Robert Amerson

PAUSE TO POSE -- At a Barnes & Noble bookstore
in Minnesota, Bob Amerson stands at a display of
his published memoir, before a "meet the author"
session to present the work.

U S I A  A L U M N I
Life After Service in Public Diplomacy

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Photo of Mr. Amerson

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USIA soon to disappear from the Washington scene? The prospect evokes reflection, particularly among old-timers.

Thinking back makes me feel lucky. I can't imagine a career in another entity -- government or private sector -- that might have offered the excitement and reward that came with my decades in "public diplomacy."

That two-word term had not been invented yet, of course, in 1955 when young professionals were being recruited by a still-new USIA. But we knew that we'd be working in the PUBLIC arena of international relations. Cultural ties, words and ideas, communication media, new languages -- these would be the tools to utilize, in a world suddenly smaller following World War II. Now it was the Cold War; "we will bury you," threatened our antagonists; nuclear Armageddon had become thinkable.

Our country needed people trained in certain skills to help present the "America's Story" -- the real USA -- to the rest of the world. Salary compensation? Less promising than in the private sector (by then I'd been five years in corporate PR), but adequate. Most important, the job would involve challenge, creativity, stimulating travel, cross-cultural experience. . .and a sense of serving your country in a meaningful way. How could you NOT want to be a part of such an adventure?

Like dozens of others that year, my wife, Nancy, and I grabbed at the ring. With baby daughter in arms we left home base (Minnesota) for Washington training and assignment overseas. Today, more than four decades later, the adventure continues. From our permanent (finally!) base on Cape Cod, here's how we assess the highlights of our USIA times, of memorable people among colleagues and contacts, of places seen.

We feel the satisfaction of knowing we made the right choice in opting for a Foreign Service life. The work turned out to be vastly more stimulating than imagined, and each assignment brought new opportunities to learn and grow. Four years as Information Officer in Venezuela let us witness a revolution and the installation, as we cheered, of real democracy. Four years in Italy -- Milan, Bologna, Rome -- provided a feast of cultural, history-rich delights. A tour in Colombia, the first assignment as Public Affairs Officer, gave the taste of directing a country USIS program. Five years in Washington let us observe the upper echelons of government: at the State Department public-diplomacy efforts could help inform the US public, as well as foreign audiences, via the Department's Noon Briefing and speeches or interviews by our Assistant Secretary. An assignment to USIA headquarters as one of six Area Directors meant getting acquainted with Agency people and programs in every Latin American country. Our final two overseas PAO assignments -- in Madrid and back in Rome -- were, of course, wonderful years. (I said I was lucky.) Rounding out, to the Fletcher School, Tufts University, as USIA's Murrow Fellow in Public Diplomacy.

When we first signed on to "government," all those decades ago, most of us didn't think much about financial reward; adventurous satisfaction was the draw. Eventually we became aware that the salaries had become pretty decent. Then here was even a generous retirement program. Time to let the younger officers have their day.

So adios, USIA. But in retirement one can still contribute to the values held during a career. For me, this has meant a series of volunteer jobs, such as heading the Boston Center for International Visitors or the Foreign Affairs Retirees of New England; writing occasional foreign-affairs letters or articles for the local media; helping our town's institutions function better.

And now there's also time to get at some postponed personal interests. I've published a couple of books: one on our public-diplomacy experience in Venezuela ("How Democracy Triumphed..." American University), the other on growing up in rural South Dakota ("From the Hidewood," Minnesota Historical Society).

Bob Amerson signs copies of his memoir for two erstwhile neighbors
"From the Hidewood," at a special gathering held in the
Historical Museum of their home town, Clear Lake, South Dakota.

I have an active tennis schedule, enjoy music and photography. Our two daughters and three grandchildren live nearby. Nancy and I share gardening duties: she tends the roses, and I pause to smell 'em.

We don't expect to be transferred anytime soon!

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