Operation Discovery

Amid the unsettled mix of optimism, experimentation, disruption, and social change that were the 1960s, Jeanne McGettigan (SFDS ’61-’67) recalls being part of a capstone character-building summer program at SFDS aptly named “Operation Discovery.”

The pilot project was launched in 1964 by the Archdiocesan Commission on Human Relations with a goal to “develop the hidden talents and to foster a sense of community responsibility” among mostly black youth in the low-income area around Most Precious Blood Parish in North Central Philadelphia. By 1966, the program had expanded to four other Philadelphia city parish neighborhoods – including SFDS — and one in Chester.

Students invited to SFDS (the Southwest Center) and the other centers were seventh, eighth and ninth graders from surrounding parochial and public schools, selected for good grades “and a keen  intellectual curiosity… no distinctions were made regarding race, nationality or religion…” This was notable at the time, since Civil Rights were still new. For SFDS participants, Jeanne recalls that the idea of parochial school students mingling with public school students was an exciting and strange experience!

What happened in the six-week program? In addition to creative classes, the Catholic Standard and Times noted that “Each center produces its own weekly newspaper, The Discovery Times…Frequent debates are held on questions related to teenage dress, civil rights, capital punishment, the minimum voting age and the high school ‘drop out’ problem…Basic logic,…parliamentary procedure and the art of conducting public meetings also form part of ‘Operation Discovery’s’ challenging curriculum…” along with “trips to area museums and historic places of interest….

Jeanne reports on the debate classes in which “I competed with what was really an essay (not a speech) on taking responsibility. I was in way over my head and other, public school debaters blew me out of the water.  As I mentioned to you, I remember best the comparative self-assuredness of the black students from public schools.  They demonstrated more confidence and much less deference to authority.  I was a bit in awe of them.”

In September, 1966, the Catholic Standard and Times reported that about 500 “Operation Discovery” students completed “a summer of discovery and learning Tuesday by visiting the Nation’s Capital and hearing an inspiring speech by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey” who “told of how he had to delay his education for lack of funds, but emphasized that he finally won his college diploma. Mr. Humphrey, chairman of the President’s Space Council, painted a rosy picture for the youngsters of the Nation’s capabilities in space. He predicted that the U. S. will put a man on the moon before 1971..and  ‘In less than five years, we’re going to have a village on the moon in the sense that a manned station will be set up to maintain scientific data.’” (Jeanne’s verdict: “He seemed ‘fake’ to me at the time, but I was probably suspicious of most adults who were overly jolly, as he presented himself”). 

The paper reported that “The final act of the six-week leadership development program was the placing of a wreath on the grave of President Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery.” It was a sobering moment after the optimistic pep talk: Kennedy – the first Catholic president and national emblem of youth – had been assassinated in November 1963, just a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. King would be killed in 1968. Americans landed on the moon in 1969. Sadly, moon villages never materialized and racial inequality never disappeared. “Operation Discovery” seems to have become lost in history, but could have had positive lasting effects: Jeanne reports “My experience with Operation Discovery was really the first time I had been encouraged to see myself as someone with an active role to play in the broader community.  I also recall enthusiastically grabbing hold of the idea that poverty was a problem that could be analyzed and, with sufficient good will, solved.” The challenge remains!

Operation Discovery Program Booklet, circa 1967
Operation Discovery students shown at one of the Centers

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