Retired HFC English instructor publishes second memoir
It was President John F. Kennedy’s famous words from his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that inspired retired HFC English instructor Ed Demerly to join the Peace Corps.
“It was part of my lust for adventure. It wasn’t only JFK who influenced me. Of course, the Peace Corps wouldn’t have been created without his initiative, but my study of literature – primarily British literature of Africa and India and other exotic places – fascinated me. I was also influenced by missionaries who visited annually in my small-town rural church. The Peace Corps was an opportunity to see the other side of the world – free of charge and with a little bit of pay, which was a pittance,” said Demerly, laughing.
Demerly lives in Bloomfield Hills with Martha, his wife of nearly 40 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.
“Living in the Ulu”
Demerly chronicles his two years in the Peace Corps with his second memoir, Living in the Ulu: Letters from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, 1967-68 (Mission Point Press). Fortunately for him, most of Living in the Ulu (pronounced "Oo-loo") was written more than 55 years ago. Demerly used the letters he wrote to his parents, averaging three per month for his two years in the Peace Corps. To his surprise, his mother saved them and even kept them in chronological order, making it easier for him to adapt them for this book, which includes 70 photos.
Demerly joined the Peace Corps after completing 2½ years in the U.S. Army, where he trained as an Airborne Ranger and served as an officer in the Army Medical Services Corps.
“Because I had no teaching jobs lined up, and no personal commitments, I applied. I trained for three months for the Peace Corps in Hawaii. I lived in an abandoned sugarcane workers’ shack with an outdoor toilet and one cold-water faucet.” He added with a laugh: “It certainly wasn’t the Waikiki Hilton.”
During his time in the Peace Corps, Demerly taught all subjects at an Australian mission elementary school called Holy Cross School in a small rainforest village in North Borneo, Malaysia. Because this state in Malaysia had joined the Malaysian Federation only four years prior to his arrival after years of British colonialism, classes were still taught in English.
“In the years since I left, through their efforts to unify the country using Malay, many Muslim teachers fluent in standard Malay were brought in to teach in this Christian school. Malaysia is a Muslim state. On my return to Borneo in 2009, I was heartened to see how Christians and Muslims worked with each other and respected each other. It was certainly a model for the rest of the world,” said Demerly.
The "real" Peace Corps experience
Where he was stationed, there were no telephones, electricity, radios, running water, or any kind of amenities. There were, however, plenty of large fruit bats, fire ants, feral dogs, monsoons, and home-dwelling lizards that occasionally fell from the ceiling.
“In a strange way, those weren’t really hardships for me,” confessed Demerly. “I expected it. When I was training for the Peace Corps, we were told we’d end up assigned in places with these conditions. I sought that because I wanted the 'real Peace Corps experience.' Those were conditions I could deal with. Ranger training in the Army was pretty spartan also, living in swamps and mountains for six weeks. My early childhood was, too; for the first 10 years of my life, I lived in near poverty.”
The Peace Corps made sure Demerly received all the proper vaccinations. He also took his anti-malaria pills, slept under a mosquito net at night, and took other preventive measures on a regular basis. Other than food poisoning and a foot infection, he didn’t come down with any of the ailments common in the area.
“Walking through water up to my knees during monsoon season to get to the school was more circumstantial than challenging,” he said.
What was challenging for him, however, was the work itself.
“The work I signed on to do was hard. Fortunately, I loved my work. We seldom had enough teachers for the school. There were no supplies, very few textbooks. We had a chalkboard, which was about it. A lot of it was creative teaching, I’d say, but even that challenge I welcomed,” he recalled. “This was the first generation of educated children in this village. Their parents couldn’t read or write, nor help them with their homework. For the most part, the children were enthusiastic learners, and it was rewarding to see their growth.”
The culture shock Demerly experienced wasn't in the Peace Corps. It was returning to the U.S. afterward.
“Three months of Peace Corps training was very effective in introducing us to the language, foods, customs, clothing, history, political system, religious practices, and so much more," he said. "For me, the greater cultural shock occurred when I returned home. it was a time of anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, the presence of hippie culture, heavy meals, cold weather, and mini-skirts.”
