E&E RPCVs
William Adam Kerske, 1940–1992
Peace Corps Volunteer 1962–64
Adi Ugri and Asmara, Eritrea, Ethiopia
As Remembered by Nyle Kardatzke, July 4, 2001

Bill Kerske and I shared a house in Adi Ugri, Eritrea, during our first year in the Peace Corps, in the academic year of 1962–63. Adi Ugri is a pleasant little city about 40 miles (54 kilometers) south of Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. Bill often said that our consistently sunny mornings reminded him of Southern California. We spent a memorable year there, teaching in the St. George Middle School and visiting nearby villages.

I first saw Bill Kerske in one of the dormitory lounges at Georgetown University during Peace Corps training in the summer of 1962. One of our group members, Tom Cutler, had been a member of the famous Wiffenpoofs at Yale University, and he was organizing a chorus of Peace Corps men. To set a high standard for the new group, auditions were organized for would-be Peace Corps Wiffenpoofs. I fancied myself a bit of a singer, so I went to hear the auditions. I don’t remember any of the other singers who auditioned that day, and I don’t even remember if I auditioned. All I remember is seeing a confident, stout redhead take his place beside the piano. Suddenly the room was filled with the most powerful tenor voice I had ever heard, singing a soaring aria. That was Bill Kerske, singing so magnificently that he may have intimidated all the other singers and killed off the idea of a Peace Corps Men’s Chorus.

Cynthia writes: The main memory I have about Bill from his students in Mendefera — they called him "Mr. Krispy, our teacher with his hair on fire!"

Directing the settling in
Bill and I arrived in Adi Ugri on a typically bright, clear day in September 1962, along with Cynthia Tse, Gloria Somple, and Jacqueline Woodson. (Bill and I were known as "The Boys," and Cynthia, Gloria, and Jacqueline were known as "The Girls." This didn’t seem sexist to us then, and it would seem artificial to change the terminology now. I apologize to all who are offended.) The "girls" were to live in a two-story house a mile or two out of town on the school compound. Bill and I were to share a two-bedroom house about 100 paces from the main circle in Adi Ugri. Our house was very comfortable, with running water, a flush toilet in a lean-to behind the house, and electricity from 4 p.m. until 6 a.m. every day.

When we arrived in Adi Ugri, our house was empty, as was the girls’ house out on the school compound. I believe we spent a few nights in the Adi Ugri Hotel, because I have no memory of sleeping on the floor. We received unfinished furniture for both houses: a wardrobe each, small couches, kitchen tables, desks, and beds. Bill immediately took charge of our group and had us sanding and varnishing the furniture. It was a wise investment of time, because it gave us a secure home base during the months of work that lay ahead. I think we finished the work in only a day or two.

Bill also took the lead in setting up our kitchen, our menu, and our health precautions. He must have read up on tropical diseases, because he knew that we had to boil our water for 30 minutes, and he knew that our fresh vegetables needed to be soaked in a strong soap solution and then rinsed in boiled water. Since he was a Californian, salads were far more important to Bill than to me, and I began to learn about good salads from him. I also learned of an exotic dish called lasagna when Bill ordered some at the local hotel. Bill was an enthusiastic eater, and he helped me learn to appreciate a number of Italian dishes prepared by our widowed cook. Bill was also a stern judge of food. One time when a dish turned out far below his standards, he jumped up from the table and threw the food into the back yard, evoking howls of remonstrance from our cook. I think that the offending dish was overloaded with rosemary, one of our cook’s favorite seasonings that Bill had asked her to use more sparingly. (With the help of our Headmaster, Iob Araia, we had hired an experienced cook and housekeeper named Lete Dehab Habut. Lete, as we knew her, adopted us as the sons she never had. She cooked, cleaned, and did laundry for us. She advised, praised, and scolded us, and she must have been praying for us during her daily 5 a.m. worship times at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.)

