by Mark Wentling
What is an embassy? What is an ambassador? ‘Embassy’ and ‘Ambassador’ were practically new words for me in 1967 when I encountered them firsthand in Tegucigalpa. Way back then, I and other members of 8th group new Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) were being whisked off to the embassy to meet the ambassador. We were graciously received by Ambassador John Joseph Jova and offered a delicious assortment of food that we had not previously enjoyed during our three months of rugged training in Puerto Rico. We were all dressed up and wearing neckties for this big event. We impressed everyone by being able to sing the Honduran national anthem in Spanish. I did not know then that embassy life would become my life, and I was embarking on an overseas career that would span forty-seven years.
That evening in Tegucigalpa was an exciting high point for us before going to our respective sites to serve two years as volunteers working in various programs. That would be the last time I would hear the words ’embassy’ and ‘ambassador’ for almost three years. In 1970, I was privileged to begin a second tour as a PCV in Togo. By that time, I had some vague notion that ambassadors represented the U.S. government and worked out of places in the capital city called embassies. When my small group of PCVs arrived in Lome after three months of training in the Virgin Islands, we were met by an enthusiastic Ambassador Dwight Dickinson. I was pleasantly surprised during my three years as a PCV in Togo that Ambassador Dickinson and I became friends and during his last year in country we collaborated together in building a health center for a local community.
In 1974, Nancy Rawls replaced Ambassador Dickinson. At that time I was acting Peace Corps Director and required to go to the embassy for something called a country team meeting. I recall distinctly some of what Ambassador Rawls said in that meeting. She was emphatic about how entirely too much reporting was coming out of the embassy that nobody in Washington was interested in reading. She went on to say unless the Red Chinese were building submarines at the port, reports coming out of the embassy should be minimal. I learned then how important a function reporting was for an embassy and Foreign Service Officers, whose careers could often rise or fall on the quality of their reporting. For sure, I never forgot the words Ambassador Rawls said on that day.
I must mention an important highlight in those early years in Togo was meeting Shirley Temple Black, our ambassador to Ghana, during her brief visit to Lome. The Peace Corps transferred me in 1975 from Togo to Gabon to oversee the re-introduction of the Peace Corps into that country. My first duty was to pay a call on Ambassador John McKesson who was at the end of his tour. He had worked diligently with Secretary of State Kissinger to urge the Gabonese government to re-invite the Peace Corps to Gabon.
Andrew Steigman replaced McKesson and we worked closely together for most of my time in Gabon. I also worked closely with his Deputy Chief of Mission, Edmund DeJarnette, whose insights were most valuable because he had previously worked with the Peace Corps in Ecuador. I was pleased to work with him again years later when we were both assigned to our new embassy in Luanda, Angola in 1992. Unfortunately, his assignment as ambassador, and mine as the first USAID Director to Angola, did not happen as planned with the renewal of civil war following the October 31 Halloween outbreak of violence in Luanda.
In Gabon, I also worked with Marc Baas who was serving as Consular Officer at the embassy. Years later, when I was in Addis Ababa in 1993 as USAID’s Mission Director to Somalia to participate in a conference with Somali warlords, I met him again in his position as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia. I did not know it then, but I was destined to meet a number of our ambassadors to Ethiopia.
From Gabon, I went to Niger in 1976 to direct the Peace Corps’ program. I was warmly welcomed by Ambassador Douglas Heck. I was also pleased to work with DCM, Dennis Keogh, who was tragically killed in 1984 by a bombing incident while he was on duty in Namibia. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have become an ambassador. There were other DCMs in Niger who did go on to be named ambassadors. For example, Peter Chaveas who was ambassador to two countries, Malawi and Sierra Leone, and Donald Koran, who I knew previously at our embassy in Lome, Togo, recently served as our ambassador to Rwanda. Also in those early years in Niger, There was also a young GSO named Joseph Wilson, who was the best left-handed long ball hitter on our softball team.
I worked with a number of ambassadors during my ten years (three different stints) in Niger. Following Ambassador Heck was Ambassador Charles James and then Ambassador James Bishop. I was most pleased to have seen the latter because when he visited Togo six years previously I spent a day traveling with him as a PCV. Years later I would return to Niger to meet and work with a number of ambassadors, including Barbro Owens Kirkpatrick, Gail Dennise Mathieu, Bernadette Allen and Bisa Williams. I had worked with the latter twenty-six years earlier at our embassy in Conakry, Guinea.
I was also pleased to have met in 2015 at a softball tournament in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso our current ambassador to Niger, Eunice S. Reddick. It is remarkable to note that Niger may hold the record in terms of the consecutive assignment of female ambassadors. It was also in Niger that I met in 2005 Ambassador James Bullington who was the Peace Corps Director and formerly our ambassador to Benin and Burundi. Also, somewhere in West Africa I met John Davidson who was our ambassador to Benin and Niger.
My next assignment for USAID was to serve as its representative to Guinea. During the 1983-87 period working from our embassy in Conakry, I had the pleasure of learning from Ambassador James Rosenthal. One useful habit he had that I’ve adopted was the carrying of index cards in your shirt or suit pocket on which to make notes. While in Guinea I also had the delight of working with Chargé William Mithoefer. These men helped lighten the burdens of perhaps the most challenging hardship assignment I had in Africa. I’m especially thankful to Ambassador Rosenthal for his sang-froid during the turbulent funeral of President Sekou Toure in March 1984 and a violent coup in July of the same year. He honored me by assigning me as one of the escorts of Vice President George H. W. Bush who attended Toure’s funeral.
