Commercial Appeal: Corker back where it all started

Oct 27, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Corker returned Friday to Haiti, the country he credits with first inspiring his entrance into civic affairs and public life.

Before leaving Washington for the two-day trip, he sat down in his private Dirksen Building office and talked about the role a church mission trip he took to the Caribbean nation in the early 1980s had in shaping his future.

It led, he said, to work in Chattanooga's inner-city, creation of a nonprofit program building low-income housing, selection by Gov. Ned McWherter to a low-income housing task force and, eventually, elective office as mayor of Chattanooga.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate last year.

"I don't know what life would have brought otherwise, but I know that no doubt the trip to Haiti laid the foundation for me to be sitting here ... today," he said. "I just know that a series of events occurred, if you will, after being touched, and being involved, that brought me more into the civic sphere."

He was a building contractor in his late 20s with a fast-growing business when his First Centenary Methodist Church sent about 12 people to build an addition to a school near Cap Haitien.

"I was at a point in life when I just felt I was very, very blessed, and I wanted to figure out a way to give back," he said. Working side-by-side with people whose family income was roughly $250 a year "was one of the most moving things I've been involved in in my life."

In the early 1980s, Jean-Claude Duvalier, son of the feared tyrant Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, held dictatorial powers in the country that was then and remains the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Following Duvalier's overthrow, the country was wracked by power struggles, a military coup and unrest until the constitutional government was restored in May 2006. A strong United Nations presence remains.

In the predawn mornings before going into the mountains to build at the school, Corker said he and a British missionary drove around the region. "It was just a really moving experience," he said.

And although there was a language barrier -- Corker didn't speak Haitian Creole -- the experience of laboring with Haitians was life-altering.

"To work with people who had so little but to see how warm-hearted they were, if you will, towards us, and so appreciative for anything we were able to do for them, was obviously very touching," he said. He said his first experience in public speaking came when he returned and was asked to address his church congregation.

Also on the trip was Dr. B.W. Ruffner, the recent interim dean of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis and a resident of Chattanooga.

"That was a profound trip for all of us," said Ruffner, 68, a retired oncologist.

The group was split into two teams, Ruffner recalled. He headed up a medical team and Corker, with his construction experience, was the foreman of the building effort. The group ran out of time and had to go home before the job was done, frustrating Corker, he said.

"I've actually got some pictures of Bob in a pair of cut-off Levi's -- sometimes with or without a T-shirt on, bending re-bar, pouring concrete, laying cinder block, just like a common laborer," Ruffner said.

And he recalled "Type A" Corker on his cell phone back to the office, running his company from the Haitian worksite. "He's one of those guys who never rests."

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