Fall 2008 Issue
At home and abroad
A word of advice from a visiting stranger led former Barry staffer Jean Wilkowski to a 35-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service
It was 1943. Barry College was in its third year of existence, and the United States was deeply embroiled in World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty and extraordinary opportunity.
That winter, Rev. Joseph Thorning and a group of Catholic historians visited then Barry College for the first time. Thorning, a sociology professor at St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and publisher of the national Catholic magazine The Sign, had just returned with his group from sociology research at the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. They used Barry as a base from which to publicize their findings via radio and other media. A young Barry faculty member, Jean Wilkowski, was assigned to assist them.
The 23-year-old was an all-purpose staffer; teaching physical education and journalism classes as well as running the college’s fledgling public relations office. At the time, she was enjoying the work and had little thought of trading it in for a career; make that a lifetime, in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Yet, a brief word from Thorning at the end of his visit set her on a path that would lead to a 35-year diplomatic career, beginning as a vice consul and rising through the ranks to become the first woman to serve as an acting U.S. ambassador in Latin America and ambassador to an African country.
“Your education has given you a firm sense of morality and ethics, and that is very much needed in government and international affairs today,” Thorning said after noticing Wilkowski’s “special interest in foreign affairs” – somewhat ironic considering her international experience at the time was limited several basketball and academic trips to Cuba.
Most young women of her generation probably wouldn’t have taken Thorning’s suggestion to head to Washington, D.C. and apply for a job in government seriously. After all, in 1940s and 50s America, teaching, nursing and secretarial work were the only career options most girls were encouraged to consider, and the only women who traveled abroad in service to their country were accompanying their husbands.
“In a way he was a springboard for this career in international service. He had this idea that you are here, you are in this ethics and morality based environment, you’ve been positively affected by that, and you do need to carry that into the world,” says Wilkowski, who chronicles her career in her new memoir “Abroad for Her Country: Tales of a Pioneer Woman Ambassador in the U.S. Foreign Service,” published this year by the University of Notre Dame Press.
The young college had only been operating for one year when Wilkowski was hired with a recommendation from Barry founder, Monsignor William Barry in 1941.
“The service concept and the international concept were there from the start,” she said. “They (Barry faculty and administration) knew they were at the Gateway to the Americas.”
In the book, Wilkowski describes her job at Barry as “three-sided,” teaching news writing and editing in the English Department, setting up a public relations office and “looking after” the health and recreation needs of the students – at that time totaling only 45 for the entire college. She recalls changing clothes between teaching swimming and performing her other duties, such as teaching calisthenics in the Home Economics Department and pitching stories about the new college to The Miami Herald.
“I’d create stories out of anything that had a hook you could hang it on,” she said. “Sometimes it was fairly easy to get stories in with pictures of girls in bathing suits.”
At the time, Wilkowski was one of only three lay members of the faculty, with 15 total teaching at Barry College. The campus consisted of Cor Jesu Chapel and four simple buildings, known then as Angelicus, Rosa Mystica, Calaroga and Maris Stella. Today, they stand as Adrian, Kelley House, Farrell and LaVoie.
“I loved it. It was a job, and I was happy to be earning my own living for the first time. I was thrilled to be in such a new and innovative atmosphere. We all just did the best we could to make the school succeed.”
After two years at Barry, Wilkowski headed to Chicago in 1943 to follow-up on a position posted with the United Press. She stopped in Washington after assuring Thorning that she would consider visiting the Department of State, where he had connections stemming from his tenure as chaplain for the U.S. Congress. In Washington, Wilkowski was granted a walk-in appointment with the assistant secretary of state, a meeting which she says “would be unheard of today.” Wilkowski never made it to Chicago. After several months of training, she was sent to her first post as a vice consul to Trinidad in 1944.
Dinner for one
The next 35 years encompass hundreds of stories, which, while known to Wilkowski’s friends and colleagues, were never formally written down.
“I originally had no intention of writing a book, although I’ve been in journalism in my early years…I used to dine out on these stories, so for me, writing this book was just like telling more stories.”
With the encouragement of the many friends who had heard them for years, she did begin to write them down. The stories range from the humorous – being “silenced” by Pope John XXIII for cheering with others after Good Friday Mass – to the dramatic – surviving overnight in the embassy during the Colombian Bogotazo revolution.
After her initial post in Trinidad, Wilkowski was appointed to posts in Colombia, Italy, France, Chile and Switzerland. During that period many of her assignments were related to U.S. trade and foreign investments, specializing in tariff and trade negotiations. While in Milan during the early 1950s, much of her work was advising Italians who had set up manufacturing businesses after World War II and were interested in marketing or exporting to the United States. In Latin America, she was approached with several private business ventures – fresh flowers and instant coffee from Colombia, fresh produce from Chile – that are now commonplace imports to the United States.