In June 1987, I found myself serving until 1991 as the USAID Representative to Togo and Benin, with a base in Lome. My first ambassador during that period was David Korn. His DCM was Tibor Nagy, who later became our Ambassador to Guinea and Ethiopia. Tibor and I continue to be friends and see each other frequently where I’ve resided since June 2015 in Lubbock, Texas. I also had the privilege of working in Togo with two other ambassadors, Rush Walker Taylor, Jr. and Harmon Kirby, during this challenging period of Togo’s history. I also had the pleasure during this time of meeting another DCM, Nancy Powell, who went on to become an ambassador and hold important positions in the State Department. I recall clearly our lengthy dinner in Lome where I shared with her all I knew about Africa.
At the same time, I worked with our ambassadors to Benin, Walter Stadtler and Harriet Isom. I saw Ambassador Stadtler again in 1992 when I was at the National War College and in Somalia in 1993 when he was a member of a special State Department team led by Ambassador Frances Cook. This team included Ambassador David Shinn. Like all the other ambassadors I’ve met, I learned something from each of them. Unfortunately, space does not allow me to expound on what I learned and what I remember about each of these ambassadors.
I was impressed with Ambassador Isom’s Oregon ranch background and her physical height. I thought she was the tallest ambassador I ever met until years later in Mozambique I met Ambassador Sharon Wilkinson. I still wonder which one is the tallest. As mentioned earlier, I first met Donald Koran in Togo and we later worked together when he was DCM in Niger. As noted, he went on to be our Ambassador in Rwanda. I expect a number of other DCMs I have known will become ambassadors in the years to come.
Perhaps the country where I met the most ambassadors is Burkina Faso. I met in the early 1970s Ambassador Donald Easum. Years later I would meet on the softball fields of West Africa ambassadors Thomas Boyatt and David Shinn. Their devotion to softball in Burkina Faso is noted on their photos that hang in our embassy in Ouagadougou. In 2008, I met Ambassador Jeanine Jackson at a softball tournament in Ouagadougou and our conversation led to me moving from Niger to Burkina Faso to also set up a USAID office within her embassy. Later on, Ambassador Jimmy Kolker visited Burkina Faso and I helped him re-connect with some of the local softball players he knew when he had been our Ambassador to Burkina Faso. I also enjoyed working with Samuel Laeuchli who was Chargé in Burkina Faso for over a year. Among other things, he led our move into the new embassy in Ouagadougou in January 2010.
More recently I had the pleasure of working in Burkina Faso with Ambassador Thomas Dougherty. When I departed Burkina Faso last June, I paid a courtesy call on our current ambassador to Burkina Faso, Tulinabo Mushingi, with whom I may have met in the 1970s at the Peace Corps’ Regional Training Camp in Bukavu, Congo. I find it uncanny that I now live less than 50 miles from Ambassador Julius Walker’s hometown of Plainsville, Texas. He was our eighth ambassador to Burkina Faso.
In 1993-94, while on a demanding assignment to Somalia, I was pleased to have worked with Ambassadors Robert Oakley, Robert Gosende and Richard Bogosian. This assignment also allowed me to meet in Kenya DCM Michael Southwick, with whom I would visit a few years later when he was our Ambassador to Uganda. After my Somalia assignment I was assigned as USAID’s Mission Director to Tanzania. I’m thankful to this day for all the support Ambassador Brady Anderson and his DCM, Steven Browning, provided me during my tour in this country. Steven deservedly went on to be an ambassador in a couple of countries.
I worked briefly in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1996-97 period and met Ambassador Morris ‘Rusty’ Hughes and his DCM, James Yellin, who later would become our Ambassador to Burundi. I profited greatly from the advice provided to me by these two men. Later my work as a contractor with USAID and NGOs took me to Zambia and Mozambique and I met our ambassadors in these countries. I have particularly fond memories of Ambassador Helen La Lime. In 2012, I was doing a short-term consultancy in Ethiopia and met Ambassador Donald Booth. One high point of my career was meeting in 2010 in Accra, Ghana Ambassador Johnny Young. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa at the time and had organized a productive meeting of all ambassadors and USAID country directors in West Africa. I enjoyed my conversation with Ambassador Carson as he related a number of events since he had been a PCV in Tanzania in 1965-68. Of course, this meeting provided me the opportunity to meet many ambassadors. I was also pleased that this Accra meeting gave me the opportunity to reconnect with our Ambassador to Ghana, Donald Teitelbaum, with whom I had previously known in Somalia.
During a visit to Kinshasa, Congo in 2002, I was able to meet up with Ambassador Roger Meece. We had worked together for Peace Corps Niger in 1976. I was also able to visit in 2004 Gaborone, Botswana my friend Ambassador Joseph Huggins, who had previously been an embassy colleague in Conakry and Lome. I believe I met Ambassador Robert Houdec in Kenya in 1993-94 in connection with my work with the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative. I also had the pleasure many years ago of shaking the hand of Ambassador Herman Cohen who was referred to as “Mr. Africa.” Of course, there were a number of my USAID colleagues who became ambassadors, notably Princeton Lyman, Carlos Pascual, Cynthia Perry, Gayleatha Brown, William Garvelink, Dawn Liberi and Pamela White. With regards to the latter, I am perhaps one of the few people still around who had the great pleasure of knowing the late Dr. Mike White who was the Peace Corps physician in Togo when I arrived there in 1970.
I fear that in attempting to write this article I will overlook or cite someone wrongly. I hope the readers understand that my intent is to honor all ambassadors with whom I came in contact during the 1967-2015 period. I also want this article to be a record of those ambassadors I knew and their service to our country. It is with much sadness that I note a number of the ambassador mentioned above are no longer with us. Living or deceased, all those cited above have made a lasting impression on me and in some way, small or large, their lives are part of my own. It has been my pleasure and honor to have known all of them. I pay them all the highest tribute.