ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - When Robert Riley graduated from Key School in 1973 he had no idea he would end up as a career Foreign Service officer.
Last month, he was named U.S. Ambassador to the Pacific island nation of Micronesia, islands previously known as the Caroline Islands, located southeast of the Philippines. All the islands together make up a land mass equal to four times the size of Washington, D.C.
In an interview with The Capital, Riley - in town recently visiting his 91-year-old mother - sees early influences on his career here. Two of his teachers at Key School had been in the Peace Corps.
“I did not realize it at the time but in retrospect they must have made an impression. That and something not related to school, a Boy Scout trip to Great Britain when I was 14 years old. That kind of opened my eyes ignited a bit of wanderlust, that has continued.”
After graduating Key School, where he played soccer and was on the chess team, he took two years off before going to college.
“I worked with a survey crew, that was an education in itself,” he said.
Then it was off to Yale and a degree in English literature. As he faced graduation he said he was still not sure what his next step would be.
“In 1979, the economy was not strong and employers weren’t clamoring to hire employees,” he said. “Then someone slipped a Peace Corps pamphlet in my mailbox. I looked at that. And my immediate thought was, ‘That’s it. That what I want to do.’ “
That September he was in the Peace Corps on his way to Mali.
“And I have been overseas ever since, except for a four year stint for the Peace Corps in Washington,” he said.
The wanderlust runs in the family, a bit. One of his two brothers has lived in Norway since the 1980s. And one of his two daughters is now in the Peace Corps, serving in China.
Wandering in service
“I did a lot of time in Africa. I was really an African hand at the beginning of my career,” he said. “For 19 years, I was either in Africa or working on African affairs, in the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service,” Riley said.
He served in the Peace Corps in Mali and Gabon, stayed on as a volunteer leader from 1981 to 1983. Then he moved into a paid position becoming an administrative officer for Gabon and Mali in 1984, then in 1989 he became chief administrative officer for the Africa region working in Washington.
He then entered the Foreign Service in 1994. First, he returned to Africa and Malawi to serve as a financial management officer. As with most foreign service officers he moved often, serving in Cote d’Ivoire for the typical two-year posting, then to Europe for postings in Spain and Paris.
In 2005 he was assigned to Baghdad, then Pakistan, followed by Vietnam and on to The Philippines in 2009.
He moved on to Jakarta, Indonesia in 2013 where he was serving when nominated for the ambassadorship by the president.
Moving from country-to-country is common.
“It is a challenge to get up to speed to make something of your time there. But you don’t want to do it too quickly,” Riley said. “You might think this is what is going on when it is not really the case. You have to take the time to understand it all at a deeper level.”
He said the unsung heroes are the locals employed by embassies across the globe. He pointed to those who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq where he served in 2005.
“They risked their lives to work for us,” he said. “They didn’t drive in, some who did got shot driving to work. They would leave for work, stop along the way and put on the disguise, then once in the embassy they would take off the disguise and go and do their job.”
That year in the war torn Middle East was a far cry from growing up in what was then sleepy Annapolis.
“It seemed like it was nothing but fishing boats,” he recalled. “Fishing and crabbing where the basis of the economy. Tourism was not a factor yet.”
That was until Historic Annapolis started is its work, identifying and restoring Colonial buildings.
“That metamorphosis really came in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he recalled. “Now there are so many tourists .”
He said his family spent a lot of time on outings to the Naval Academy.
“The Naval Academy was wide open, there was no security, you could go in and out whenever you pleased,” Riley recalled. “My mother would take us to see the marching bands almost every week. We fooled around on the athletic fields. It was open to everyone, no holds barred.”
But the biggest change after 40 years is the fishing industry.
“The boats used to be all over the harbor and up Spa Creek, past the bridge. Even the occasional skipjack, still working. They are all gone.
“I wonder if there are any watermen left?”
Riley is again pondering what to do.
“Here’s the thing. There is a mandatory retirement age of 65 in the Foreign Service. So this will be my last assignment. In late 2019, it will all done,” Riley said.
He is looking forward to coming home. The cost of housing in Annapolis is prohibitive, and he bought a house a while back in Athens, Georgia, a college town with intellectual possibilities and a music scene. What’s not to like?
So many more places his wanderlust still wants to take him.
“I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. I have never been to Latin America. And there are parts of Asia I haven’t been to. And places in Africa - I have always wanted to see Ethiopia.”
The State Department has a program for retirees who can work overseas on a temporary basis.
“I might just do that.”
Information from: The Capital, https://www.capitalgazette.com/
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