Virgin Islander Terence Todman, ambassador extraordinaire


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I am always a bit perplexed when I hear it said that our kids in the Virgin Islands are lacking in role models. I have compiled a list of outstanding individuals who hail from these shores, and I daresay that it would compare favorably with any area of comparable size in the entire country. And right at the top of that list is the name Terence Todman.

Terence Todman was born on St. Thomas on March 13, 1926, the son of Alphonso Todman and Rachael Callwood. He was educated in the islands, receiving his diploma in 1944. Just after graduation, he entered college at Inter-American University in Puerto Rico but interrupted his studies when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in the final year of World War II. He was commissioned a second lieutenant at the Army Officers School at Fort Benning, Ga. During his service in Japan from 1945 to 1949, he learned Japanese and was effectively involved in the organization of the first elections in Japan in 1947 in the crucial early post-war period.

Already he was beginning to mark himself as a person of distinction. After he left Army service, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Infantry School at Fort Benning in 1952.

Upon completion of his military service, Todman returned to the Caribbean, where he resumed his studies at Inter-American University and received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1951, graduating summa cum laude. He went on to receive a master's degree in public administration in 1952 from Syracuse University in New York and then went on to American University in Washington, D.C.

Having completed his education, he married Doris Weston, also of St. Thomas, and together they began their family, which ultimately produced four children - Terence Jr., Patricia, Kathryn and Michael.

Terence Todman was never willing to relegate education completely to his past, having received a number of honorary doctorates over the years from various universities, among them Colgate, Syracuse, Morgan State and Boston University. In addition, he served as a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of the Virgin Islands for many years. He also has made contributions to various advisory boards at several prestigious universities, including Syracuse, Duke and Georgetown.

During his early years, he developed a strong interest in international affairs while at the same time demonstrating an extraordinary ability in languages. This combination turned his attention toward the United States Foreign Service. In 1952, during the Truman presidency, he assumed a position in the foreign service in the U.S. State Department, where he remained for the duration of his career, distinguishing himself in the eyes of diplomatic leaders. It was at that time that he pushed an agenda at the United Nations for encouraging colonial nations to set timetables for independence, a program that paid rich rewards in the 1960s.

In 1969, Todman received from President Richard Nixon his first appointment as a U.S. ambassador, in this instance to Chad in North Africa, where he remained until 1972. It was there that his skills in diplomacy, international understanding and language abilities stood out markedly. In that regard he worked with France to assist against Libyan-sponsored aggression toward Chad, giving that nation a period of relative calm in which to develop. His fluency in both French and Arabic made him ideally suited for that task.

At the end of that term he took over the top post at the U.S. Embassy in Guinea in West Africa, where he served from 1972 until 1974. At that time, Sekou Touré wa in charge, promoting a strongly anti-America agenda. Todman's diplomacy went far in turning Touré around and reducing his hostility toward the United States.

Under President Ford, Todman was ambassador to Costa Rica in Central America from 1974-1977. His fluency in Spanish and his close familiarity with the Caribbean and South America made his stay there another strong success, resulting in his appointment by President Carter as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 1977 to 1978. His name was being mentioned increasingly by national leaders for broader responsibilities.

While assistant secretary, he led a delegation to Cuba to negotiate a maritime boundary between Cuba and the United States. In addition, he opened resident diplomatic channels with Castro and negotiated the return of U.S. property that had been seized during the Cuban Revolution. Finally, Todman was instrumental in the reaction of an information program for the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty. These major achievements qualified him for a major career advance.

In 1978 under President Carter, he made the jump to a major European country as ambassador. Some regard this appointment as the high point of his diplomatic career. During this sojourn, he negotiated the U.S. use of crucial nav al and air bases in Spain. Moreover, he oversaw the entrance of Spain into NATO. Both of these achievements boosted U.S. military strength in Europe during the crucial years of the Cold War. When the Socialists came to power in Spain in the early 1980s, President Reagan asked Todman to stay on as ambassador. He did so and responded by getting the Socialists to develop trust in the conservative Republican administration and to work effectively with the United States.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, his later appointment of Todman as ambassador to Denmark in 1983 had special significance. The Danes had held the Virgin Islands as a colony from 1671 to 1917, leaving behind certain cultural marks and traditions in the islands to which Todman and other Virgin Islanders were the heirs.

Todman quickly attained fluency in Danish and became an extremely popular and effective ambassador until his term ended in 1988. During that term, Todman convinced the Danes to play more fully their security role in NATO, while working for better treatment of Greenland, where the U.S. had military bases. Not least he promoted his native land in his work for the return of colonial records to the Virgin Islands, as well as highlighting the virtues of the islands as a tourist destination.

In 1987, Todman received the crowning honor of his career when he was named "career ambassador." He was the first African-American ever to receive that distinction and one of the very few of any ethnic group to be so honored. He holds this position with distinction to this day.

Terence Todman undertook his final ambassadorial appointment in 1989, this one from President George H.W. Bush, when he took up residence at the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work there was of major importance. He succeeded - first, in blocking a German missile company from building missiles there for shipment to Middle Eastern countries. He also promoted privatization and helped move the Argentines away from non-aligned politics toward greater cooperation with the U.S. He served in that post with distinction until 1993, at which point he retired from active diplomatic life after 41 years of service to his country.

The U.S. Congress honored Todman for his contributions to U.S. foreign affairs at a ceremony in November 1993 in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. He was recognized as having served the nation "with dignity, honor and true professionalism." Though all of his awards and honors would be far too numerous to cite, here are a few of the more prestigious among them: the Department of State Superior Service Award, 1966; Virgin Islands Medal of Honor, 1977; Department of State Distinguished Service Award, 1985; and the Presidential Meritorious Service Award, 1988. In addition, he has been decorated with the National Orders of the governments of Chad, Spain, Denmark and Argentina. To the end of his professional journey, he carried the coveted title of "career ambassador," an honor bestowed only on the very select few.

All of these things Todman accomplished at a time when less than 2 percent of the Foreign Service was a minority. In that sense he was a trailblazer, a gate-opener, a point man. As America's first African-American ambassador, it would be no exaggeration to say that what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, Terence Todman did for the foreign service - though he would more than likely and quite characteristically make very little of that accomplishment.

Since the end of his ambassadorial service, he has remained extremely active.

"I don't want to stand still," he has remarked, "Keep moving onward and upward," has been his advice to himself and to others. He continues to follow that advice, serving as a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which lends support and encouragement to various world organizations in the development of democracy on the level of the individual. As a member of the American Adacemy of Diplomacy, he has worked for the training for young people in the filed of diplomatic service. For a time he worked with the Organization of American States in the attempt to develop sound government and human rights in Haiti, working in particular with former President Aristide. He remains an active member of the National Academy of Public Administration. His interest and participation in the issues of the world in 2009 are nothing short of astounding. When asked about the possibility of writing his memoirs, he responds that he is quite simply "too busy."

During his career, Terence Todman served his country for over four decades in six United States embassies under six presidents. He mastered over a half-dozen languages (Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, French and Danish, in addition to his own native English and Virgin Islands English), became conversant with scores of different cultures, left his imprint on hundreds of important negotiations and was influential among countless leaders around the world.

He remains active, energetic and vocal to this day, offering his expertise both here at home and abroad. Here is a man who effortlessly combines overwhelming achievement with understated graciousness; every Virgin Islander can be rightly proud of him.

- Arnold Highfield is a St. Croix resident.

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