Returning in 2009
The last few chapters are about Demerly’s return to the village in 2009.
“I hardly recognized it!” he said. “It now has electricity!”
There is a road -- more like a logging trail -- through what was the rain forest that leads to the village. A former student drove him to the village via car instead of traveling four hours upriver by boat, as he did in the 1960s.
There is even a cell tower on the hilltop of the village, allowing the villagers access to the internet.
“When I visited one former student, his grandkids were on the floor playing video games!” he said. “We have a cottage in the middle of Michigan without any internet or cell phone reception, which is quite a contrast when you think about it. The Malaysian government has been forceful in bringing modern life to small villages.”
Demerly keeps in touch with the villagers through Facebook.
“Times certainly have changed there, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing. “Because I am in contact with the village on Facebook, I’ll find a way for my former students to read about the life I once shared with them.”
The right kind of person
Looking back on his two years in the Peace Corps, Demerly enjoyed the adventure of it all.
“I was really attracted to a culture that isn’t American and grew to appreciate values that we don’t see in this country very often,” he said.
He does recommend that people join the Peace Corps, but with the caveat that it isn’t for everyone.
“It’s got to be the right kind of person,” said Demerly. “When I trained for the Peace Corps – I’m not sure how it works today – there were 120 who started in my group, but only 80 of us joined. Some chose to leave during training, realizing it was much more difficult than they expected, or they were asked to leave the program. The Peace Corps wanted volunteers who could succeed in that kind of environment. It is work. It is a job. You have a job to perform and you’re representing the United States in a way. The Peace Corps wants good representation. For many of the former Peace Corps volunteers I’ve met, serving in the Peace Corps was the most memorable and rewarding years of their lives, and very fulfilling.”
Peace Corps training led to HFC
Born in Owosso just weeks before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Demerly was the second of five children and the first in his family to attend college. He was salutatorian of the class of 1959 at Perry High School.
He earned a full scholarship to Michigan State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in English and his secondary education teaching credentials. During his time at MSU, he was required to take two years of Reserve Officers' Training Corps. He opted to continue in ROTC for two more years, earning a second lieutenant’s commission before enlisting in the Army full-time.
After his service in the Army and the Peace Corps, Demerly earned his master’s degree in English at MSU through the G.I. Bill. He later earned his elementary school teaching certification from Eastern Michigan University.
Demerly taught for 46 years, 10 in the Dearborn Public Schools. In 1979, he began teaching at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) where he stayed for 36 years. Due to his experience in the Peace Corps, Demerly was hired at HFC to teach ESL, as the regular ESL teacher was on leave. Demerly reads and speaks French, Malay, and Kadazan (which, during his time in the Peace Corps, was an unwritten language).
Demerly's assignment was supposed to be a one-year term at the College. But the regular ESL teacher never returned, allowing Demerly to remain at HFC. During his time at HFC, he founded the English Language Institute (ELI) in 2001. He retired in 2008 but continued teaching part-time until fully retiring in 2014.
Better than earning the big bucks
In retirement, Demerly wrote his first memoir called First Years: A Farm Boy Faces the Future – A Memoir. Then came Living in the Ulu.
“As I was reading through the letters that I had written to my parents, memories came rushing back, many I’d forgotten about. It was a great trip down memory lane for me,” he said. “Now that the book is out and I’m getting responses, it’s gratifying to recognize that people who read the book are interested in what Peace Corps service was like in its pioneering years.”
Writing Living in the Ulu has been a very rewarding endeavor.
"Like my first book, it’s not a great moneymaker unless your name is Stephen King or James Patterson or if you’re some famous actor, athlete, or politician writing a book. It's unlikely you'll reap a fortune,” he said. “Even with my first memoir, I was touched by the way my story resonated with readers whose childhoods were absolutely nothing like mine. That has been very rewarding to me to see how they connected with my experience in some way. To me, in my view, that’s better than getting the big bucks.”
An audiotape interview about Demerly’s Peace Corps experiences is at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. He also has given presentations and even donated artifacts from his time in the Peace Corps to the Detroit Children's Museum.