Nancy Salas -- fell in love with Peru in Peace Corps
Sunday, August 20, 2006

by Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer

It was a blue-sky spring day in Berkeley 44 years ago when a young department-store employee discovered the power of a single speech to dramatically alter the course of a human life.

Nancy Norton Salas, who died Aug. 12 at her Oakland home at age 70, was a 26-year-old dress buyer for Capwell's department store when she joined the throng of 88,000 people who packed Cal's Memorial Stadium on March 23, 1962, to hear President John F. Kennedy. It was reportedly the largest crowd ever to attend a Kennedy speech.

Kennedy's idealistic vision inspired her to immediately quit her job and join the fledgling Peace Corps, which sent her to Peru for two years and launched a lifelong attachment to that Andean nation and culture, said Mrs. Salas' daughter, Caty Salas, also of Oakland.

"She said she had been dissatisfied with the idea of gauging whether she was doing a good job by how much money she made," her daughter said. "She said when she heard the speech, something just clicked. It was one of those 'Ah-ha!' moments."

That was one year after the Peace Corps was founded under Kennedy, who had urged the nation to embrace public service.

"We were all very idealistic," recalled Sandy Del Prado, Mrs. Salas' Peace Corps partner in Peru. "We all followed what President Kennedy said: 'Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.' "

Mrs. Salas, who didn't speak Spanish, was sent for a crash course in the language in Puerto Rico, and by June, she had arrived with the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers initially sent to Peru. She served first in the coastal town of Chimbote and then in the small village of Huarocondo in the high plain above Cusco, her daughter said.

She and Del Prado organized a school breakfast program to help provide good nutrition for children, Del Prado said.

A letter that Mrs. Salas wrote from Peru on the occasion of Kennedy's assassination in 1963 won praise from Peace Corps administrators and was published in the "Peace Corps Reader," a 1967 publication that also included such notables as Bill Moyers, Sargent Shriver and Arnold Toynbee.

Her letter described the tears, tolling bells and grief among the residents of the village where she lived.

"Huarocondo is mourning," she wrote. "Everyone knows the president of the U.S. ... They know we are here because of John Kennedy. They know we are sad because he is dead. They love us, so they are sad too."

A native of Normal, Ill., who moved to California after graduating from Northwestern University in psychology in 1957, Mrs. Salas returned to Oakland and her job at Capwell's after her Peace Corps service ended in 1964.

In 1966, her love of Peru drew her back for a vacation, on which she met a Peruvian named Luis Salas. They married two weeks later and remained together until her death.

The couple settled in Oakland, where Mrs. Salas worked for nearly 25 years at Fruitvale Elementary School, first as a volunteer aide and later as the de facto librarian and as a secretary in the office. Her popularity with the students earned her "a huge pile of mail" every year on Secretary's Day and "an insane number of trick-or-treaters on Halloween," her daughter said.

She also became a passionate Oakland A's fan.

After retiring from the school in 2000, she and her husband realized their dream and built a second home in Peru -- in Urubamba, "just down the road from Calca, where they had met," said Caty Salas.

"She loved Peru so much, we decided to build a little house," her grieving husband said, pausing, his voice choked with emotion.

They spent half of each year there, not just in retirement but also working with Del Prado as volunteers providing medical treatment for indigenous Peruvians in need of care.

Mrs. Salas suddenly collapsed in her home in Peru in March 2005. A brain tumor had been produced by an aggressive form of cancer that eventually caused her death, her daughter said.

"She was very warm and caring and a very giving person and volunteered up until the last year before her death," Del Prado said by phone from Peru. "She loved working with children. She was respectful and loving to many different cultures."

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Salas is survived by her son, Steven Salas of Santa Cruz, who also served in the Peace Corps; brothers John Norton of Boston and James Norton of Denver; and half-brothers Dee Norton of Iowa City and Reeve Norton of Springfield, Ill.

At Mrs. Salas' request, no memorial service is planned. Her ashes will be scattered in Peru.

The family requests any donations be sent to the Faces Foundation, 8425 S.W. Ridgeway Dr., Portland, OR 97225. The foundation works with the Kausay Wasi medical clinic in Peru, where Mrs. Salas and her husband volunteered. "Kausay Wasi Clinic" should be written on the lower left corner of checks.

Source: Article in SF Chronicle, Aug 20, 2006

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