By ETHAN BUTTERFIELD
Eagle Staff Writer
Special to The Eagle
Nelson with his future wife, Gerlane, in João Pessoa during Carnival in 1964.
The Peace Corps is where Nelson Jacob found himself.
It’s also what has guided much of his life so far.
The 61-year-old, who spent 30 years working with the Agriculture Extension Service, traveled through Brazil, Armenia, Texas and South Carolina helping 4-H youth groups develop agricultural skills and youngsters in rural areas learn about what it takes to be a leader.
And in the process Jacob met his wife, raised two kids and developed his own philosophy on life.
He now teaches an introductory sociology course at Blinn College and serves as the Peace Corps campus representative at Texas A&M University.
Jacob, the first A&M student to volunteer for the Peace Corps, had never left the state of Texas before he joined in 1962. Within three months of signing on, he traveled to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico for training, and then to Brazil to take part in a 4-H rural youth development program.
Jacob identified with President John F. Kennedy’s call to civil service when he founded the Peace Corps in March of 1961.
“I grew up in a home with Christian values,” Jacob, who grew up the son of a farmer in Goliad, said. “The notion of being of service was something that was part of what belief is all about in terms of doing something — and helping other people that might not be so privileged.”
In 1999 Jacob retired after 30 years with the Agricultural Extension Service, now called the Cooperative Extension Service.
From his modest, sparsely decorated office in the John J. Koldus Building, Jacob said he credits his father’s philosophy on farming with teaching him to strive to help people.
Special to The Eagle
Nelson in Serraria in the early '60s.
“He always had this concept,” Jacob said. “The idea is, this is not our land. It’s just loaned to us for a time to live on it. And so we have a responsibility to leave it in better shape than we found it in. I guess that stuck in my mind. And that concept I transferred to how I dealt with people. That I have the responsibility with people, as I form relationships, to do whatever I can to enrich their life by virtue of the fact that I’ve been part of their life. To me that’s made sense, and I guess is what has guided my life ever since.”
That way of thinking prompted Jacob to leave A&M during his junior year to teach agricultural techniques to people so far from home. Maybe he should have been nervous about leaving everything he knew behind, but Jacob wasn’t.
“I guess I was just kind of a starry-eyed idealist,” he said. “I didn’t know enough to be nervous, to be honest. I was 20 years old, and I had never been out of the state of Texas. Brazil? What does a kid know about Brazil? Jungle and big snakes.”
Jacob’s parents, who also had never been out of Texas before, didn’t make an issue of his leaving.
“I know they had apprehensions,” he said. “Here I was dropping out of college to join the Peace Corps. Yet they never once came to me and said, ‘You really should re-consider this.’ I think they had the confidence in me at that state, even though I was only 20, to say, ‘You’re making a decision and you understand that the consequences are totally yours.’ And I think, for many young people, that’s a decisive point in their life. To do something that’s uniquely theirs. And if it’s good, they can lay claim to it. And if it’s not so good, well you live with it, and learn from it.”
During its early years, the Peace Corps contracted out to other organizations to run its programs abroad. The 4-H Council was running the program in Brazil, and that was a perfect fit for Jacob, as he had been involved with 4-H from the age of nine through high school.
After high school Jacob followed an older brother to Texas A&M and into the Corps of Cadets. Jacob heard about the Peace Corps in the summer of 1961, after his sophomore year at A&M, when a trusted family friend recommended it to him, and applied right away.
He did not hear back from the Peace Corps until December, when he received an invitation to train for six weeks at the National 4-H Center in Washington D.C. Then it was off to Puerto Rico for physical training in outdoor survival. Next stop was Brazil for intensive language training in Portuguese, the national language of Brazil. Jacob had no knowledge of Portuguese before the Peace Corps. But he had plenty of incentive to learn, and learn quickly.
“Nothing beats feet on the ground, and surviving in a rural area where nobody spoke English,” Jacob said. “And my job was all about communications skills anyway, so there was an incentive to learn. And of course, being young, and all the beautiful Brazilian girls around, I wanted to express myself eloquently.”
For his first two years in Brazil, Jacob was stationed in Serraria, a town of 2,000 residents in the northeast part of the country. During his first year, Jacob visited communities, talked with local children and their parents, started youth 4-H clubs (called 4-S in Brazil), and introduced small-scale agricultural projects that local youths could take on to provide extra income for their families.
At the end of his first year Jacob met a Brazilian girl named Gerlane. The two would marry two years later. Now, 37 years later, they are still married, have two children, including one who has married a Brazilian and lives in Brazil. And they have just bought a condominium in Gerlane’s hometown of Joao Pessoa, where they plan to spend much of their time.
Jacob’s courtship of Gerlane consisted mostly of letter writing, as there was no phone service in the rural parts of Brazil at that time.
“I met her, interestingly enough, at my first Carnival, which is like Mardi Gras,” Jacob said. “Of course in Brazil, it’s country-wide, everybody celebrates Carnival.
Special to The Eagle
Dr. Nelson Jacob, in his office in the Koldus Building, was the first Texas A&M student to join the Peace Corps.
“During that first night, a Peace Corps buddy of mine was dating my future wife’s cousin,” Jacob said. “So I said, ‘Who’s that good-looking girl?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s her cousin. I’ll get you introduced.’ And the rest is history.”
During his remaining three years in Brazil, Jacob moved from Serraria to the central part of the country for one year, then finished his time as a roving Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, overseeing 12 teams of volunteers in two different Brazilian states.
When Jacob finished his time in Brazil he had a choice to make: Go back to A&M, or go fight in Vietnam? Jacob chose school. Gerlane moved to College Station with him, and within a year the two had their first child, a daughter.
Jacob finished his undergraduate degree at A&M in 1968 with a major in sociology, and went on to get his masters in sociology as well. In 1971 it was back to Brazil for more Peace Corps work, this time as the Amazon regional director. From 1974 to 1978 Jacob worked in South Carolina with Clemson University’s extension service before returning to A&M to work on his doctorate in educational administration.
Jacob finished his doctorate in the 1980’s while in Corpus Christi working as a 4-H development specialist, doing leadership skills work with kids in 30 to 40 counties in south Texas. In 1990 Jacob returned to A&M, doing more extension service work. In 1997 he headed to Armenia for two years to help on another agricultural program. In February of 1999 Jacob retired from civil work after three decades of service.
Since Jacob volunteered for the Peace Corps, which recently celebrated its 42nd anniversary, more than 450 A&M students have signed up. Currently, 25 A&M graduates work for the Peace Corps in countries ranging from Honduras to Samoa to Guyana and Kazakhstan. While there aren’t as many A&M graduates volunteering as he would like, Jacob said he is just happy to still be involved.
“Obviously there’s a significant age difference,” he said. “But I feel that I can instill a certain confidence in young people who are considering Peace Corps service, in a sense that I am able to talk to them about how valuable it was to me, in terms of my own professional and personal development, along with the opportunity to make a contribution.”