James Friel, Ohio State ’66, was a 17-year-old high school senior when President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. The program’s purpose was “to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”
At the time, Jim was senior class president, in the National Honor Society, and felt confident that he would be well-qualified for such an endeavor. He went to the local Peace Corps office on the campus of The Ohio State University and was sorely disappointed because they were not willing to admit him until he had a college education (a requirement then).
Following this direction, he decided to attend nearby Ohio State University, being the first in his family to go to college. While there, he was elected to the Ohio State Student Senate, representing his area of the state (Upper Arlington/Grandview).
Fraternity life was not a concept familiar to this college student. It was in the student senate where he met a young man who was president of the undergraduate class who also happened to be a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. There were a number of things that made joining a fraternity appealing to James. The Fraternity had a very diverse membership with many men from all over the United States, and some were returning from military service with the US Marines (making them a bit older than traditional students). Another key reason he decided to join the group was the 110-bed chapter house (meeting a need for housing) and the opportunity to serve as house manager (meeting a need for money to pay his dues, as dues were waived for the house manager in 1964). Being from nearby Grandview also made sense keeping the house manager nearby during the off months, to keep an eye on the house and manage the facility.
After college, Jim went straight to University of Toledo Law School and he graduated from there in 1969.
His interest in faraway places remained, and he decided to take an extended vacation to Europe after graduation. Providentially, on the plane or in the airport, he found a discarded book called How to See Europe on $5 a Day. His travel itinerary kept him in one place for a month at a time. Friel immersed himself in the local people, area, food, and culture.
While in Europe, he worked to meet locals and he discovered that developing friendships and conversations suited his interest to intimately experience the cultures in which he lived. Ironically, with the people he met, and in the conversations that locals had with an American, the beautiful state of California was a regular topic of conversation. Some compared the European city they were in to California. Others were simply Californians expressing their love for their home state. To further cement his eventual move to California, it was in the Ohio Zeta Chapter house where Friel had two Phi brothers from California: one who was a surfer and told tales of the sport thru college and the other was the quarterback of The Ohio State University football team, Don Unverferth, ’66, who went on to become a pioneering cardiologist helping to usher in the first heart transplants at OSU Medical Center.
After six months of traveling to England, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Majorca, and the Island of Ibiz, he returned to Ohio, sold most of his belongings, and moved to California. He started in Los Angeles working for trust companies in the area of estate planning and tax, pension, and profit-sharing plans. He first worked for Union Bank in Los Angeles and moved to San Diego about three years later.
One night in 1982 when he was thirty-seven years old, he was in a crowded restaurant, and across the room, he saw a woman who took his breath away. This beautiful actress and singer soon became his wife and the mother of four daughters.
By this time, his dream of joining the Peace Corps had faded. Through the years, as he raised his girls, he would tell his story of wanting to join, being denied, along with his wistful stories of his time in Europe. These stories kept that dormant dream simmering. But raising a family and working at the bank were his first priorities.
Though he and his wife eventually divorced, he remained close to his daughters. Each year, the five of them made sure to get together and discuss their annual goals, and work to put things in place in order to achieve those goals. This was a standing tradition. Even though he was traveling a conservative life plan, there was always an underlying willingness to take risks, and he often encouraged his girls to do the same.
It was at one of these meetings (the girls mostly grown and independent) that the tables were turned a bit, and instead of a dad encouraging his daughters to pursue their dreams, it was the daughters who were telling their dad that he should really consider his dream of joining the Peace Corps. They said, “you aren’t getting any younger and we think you should really do it before you turn seventy years old.” He was sixty-nine so it didn’t really take much to convince Jim that it was time to jump.
But before they helped him, there was one condition. The girls lamented that though they already knew their father as their dad, husband to their mom, they didn’t really know their dad as the young man he was in college, his dreams of the future, and wanted him to tell them about this time in his life. Jim began his story, and four-hours later, he realized a new dream was starting to take shape.
This was early 2012. His daughters were eager to help their dad succeed and each played a large role in the plan’s eventual success. Juliann, his youngest and who was applying for colleges herself, was best suited to help her dad with his application to the Peace Corps. It was his daughter Amanda, then studying English at UCLA, who helped him with his essays. Heather, a graduate of Cal Poly, and Shauna, an entrepreneur herself, were cheerleaders, that helped him stick to his task of accomplishing his goal.
Due to his age (and resulting conditions of having polio as a child), he visited his longtime doctor, Dr. Mittendorf, for physical sign off to join the Peace Corps. Fearing his doctor might put the brakes on, he asked if his doctor thought he was physically fit to serve with his unique health background? As providence would have it, Dr. Mittendorf had served in the Peace Corps himself years earlier, and as a Corps advocate, he strongly encouraged Jim to pursue his dream.
