SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 23, 2008

Marblehead grandmother heads to Mongolia with Peace Corps

By Alan Burke

MARBLEHEAD — It's not your usual retirement plan.

At 65, Judy Gates can relax on her back porch and enjoy a spectacular view of Marblehead Harbor. It's the perfect spot for a rocking chair and a good book. But Gates doesn't want a rocking chair. And by the end of May, she won't have much use for the back porch either. In fact, on Friday she leaves for Mongolia — that's right, Mongolia — where she'll serve two years in the Peace Corps.

"We all have to figure out what is meaningful in our lives," she says. "One of the most important ways to find meaning is by trying to do things for others." She pauses, contemplating what lies ahead. "I'll probably gain far more than I give. ... I don't expect this to be easy. But at my age, I'm ready for a challenge."

Cincinnati-born, Gates moved to Marblehead with her husband, Bob, in 1965. They raised two children — by happenstance both are now in Brooklyn, N.Y., raising her grandchildren. Over the years, Gates worked at a number of jobs, learning, developing a strong affinity for computer technology, writing advertising copy, honing her skills in marketing and communication.

Once the kids were grown, she involved herself more closely in community activities, winning election as a library trustee, for example. "I've always been involved in nonprofit stuff."

Some of these talents, she hopes, will be of use as a Peace Corps worker.

"I began thinking about it a year ago," she says of her decision. "My husband had passed away (two years ago)." She looked off in the distance for a moment. "For me, that was a major transition." The Peace Corps was something from her college days, a newly formed institution then and a magnet for the idealistic.

"Many of my friends went into the Peace Corps. I thought it was the greatest thing."

When she decided last year to join a Corps program that encourages the participation of those over 50, she was allowed to state a preference as to where she would be posted. Gates left it all in the hands of the Peace Corps. "I just thought, 'Send me where you want me to go. Tell me what you want me to do.'" She expected to be dispatched to Eastern Europe. The name Mongolia had her running to the bookshelf. The first reference she found described the country, sandwiched between Russia and China, as "the back of beyond."

"I'm just trying to go without too many expectations," Gates says.

Even so, she's learned a lot already about Mongolia. It's a place of grasslands, ponies, mountains, lakes and a good chunk of the Gobi Desert. Nearly 1,000 years ago, its people under Genghis Khan — and without the advantages of a great civilization behind them — conquered much of the known world. Today, says Gates, roughly half the population remains nomadic.

"They are — as I often read — a proud, independent country."

Appreciates people

The language is a particular challenge. "I'm making my best effort," Gates says, "but it's not an easy one to pronounce."

She will be immersed for three or four months in language courses once she gets to Mongolia. Eventually, she will live with a Mongolian family far from the capital of Ulaan Bataar. There, Gates will be assigned a job. She's prepared for culture shock. Nearly everything and everyone familiar will fall away.

"I'm very collaborative. I like to work with people. I want to value and appreciate them." As a member of the Peace Corps, she may offer something to improve the lives of Mongolians, something that makes an enduring difference. "You want something to last."

Her safety in such an environment was a concern for her children. But they talked it over and concluded that the risks are acceptable. "In the Peace Corps," she says, "one of their prime concerns is your health and your safety. They're very careful."

And Gates won't be quite so alone. She hopes technology, especially the Internet, will allow her to keep in touch with home. Her blog, skyetalk.wordpress.com, will keep everyone informed of her progress. Likewise, she's involved in a Corps program, World Wise Schools, that will provide regular reports to her granddaughter's class in New York.

When she talks about the grandchildren, her resolve seems to flag a little and she grows wistful. "It's one of the things I had to think hard about. Do I want to be away from my two little granddaughters? They change so quickly at that age."

For that matter, not everyone can understand why a 65-year-old woman wants to live in "the back of beyond," perhaps under primitive conditions.

"People might say, 'Why don't you do something here at home, Judy?'" She will, she quickly replies, when she gets back. Meanwhile, she hopes to broaden her horizons and America's, too. When she does return, she is expected to tell anyone who will listen what she has seen, making her Peace Corps tenure a kind of cultural exchange.

At first, Gates was reluctant to discuss her plans. On her blog, she reveals that, "I had hoped to just slip out of town unnoticed." She talked to The Salem News because this kind of work is so important to her. She hopes others might be inspired by her example, moved to make their own contributions.

Not that she expects everyone will join the Peace Corps. At Judy Gates' stage of life, it's an unusual decision.

"And it's just what's appropriate at this time for me," she says.