is other people” isn’t an appropriate Peace Corps mantra.)
Jack loved his Peace Corps/Washington job. The agency, he later wrote, was “fresh, free-wheeling and un-bureaucratic, shot through with idealists.” But Ethiopia called once again, and after a year in DC he returned to Addis Ababa as an Associate Country Director. Among his worthy tasks was getting Volunteers out of big-town clusters and into remote burgs that had been left out of the first wave of American teachers that hit the country in 1962.
Post-Peace Corps, Jack worked as a Volunteers in Service to America administrator for several years, overseeing the work of VISTA volunteers across the lower 48, as well as in Alaska and the South Pacific.
From 1974 to 1994, Jack was back in Washington at OPM, the Office of Personnel Management. He eventually became, in effect, the chief financial officer for the entire federal bureaucracy. This was a very-big-deal job — he had a corner office with a flag next to his desk — but he approached it with the same mix of modesty and put-in-an-honest-days-work that was characteristic of everything he did. At OPM, Jack’s droll humor stood him in good stead, too. In an essay about his earlier Book Locker job, he wrote, “Sad to say, as a financial management bureaucrat for the Feds, I no longer get paid for reading fiction. Though I sometimes wonder . . .. ”
After Jack retired and moved to Massachusetts near some of his old Gondar friends, he continued to travel, which he loved, and take pictures, at which he excelled. There’s a plan to get his exquisite Ethiopia photos into the Ethiopia/Eritrea Peace Corps collection at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.
Jack also collected art and Amish quilts. He went bungee jumping in New Zealand and took flying lessons briefly. As his Daily Gazette obituary pointed out, “He was always proud of his Polish roots and enjoyed studying his family history.”
Jack is survived by his sister Jean Prebis and her partner Judy, by several nieces and nephews, and by many grand-nieces and grand-nephews in Wisconsin. I met two of his nieces, Jean Schmidt and Mary Ann Eidem, and the wife, Jan Helfenberger, of a nephew, at an Amherst get-together a few weeks after Jack’s death, and they all spoke lovingly about “adventurous” Uncle Jack.
His beloved greyhound, Cookie, has found a new home she reportedly likes.
I have a lot of fondly remembered Jack Prebis travel stories, including some recent ones about visiting Thailand and rural Laos with him and our friend Jane Campbell Beaven, who was on the Ethiopia staff with Jack back in the ’60s. One my favorite Jack-out-in-the-world stories is from 27 years ago.
In 1988, at the height of the Mengistu horrors in Ethiopia, Jack and I went back there as journalists. I had wangled an assignment from the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post. Ostensibly, we would report on two PCVs returning after 25 years. Our visa applications said we wished to report on “developments in secondary education.” Our real aim, of course, was to do a job on the Mengistu regime, and I think whoever approved the hard-to-get visas probably knew what we were up to and had his own reasons for giving the okay.
Jack, meanwhile, came up with an additional wrinkle. Mengistu was in a bloody war with, among others, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. An Eritrean acquaintance of Jack’s in Washington said we really ought to visit the EPLF in rebel-held Eritrea and tell the story of what many at the time considered Africa’s most humane liberation army. Jack managed to obtain an assignment from Mother Jones magazine; he would take pictures and I would report and write the story of the EPLF’s noble cause. (Later on the EPLF morphed into something dreadful, but at the time, who knew?)
So. After two weeks in Addis (where a former student of mine told me with a laugh that people were talking about Jack and me as “those two CIA guys”), we made our way to Khartoum and then to Port Sudan, where the EPLF had an office. Nobody there knew quite who we were — word from DC hadn’t made it through — but a Toyota Land Cruiser was soon leaving for “the field,” and we were welcome to ride along. Among my vivid memories of that night-time bumpy ride on a dirt track down the Red Sea coast is one of Jack in the backseat next to a guy with an AK-47 that was lodged between the soldier’s knees and aimed pretty much at Jack’s head. From up front, I heard Jack say, “Hey, would you mind pointing that thing in some other direction?”
I asked him later if it was at that moment that he started having second thoughts about what our friends in Addis were discreetly referring to as “Dick and Jack’s other visit.” He said something like, “Mmm.”
We spent ten days in the mountains, traveling only at night with the car lights out, mostly up and down dry stream beds. We visited EPLF installations — schools under trees; a schoolbook printing operation; the EPLF political capital in a stone hut in Orota; and a pharmaceutical factory in a cave. We interviewed top EPLF officials — not including Isaias Afewerki, who was at the war front, which we chose to avoid — and we talked with Ethiopian prisoners of war. Most of them were young men who had been dragged off schools yards unwillingly to fight for Mengistu. They reminded us of our students 25 years earlier, and it was painful to see these kids huddled on a hillside, hot and bored, surrounded by armed guards and doing nothing, their young lives wasted.
Among Jack’s terrific pictures of that trip is one of an angry tribal woman, part of a group whose village had been bombed by Ethiopian MIGs. She told us that the EPLF had provided her with powdered milk and with wheat (pilfered from USAID in Sudan). But, she asked, trembling with rage, “Where am I supposed to get any coffee?”
War is hell, but sometimes it’s just heck, and that can be bad enough. Jack’s pictures show both.
The EPLF kept us safe, and they housed and fed us as well as they could. We ate donated corn flakes in Maltese Tang and tinned anchovies with pasta. We got sick, but we didn’t get shot. Unfortunately, the Mother Jones editor who assigned the story left the magazine while we were incommunicado, and the new editor wasn’t interested in the EPLF. Our story never ran (we were given a puny kill fee), though the magazine did use some of Jack’s photos in a brochure. (The Washington Post story did run and helped spread the word of harsh life under Mengistu.)
The EPLF adventure was in important ways a fiasco. But here’s something that happened that made it all worthwhile. The EPLF fighters and volunteers were wary of visitors like us. Other journalists had come and gone, and nothing had changed for these freedom-fighters living tough, dangerous lives in the wilderness. But for Jack and me the cool skepticism that we met vanished whenever we mentioned that we weren’t just reporters, but that we had been Peace Corps Volunteers. Men and women would break into grins, and greet us, and tell how years before they had been taught English or typing or maths in Asmara by Miss so-and-so or Mister so-and-so. Now they were using the skills they had been taught by PCVs to free their country, and they recalled their Peace Corps teachers with fondness and gratitude.
I loved it that Jack, a guy at a desk in DC, had had the casual gall to lure me into this mis-adventure that turned out not to do much for the Eritrean cause, but did so much to add to our own ongoing education about the worth of the Peace Corps and its place in Ethiopian and Eritrean history. We talked for years afterwards about our visit to “the field” and what it meant to us. It was characteristic of Jack that he would roll his eyes and shake his head over so much about that trip. (I’m sure that well-mannered Jack was aghast that I got into an argument with a swindling taxi driver in Port Sudan and yelled at him that Jack and I were going to walk the four miles to the EPLF office.) But as with so much of Jack’s rich good life, he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
After his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia, Dick Lipez worked for three years as a Peace Corps program evaluator. Later he worked in community action before becoming a journalist and fiction writer. He writes a series of private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson, and reviews books for The Washington Post. Lipez is married to sculptor and video artist Joe Wheaton. They live in Becket, MA.