Generally speaking, joining the Peace Corps is not simple task. There are interviews, tests, preparation, training, and all kinds of criteria. His was the last class of Peace Corps teams to be admitted under the old standards, which had the average time of one-and-a-half years before a person was approved!
The good news was that Jim recalls after his three-and-a half-hour interview, he was told they had already decided to admit him, and that they would make sure it happened, whatever that took. Taking volunteers at sixty-nine years old was not exactly the norm, but Jim was enthusiastically given the green light by the Peace Corps administration. He was assigned to one of the Russian states. Shortly thereafter, and very unfortunately, due to political unrest and unsafe conditions for nationals, the Corps pulled the plug, and all Russian bound teams were told that their trips were cancelled.
Jim was very disappointed. He called his girls to tell them. He accepted the news with sadness but resolved that he had done as much as he could, and if the answer was no, he was going to accept it.
However, the Peace Corps wasn’t going to let Jim get away that easily. On another day while sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop, Friel received a second call from a representative from the Washington, D.C. office. This staffer recognized Jim’s extensive background working with youth during his time in California.
While raising his family, he had volunteered with after-school programs, with high risk youth, not always the same programs, but usually the same mission of helping urban youth succeed and achieve in life. Through these experiences, Friel developed strong motivational skills. As he spent time with those urban youth, he often told his stories of his European trip and his desire to join the Peace Corps. This also served to keep his dream alive, saying that in the telling he often visualized it being true.
Because of his volunteer experience with youth, he was a perfect fit for a trip being planned to Thailand. “Was he interested?” the staffer asked. Jim was ecstatic. He immediately called his girls. And he also immediately proceeded to tell his fellow Starbucks customers all about his admittance into the Peace Corps.
Training began in D.C., and the fifty-member group traveled to Thailand in late 2013. Each were billeted in Thailand homes for the first nintey days. Initial training was six days a week, ten hours each day, and lasted for those first three months. Providentially, the Thai home assigned to Jim (with its many extended relatives) consisted of three school directors and six school teachers. These relationships were pivotal when Jim was eventually living on his own and going to schools and working with his future camp leaders.
While in Thailand, he discovered he was one of the best on the team to “integrate” with the people around him. He talked to everybody. He ate out every meal, learning Thai customs, passions, culture, and winning the trust and friendship of the people he was in Thailand to serve. After an extensive three-month training, he was on his own. Because of his age, they allowed him to have his own apartment (many boarded with local families). Living alone didn’t keep Jim isolated though. At the end of three years, which included a one-year extension offered to only two of the group’s volunteers, he had worked with seven schools, 325 students, and was the only American in two of the villages where he lived. They loved Mr. Jim.
And he loved them. He spent three years falling in love with a culture and making an impact in this part of the world.
His daughters kept up with him on social media. Through that time, they were establishing their lives, building their careers, and meeting their future husbands. When Jim returned home, three of his four girls were engaged to be married and they all waited for him to return. Last summer he became very accomplished at walking his daughters down wedding aisles.
What he learned because of chasing this long-percolated dream?
“I would have been a terrible volunteer as a twenty- something. I am glad I waited and went when I did. The Corps is in desperate need of male volunteers. I have a passion for telling my story and encouraging others to dare to live their dreams.”
He has always allowed that adventurous, risk-taking mindset to have a place in the ordinary, day-to-day of living in the Western World. He kept it alive by talking about it to others. He allowed time in his daily life to get outside of his own little world, offering service to others. He was always willing to understand another’s culture and mindset, all while coming alongside, offering to be an advocate, and helping that other individual find his or her own grit to live a satisfying and successful life.
When he returned from Thailand in mid-2017, he chose to put to good use all that he learned by immersing himself in Thailand, and moved back home to Columbus after fifty years. He has two wonderful sisters in Columbus, and it’s a bit more central to his daughters.
Friel aims to meet two new people every day which is how this story started one day in the fall 2018 when a guy sitting in a coffee shop meets another guy standing in line for a cup of coffee.
These days Friel spends time presenting his experience to various service organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
Thank you to Richard R. Chene Jr., Allegheny ’84, for reaching out to General Headquarters so that we could share the story of Brother James Friel. Chene was in line at a coffee shop in Columbus, Ohio and noticed a man sitting at a table reading a book. The book title caught his eye, Falling Upward by Fr. Richard Rohr. Brother Chene approached the table and struck up a conversation with the man, James Friel. They realized quickly that they both shared The Bond of Phi Delta Theta. Through this exchange Chene learned of Friel’s Peace Corps work and felt it would be a story appreciated by other Phis.