Bill, the man
The progression of events runs together in my mind, so I’ll provide scattered glimpses, rather than a chronology. First, Bill Kerske the man. He was very bright and energetic in his teaching of history. He prepared detailed lessons for his 7th and 8th grade students, and he challenged the students to think, speak, and write with clarity. Socially, he could be raucous and given to exaggeration and sweeping statements. It was sometimes difficult to tell when he was kidding, and sometimes hard to tell if he knew whether he was being serious. Mealtime conversations were always lively, because Bill seemed to have detailed knowledge of many subjects: history, politics, Western culture, and African lore.

Travels with Bill
A traditional wedding
One of the most memorable of the trips we took was to a village some distance to the east of Adi Ugri. One of our students, Tzeggai Woldat, had invited us to his sister’s wedding in the tiny village of Newih Zeban, meaning "Long Back." According to Tzeggai, the bride was "nine or eight years old." This was to be the formal wedding, after which she would continue to live with her family for several years before the marriage would be consummated. I believe that all five of the Adi Ugri Peace Corps teachers made the trip: Cynthia, Gloria, and Jackie, plus Bill and me. A group of villagers met us at the edge of Adi Ugri with mules they had brought from Newih Zeban for us to ride. The mule ride took at least four hours. It included a very steep trail down the edge of a cliff, made more challenging for the mules because of loose rocks the size of melons. We trusted the mules, and they didn’t fail us. At Newih Zeban we were seated as celebrity guests in a cool arbor of saplings and branches built especially for the wedding. There was speech making, hot tea, spicy meat, and cool drinks of meiss and soua, known in Ethiopia proper as t’ej and t’alla. The groom came on horseback and "abducted" the bride to his village.

Bill and I slept in sleeping bags in the compound outside one of the homes. Inside, a baby cried, cattle moaned, and sheep bleated, just like in Bethlehem. In the morning we had tea and bread, and the village elders lined up for pictures with us. We hiked two hours to a narrow track where we boarded a truck fitted out with a box on back for passengers. We bounced our way back to Adi Ugri seated on bags of grain, surrounded by curious villagers and indifferent sheep and goats. We had been farther away from our own culture than ever before. It was a wonderful stretch for our minds and emotions.

To the source of the Blue Nile by truck
Bill planned another great trip for Spring Break, 1963. Dozens of Mercedes trucks ("lorries," they were called) roared through our town every day. Some of them were carrying loads of cement to the great hydroelectric plant then being built at the T’is Abbai Falls on the Blue Nile River, about 500 miles south in Ethiopia. Bill gathered enough information to make the trip seem feasible, so we planned to go. Our good friend and fellow teacher, Isaac Joseph (Yisehak Yosief in Tigrinya) agreed to go with us, since he was the local Scoutmaster as well as our friend. On the appointed evening, we were introduced to a truck driver named Yasier who had stopped in town to eat. He agreed to let us ride on top of the bags of cement he was transporting to the construction site on the Blue Nile south of the new boomtown of Bahr Dar. Isaac translated for us; we shook hands all around, and Bill and I clamored atop the load to ride with the driver’s helper. We spent that night in our sleeping bags as the truck roared through the mountains south into Ethiopia. To avoid rolling off the truck and possibly into a chasm, we tied ourselves down by slipping our shoulders under the ropes that held the cement bags in place. After a brief stop in the ancient Ethiopian city of Gondar, we reached Bahr Dar on the third evening. While the truck was being unloaded the next day, we climbed down to the bottom of the first step of the Blue Nile Falls, known to Ethiopians as T’is Abbai, "The Smoke of the Abbai." Back up on top, we took pictures of Yugoslavian workers who were installing channels to direct water to electrical turbines beside the falls.

On our return trip through Bahr Dar, Isaac was able to find and take home with him a young relative who had gone there on an unsuccessful search for riches. The bus trip from there to Adi Ugri was spectacular but relatively uneventful, except for an Ethiopian princess who boarded the bus midway. Thanks to Bill’s initiative and determination, we had a wonderful adventure and helped bring home a wandering young man.

