RIP Russ Tershy: YCW and Peace Corps pioneer

Russell Joseph Tershy passed away on 29 June 2022, marking a century that began before the Great Depression and continued into the Internet age.

Russell Tershy believed in every person’s potential, and he believed that luck and circumstances, not ability, shaped people’s trajectories. He understood this first-hand. Tershy, born in Enid, Oklahoma, fled the Dust Bowl to California with his family in a Model-T Ford in the 1920s. He, his four siblings and his parents, Lebanese immigrants who opened a successful general store on the High Plains, lost everything and became migrant farm workers. They picked peaches in southern California, and through the generosity of a man who rented them a plot of land and a chicken barn in Robla, California but never collected full rent, the Tershy family emerged from financial ruin. They converted the barn into a home with a wood stove and an outhouse, and Russell helped grow and sell fruits and vegetables door-to-door. They started buying fruit from other farmers and reselling it to stores. By age 15 Russell was driving a truck full of fruit back and forth from Robla to Los Angeles and negotiating sales and purchases. Kindness extended was their luck.

Education was an engine of upward mobility for Tershy, as it was for so many Americans. He attended the one-room Robla Elementary school and New Deal era progressive Grant High School which sparked a lifelong commitment to education. His valedictorian speech was about the role of education in building a prosperous future. He attended Sacramento City College, the first member of his family to attend college. When World War II started, he left college to fight facism with the US Calvary. He was stationed on a cold, remote island off Washington State, but after his basic training IQ test was finally processed, he was sent to Stanford University where he spent two years studying Chinese language and culture, mule packing and survival in preparation to be parachuted with a mule into China to aid the resistance to Japanese occupation.

Much to his surprise, he was shipped off to the Philippines where he was retrained as a radio operator and undertook countless patrol missions searching for Japanese soldiers in areas transitioning from Japanese to US control. Next he was on a ship bound for the invasion of Japan and was then among the first groups of soldiers to land in the country after the Japanese surrender.

When he returned from the war after five years overseas, he visited his parents, sister and baby nephew in Robla. They then drove to San Francisco to visit two of his sisters, while his mother stayed behind with the baby. When he returned a few days later, no one answered the door. He climbed in through a window and found his mother dead, his baby nephew asleep in the cradle.

The family was convinced that his mother would have been alive had they been able to afford good medical care. Russell poured his grief into making money. With his father he rented and ran a residence hotel on Polk St in San Francisco. Within a few years they were making over $US300,000/yr in today’s dollars, and Russell was living the life in San Francisco.

His family was finally financially secure, but he lingered on his mother’s early death, the devastation of war he witnessed in Japan and the Philippines, and his family’s stint as entrapped migrant farmworkers, which they escaped with the help of the man who never asked for the full rent. He turned over the hotel business to his family and joined the Young Christian Workers, making less than $US6,000/yr in today’s dollars as a labor union organizer and poverty fighter.

He considered becoming a Catholic priest, got engaged, called it off and reconsidered priesthood before meeting his wife, Ellie Marie Sheridan, in the Young Christian Workers movement. They married in 1960 when they were both 39. Their son Bernie was born the following year, and Russell was recruited by the newly formed Peace Corps to be the Deputy Director for Bolivia. The new family lived in Bolivia for four years until one of Bolivia’s frequent coups forced the Peace Corps program out.

They returned to the US where Russell, thanks to the GI Bill and Stanford’s generous re-admission policy, resumed his college education after a ~20 year pause. His plan was to return to poverty fighting in Latin America armed with a new degree, but they decided to stay in the US when his 2nd son, Bill, almost died shortly after birth and was saved by the state-of-the-art medical care available at Stanford.

Russ Tershy

With renewed focus on poverty in the US, Russell co-founded the Center for Employment Training, a non-profit job training program. Their first office was a small outbuilding behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Jose, CA, which he shared with Cesar Chavez and the nascent United Farm Workers movement. The bond and close working relationship between the two organizations continues to this day. The Center for Employment training model was to accept all applicants, have them enter the training pipeline at whatever stage matched their level, and have them remain in the program until they were placed in a permanent job with a working-class, living wage. Independent research proved this to be the most effective job training model in the US. The San Jose Center for Employment training was replicated across the country and directly lifted over 200,000 families out of poverty and into the working and middle class. Its model became standard best practice for job training around the world.

After retiring from the Center for Employment Training, Russell, with his wife Ellie, his son Bill’s family and his nephew Joe Tershay, started the Montessori Community School in Scotts Valley.

Russell passed away at the home he shared with his wife Ellie (99 YO) and his son Bill & family. He was surrounded by family and friends. He was the oldest surviving World War II veteran in Santa Cruz County.

He is survived by his wife Ellie, son Bernie, his wife Erika Zavaleta and children Raven, Finn, Russell & Navia Terhy; and son Bill and his wife Regina Tershy their children and grandchild.

Rosary Friday 15 July, 7pm, son Bill’s home- call 831.246.3463 for address & directions

Funeral Mass 16 July, open casket 930-1030am, mass 1030am, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 435 Monterey Ave, Capitola, CA 95010

Followed by memorial celebration Bill’s home- call 831.246.3463 for address & directions

Burial 18 July, 11am, Central Coast Vets Cemetery, 2900 Parker Flats Cut Off Rd, Seaside, CA 93955


Russell Joseph Tershy (1921-2022) (Legacy)

50th Anniversary (Center for Employment Training)