George Derrick’s commitment to helping others began years before he became Oklahoma’s first Peace Corps volunteer in 1962.
It continued for years after he finished his Peace Corps tour in 1963.
It continues today.
The Oklahoma Returned Peace Corps Volunteer's Association honored his lifetime of service with a plaque during National Peace Corps Week in February.
But Derrick, 68, doesn’t seek the honors.
“I believe what the Bible says — ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” he said. “When I go help somebody, maybe the day will come when I need someone to help me. I don’t mind helping people, whether they’re young or old.”
This calling to help others has its roots in Muskogee County.
“I was raised in a community east of Oktaha, a little settlement called New Hope,” he said. “I had to ride the school bus from New Hope to Summit every morning. It came at 6:30. I had to get up at 4:30 every morning and milk cows because we sold cream. I’d ride home at five o’clock and milk cows again.”
The farm family knew the meaning of community.
“My dad and mom always helped when there was someone in the neighborhood in need,” Derrick recalled. “When we got old enough to help, they’d send us. If someone needed food, we’d take them food. If they needed wood cut, we’d go out and we’d cut wood. Whatever it was that we needed to do, we’d go help.
By the time he graduated from Langston with a degree in agricultural economics, Derrick learned about a new program that allowed him to combine his expertise and education with his desire to help others.
First foray to help the disadvantaged
John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 as an independent government agency aimed to send volunteers to developing countries.
George Derrick volunteered one year later.
“It was May, 1962, two weeks before I graduated,” he said. “I went to the registrar’s office at Langston and a man from the Peace Corps was in the office, and when I found out that they paid $75 a month living expenses and put $75 in the bank, depending on where you served, I signed up. In June, I got a letter saying I had to be in Norman on June 16,” he said.
From there, he went to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to learn Portuguese and study life in rural areas. He then spent one year in Monte Claro, Brazil.
“It was a town of 80,000 people, but no streets,” he said. “People were nice to you, but you always had to keep things to yourself. Crime was bad. Police would walk up to a teenage boy, take a bayonet and stick it in the ribs — kill him.”
Still, he said, people treated him nicely.
Derrick’s job in the Peace Corps was to help set up irrigation systems “so they can irrigate their rice fields.”
He said he was struck by “how backwards these folks were.”
“At night, I’d go into the school system and teach English and math,” he said. “There was a lot to do, lot to do. But you can see when you’re helping somebody, their attitude gets better.”
The usual term for a Peace Corps volunteer was two years. But, Derrick had spent only one year in Brazil when another government entity sent him to Vietnam.
Learning to help globally, locally
“When I came back from Brazil, I had to go into the military. I wanted to go into the Navy,” he said. “When I got out of boot camp, they made me a seaman and assigned me to scraping paint off ships. I said I wanted to go into the medical field. They said I’d have to stay another year. I said I didn’t mind. Helping became part of my life in the Navy.”
Derrick learned to be a dental technician and served as a medic in Vietnam and Guam for 19 months.
“I saw casualties,” he said. “The dead ones they sent back, and the injured ones. I saw a lot of that.”
After serving three years and four months in the Navy, Derrick was offered a teaching and coaching job in North Dakota.
“I went out there on a Saturday on Sept. 8, and the snow was almost waist deep. I told the principal I didn’t want the job.
After working as a bank teller, he got a management job with Goodyear. The job sent him to stores in Muskogee, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Tahlequah. He quit when they wanted to send him to Ohio.
“I wanted to stay in Muskogee,” he said.
After 11 years with Fort Howard Paper, he taught adult education for Muskogee Public Schools.
“I had a recurring stomach ulcer from Vietnam, and I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Sharing his time with the elderly
No longer working for a living, Derrick now lives to help others.
“I basically try to keep going with my stomach ulcer. I’m seeing three civilian doctors and go to the VA hospital,” he said. “I could do little more than help people. I do what I can.”
He still does a lot.
Early in the morning, Derrick goes across town to help some aging friends get their trash bins to the curb. He said he makes sure he gets the carts to the curb by 7 a.m.
“These are elderly folk who can’t handle the cart,” he said. “I always get up at 6 every morning unless I’m sick with my bleeding ulcer, then I have to be careful.”
For residents at Park Boulevard Care Center in Muskogee, Derrick is the ice cream man and the candy man.
“My wife got a beauty shop, “he said. “We just decided to do some good with the nursing home, so we decided to take ice cream bars there once a month. We’ve been doing it for seven years now.”
He said Ragsdale Funeral Home now helps pay for the ice cream.
Derrick also takes candy bars to the nursing home.
“I tell you, it’s something to see people with candy bars,” he said.
Meet George Derrick
HOMETOWN: New Hope area east of Oktaha.
EDUCATION: DuBois High School, Summit, 1957. Langston University, 1962.
CAREER: Retired, U.S. Navy, Fort Howard Paper, taught adult education for Muskogee Public Schools.
FAMILY: Wife, Stella.
CHURCH: Boulevard Christian Church.
HOBBIES: “It used to be fishing, but now I like to watch OSU play football and basketball.”
How did you come to be an Okie from Muskogee?
“My mom and dad both were getting old, and I wanted to do what I could to help them. They lived in Muskogee. When I worked at Fort Howard, I’d get up and fix breakfast and take it to my mother before work, and I’d always make it to work on time.”
What is the most memorable thing to happen to you since coming to Muskogee?
“I guess it was getting married. I just believed I probably wouldn’t ever get married. Then I came back to Muskogee and met my wife, and after three years we got married and we’ve been married ever since, 37 years.”
What person has had the most influence in your life?
“Mrs. Ella B. Smith, my teacher when I was in high school, DuBois High School in Summit, and Dr. H.L. Leathers. She (Smith) took me to college. I didn’t have any money and she said, ‘You’re too smart not to go to college. You just come right here to Muskogee, because I’m going to drive you to school.’
“Through high school, I worked for H.L. Leathers, an eye doctor. He sent me $60 a month for every month I was in school, and I took him my diploma and showed it to him.”
What do you like best about Muskogee?
“The people. The old folks here, a lot of them are ancient, but they’ve been nice. I’ve had a few run-ins with very few people.”
What would make Muskogee a better place?
“If they clean it up. Clean up the old houses that are dilapidated. And we have very bad streets, so improve the streets and improve housing.”
How would you sum up Muskogee to a visitor?
“I would just have to tell them, ‘Take your time, look around, meet people, go to church, everything will be all right.’”