A higher plane
Throughout the book, Wilkowski details how her individual beliefs and sense of purpose guided her throughout her diplomatic career – particularly in the leadership positions she held later in her career. In some instances, her own sense of mission helped lay foundations for future humanitarian relief efforts in Africa and Latin America.
“Justice and peace are certainly an element of my work in a secular sense, as well as a spiritual sense. It’s part of our ethos,” she says. “It certainly figured into my work in Honduras…I also tried to employ a greater humanitarian element in our policy in southern Africa.”
In 1972, the Order of Malta, a Catholic Order and one of the oldest charitable organizations in the world, honored Wilkowski for her humanitarian efforts during the “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador. The 1969 war was caused when tensions between the two nations came to a head during the course of two national soccer games. Thousands of men, women and children from El Salvador had already been driven into Honduras by unemployment and overcrowding in their own country, and the violence of the war only added to the number of displaced. More than 50,000 of these refugees were rounded up by Honduran military and, with no room in the jails, were imprisoned in soccer stadiums. Wilkowski sent staff to investigate the conditions in these stadiums and, after finding they were in need of food, water and sanitation, urged the U.S. government to provide this aid. Their response was a C-47 cargo plane load of relief supplies.
In her next and final international post, Wilkowski became the first woman to serve as ambassador to an African nation. During her post in Lusaka, Zambia from 1972 to 1976, it was repeated recommendations from her embassy that helped lead to a change in American policy toward southern African developing nations. The shift took American policy from a more detached position to one of stated commitment to help improve economic development in southern African nations, while advancing political liberation in neighboring countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia and Namibia. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced the policy from Zambia in 1976 while Wilkowski served as ambassador there. She details the historic speech in her book:
The speech signaled an understanding of the grave injustices in the region and the need for the United States to seek higher moral ground in its political stance. Department of State support staff had ably crafted an eloquent, balanced and measured response, even though the secretary was reportedly annoyed at times with the field’s advocacy for change. Perhaps it was our persistence.
Back to Barry
After assignments in eight countries and three continents, Wilkowski retired in 1980, after a final three-year position as co-leader of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on Science and Technology for Development, advancing new technologies to assist developing nations.
Yet, in retirement, Wilkowski returned to Barry – the place where Rev. Thorning’s words had laid the groundwork for her career in service abroad to her country - joining Barry’s Board of Trustees in 1990 and serving for 10 years.
In 2001, she established the Ambassador Jean Wilkowski International Fellowship at Barry University. The fellowship is given once a year to a single faculty member conducting research or performing service abroad, and stipulates in its guidelines that the university community benefit from the international experiences of recipients. Since its inception, the fellowship has supported Barry faculty research in numerous countries including South Africa, Ireland, Ukraine, China and The Netherlands.
“The fellowship has acted as an impetus in creating interest in the world community as a classroom for Barry students,” said Dr. Lillian Schanfield, who has chaired the fellowship search committee since 2005.
In addition to establishing the fellowship, Wilkowski’s commitment to international service continued to take her overseas during her time on Barry’s Board of Trustees – conducting humanitarian missions for the Order of Malta to Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cuba.
“She definitely felt there was a connection to South America and Central America,” said Olga Melin, a current trustee who served on the Board of Trustees with Wilkowski from 1995 to 2000. “She did a lot of service in Central America. She was always involved in her communities, helping and government affairs.”
Her motivation for this continued service is clear. Wilkowski ends her book by once again drawing back to her deep-rooted faith:
As I look back over the years of my life growing up in Wisconsin and Florida, being educated in Indiana, Wisconsin, California and Washington, D.C., beginning my first real job in Florida, then later working in eight countries on three continents, then at the United Nations, retiring from government, and ultimately entering a new chapter in the corporate sector, I recognize how good this long life has been. Although there were some hard choices, personal sacrifices, and trying days and nights, I do believe that any success I may have enjoyed has been through the generosity and mercy of a loving God.
Now 89 years old, Wilkowski continues to be recognized for her sacrifices and successes. She resides in the Foggy Bottom district of Washington, D.C., living in the landmark Watergate apartments with a view overlooking the Potomac River. She has since been awarded honorary degrees from Barry and five other universities, and will be recognized for her service with a Laudare Medal at the university’s Founders’ Ball in January 2009. Yet, for all the service and recognitions, Wilkowski still maintains that her drive for service is instinctive, part of her faith and, thus, who she is.
“Subconsciously, service – serving your fellow man – is part of being part of this church, is it not?”