Retired United States Ambassador Donald Boyd Easum, 92, died of natural causes on April 16, 2016 in Summit, N.J.
Ambassador Easum’s work, advocacy, humanitarian efforts, activism, collaborations and friendships spanned decades and continents. A career in the Foreign Service brought Mr. Easum, and often his family, into circumstances and environments very different from his native U.S. He witnessed war, revolution, famine and environmental crises but never lost his innate optimism and unfailing sense of humor. He continued writing, speaking and travelling into his late 80s.
A World War II veteran, teacher, diplomat, and writer, Mr. Easum was also a fine trumpet and cornet player and enjoyed both choir directing and singing. He was also an avid gardener and tennis player. He found his greatest joy in his four children — who were each born in different countries — and his nine grandchildren.
Mr. Easum was born in Culver, Ind., August 27, 1923. He was raised in Madison, Wis., where his father was a professor and Chairman of the history department at the University of Wisconsin, and his mother was a church organist. He graduated cum laude in 1942 from the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. In 1947, Mr. Easum received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin, where he was a member of the varsity tennis team, the band and orchestra, Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa. He was awarded the school’s Kenneth Sterling Day award for scholarship, athletics and character.
He served in the Pacific theater during World War II, including 10 months on Iwo Jima in the U.S. Army Air Force. Mr. Easum passed on the opportunity to play in the military band, since he felt he would learn more in the communication systems squadron, signaling and guiding aircraft from the airfield control tower. Indeed, even 50 years after the war, he was known to impress his children by tapping out the alphabet in Morse code and identifying the myriad friendly and belligerent aircraft from silhouettes. Following his service from 1942-1946, he taught secondary school at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis and then joined The New York Times as a city news reporter.
In 1950, Mr. Easum received Master in Public Affairs and Master of Arts degrees from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Following studies at London University on a Fulbright scholarship, and in Buenos Aires on a Doherty Foundation grant and Penfield fellowship, he earned a doctorate in international politics from Princeton in 1953.
Mr. Easum entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1953. During basic training at the Foreign Service Institute, his hesitation, on principle, to state that he was anti-communist delayed his security clearance and thus an overseas diplomatic assignment, for more than a year. During this time however, he met and married Augusta Pentecost of Gadsden, Ala., who had served as a Foreign Service secretary and consular assistant in the U.S. embassies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Madrid, Spain. Together they had four children.
Mr. Easum spent 27 years in the U.S. Foreign Service at posts in Nicaragua, Indonesia, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Burkina Faso (Ambassador 1971-1974) and Nigeria (Ambassador, 1975-1979). He was given the Department of State’s Meritorious Service Award for his work in Indonesia. As Ambassador to Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Mr. Easum was bestowed the title of Commandeur de l’Ordre National by the host government for his leadership of international famine relief activities.
While Ambassador in Nigeria, Mr. Easum was instrumental in turning around previously acrimonious relations with the U.S., and his influence contributed to the country’s first successful transition from a military regime to a democratically elected government, based on the U.S. model. Other notable achievements of which he was proud were his hosting of Jimmy Carter on the first-ever state visit of a U.S. President to Sub-Saharan Africa, and visits from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Reverend Andrew Young.
During the Nixon/Ford Administration, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, working tirelessly to avoid greater conflict in southern Africa. In all, he devoted more than three decades of his professional career to the improvement of U.S. relations with Africa.
Earlier State Department assignments included Executive Secretary for the Agency for International Development, and Staff Director of the National Security Council’s Interdepartmental Group for Latin America.
A competitive but friendly tennis and ping pong player, he promoted diplomacy via both of those sports, persuading Chinese officials to fund coaching for promising Voltaïque table-tennis players, and then helping to organize the first professional tennis tournament in West Africa, featuring international greats Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, among others.
His distinguished career extended beyond his years with the U.S. Department of State. Upon retiring from the Foreign Service in 1980 with the rank of Career Minister, Mr. Easum assumed the presidency of the Africa-America Institute in New York (1980-1988). This work was followed by more than 20 years of international lecturing, non-profit Board memberships and activism on behalf of global understanding and human rights causes.
In 1991, he designed and taught a foreign policy seminar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He accompanied his students to South Africa on a two-week study of models for a post-apartheid constitution. Introducing his students to Nelson Mandela was a highlight of that trip.
From 1990 to 1995, Mr. Easum was Vice President and Senior Program Consultant of the River Blindness Foundation. He organized the Foundation’s offices throughout Nigeria and was the principal drafter and negotiator of the pioneer agreement with the government for nationwide eradication of the river blindness disease (onchocerciasis) affecting some 12 million Nigerians. This pilot program was later adopted by the Carter Center and deployed on a global scale.
Mr. Easum was Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Stimson Seminar from 1999 to 2004. In April 2003, he served on the National Democratic Institute’s observer team for presidential elections in Nigeria.
He was a member of the Boards of the WorldSpace Foundation, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the American School of Tangier/Marrakech, Renewable Energy for African Development, Friends of Boys Town South Africa, Volunteers in Technical Assistance, Pact Inc., and Vice President of Global Business Access. He was a member of the Corporate Council on Africa, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, the American Foreign Service Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change and the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Mr. Easum was predeceased by his wife, Augusta Pentecost Easum in 1992. He is survived by his four children and nine grandchildren: Jefferson Easum of Mexico City, his wife Alessandra and their children Nicole and André; David Easum of Lagos, Nigeria, his daughter Lauren, his partner Karine and their son Tom; Susan Easum Greaney of Scotch Plains, N.J., her husband Michael and their children Charlotte, Claire and Scott; John Easum of Tokyo, his wife Laila and their children Maya and Zachary; and sister Janet Easum Bay of Traverse City, Mich.