Summer break
Bill and I studied Tigrinya along with several other Peace Corps teachers in July of '63 with a fine Eritrean teacher named Musa Aaron from the Evangelical Mission School. The men stayed at the Peace Corps Transient House in Asmara during our three-week course of study. One evening several of us were finishing dinner at the house when we heard a strange, low rumbling sound. Only Bill — from Southern California — knew what it was. "Temblor!" he yelled, and we followed him in a mad scramble out into the street. It was my first earthquake, and it was a useful introduction to the others I later experienced in California.

In August, Bill and I traveled to the Middle East with five other Peace Corps people. Unfortunately, Bill became sick in Jerusalem and had to return to Asmara before the trip through Egypt and the Sudan.

A transfer to Asmara
After our first year of Peace Corps service, we had the option of continuing where we were, or requesting a transfer to another location in Ethiopia. Bill decided to move to Asmara, where he had many friends and where he could teach in an established high school. It was a good move for him both intellectually and socially.

While Bill was teaching in Asmara during the 1963–64 school year, he experienced two personal tragedies: both of his parents died within a short period of time. On each occasion, Bill flew to California for the funeral but returned to his teaching in Asmara. This was about the time of the Kennedy assassination, and that, too was a great loss for Bill. We never talked much about these sad events, but they must have affected him profoundly.

After the Peace Corps
Bill Kerske always knew what he wanted to be, and this amazed me, because I was merely a wandering opportunist, looking for direction in life. Bill knew all along that he wanted to study law at UC Berkeley and become an attorney. In fact, I think he had already been admitted to the Bolt Hall law school at Berkeley and had received a deferred admission so he could serve in the Peace Corps. In any event, he went directly back to the States in 1964 to begin his studies. After I returned to Indiana, Bill called me from California one very cold night. He reported that it was still light and warm there, while it was dark and cold in Indiana. Bill visited with my family and me in Ohio at Christmas time in 1965.

Bill went through law school according to plan — and I assume with flying colors — and he immediately got a job with a New York law firm. I saw Bill there for a brief but animated reunion, He shared some of his adventures as a young lawyer. He told of going to an aircraft company for a client — evidently an airline — to legally take possession of some passenger jets. Bill reveled in telling me how he, as a 26-year-old lawyer, had climbed over the planes to check serial numbers.

In September 1967, Bill was working in Southern California, but was preparing to move back to New York when I arrived for graduate school at UCLA. He complained about the irony of my moving there just when he was leaving. It’s too bad, because it would have been a great chance for us to know each other better and for me to learn about California from an expert.

Soon after that Bill took a job with the Coca-Cola Company in New York City, but he was soon in charge of their legal work for the Pacific Basin, and was based in Tokyo. He lived in Japan for many years before going to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta as one of their top legal people. Bill did what he had set out to do.

At least once during his world travels, Bill visited Adi Ugri and he was able to see our former cook, Lete, before she died in the 1980s.

As our lives rushed on, Bill and I had little contact for several years, only occasional cards at Christmas or when one of us was traveling or sometimes there would be a surprise phone call. When I was finally able to plan a trip to Eritrea in December 1994, I wrote to Bill at the last address I had for him in Atlanta. A week or so later I received a phone call from a friend of his there, telling me that Bill had died of kidney cancer in November 7, 1992.

During my Eritrean visit, many people in Eritrea asked about Bill Kerske. I met about 25 of our former students, and many remembered him well. They were shocked to learn that Bill had died at such an early age. Bill would have been saddened to learn that some of our students had died tragically in Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence. He would have been pleased to see how many of the survivors remembered him and how many had used their history as a guide in helping create a courageous new country. Bill would have been very proud to see that some of our 7th and 8th Grade students are now prominent leaders of the new, independent nation of Eritrea.

Note from the author: This essay was written from memory about events that happened nearly 40 years ago. Some memories are very clear, such as our experiences together in Adi Ugri, but others may be in error, including the path of Bill’s legal career. I’m not sure exactly when his parents died, either, and I only guessed that Bill was born in 1940. Corrections from those who know better are welcome. — Nyle Kardatzke

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