Originally created 12/16/01

Travel became career



Few are the corners of the world that Augusta native Larry Palmer has not reached.

Mr. Palmer, 52, grew up the son of a minister, raised in a modest home and educated in a segregated school system. His faith and love of learning gained at home continue to be core factors for the career diplomat.

Right now, Mr. Palmer is in Quito, Ecuador, serving as the charge' d'affaires - the acting ambassador.

Perhaps soon, Mr. Palmer will have his own ambassadorship, representing President Bush and the United States in another foreign country.

"Once I learned there was a road out, I knew I was going to see some of the world out there," said Mr. Palmer on a recent trip home to Augusta.

But growing up here, Mr. Palmer never conceived of the extent of the world he would see.

If it weren't for his family's strength, and his teachers at T.W. Josey High School, Mr. Palmer says, it might never have happened.

Mr. Palmer was in the first class to graduate from Josey. Segregated schools such as Josey were separate but not equal at the time, but Mr. Palmer said he had great teachers who instilled in students a love for learning.

Bernice Jackson Tillman, a stickler for grammar and a lover of poetry, provided the foundation of Mr. Palmer's ability to learn other languages and the confidence to speak in public.

"She had a love of poetry - we had to memorize them and recite in front of the class," said Mr. Palmer, who still knows Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee.

His high school counselor was mad for testing, Mr. Palmer said.

"Every time she got a new test she would give it to us."

In 1966 he graduated as valedictorian. He had scholarship offers from Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth and Emory. He chose Emory University, where he graduated as salutatorian.

A professor at Emory told him about a Peace Corps program that enabled volunteers to get a master's degree.

The adventure began.

"As a volunteer in the Peace Corps there (in Liberia, West Africa) it was a real marking experience," Mr. Palmer said.

He lived in the jungle and dug his own well and latrine. For his service, he taught high school biology, science, chemistry, physics and American literature.

"It's the first time I saw foreign service in action," Mr. Palmer said. The thoughtfulness and kindness of the embassy staff left a lasting impression.

After he had finished his Peace Corps service and married "the most beautiful woman I had ever seen," Mr. Palmer went back to Africa.

"I had talked about Liberia so much she (his wife, Lucille) wanted to go," Mr. Palmer said. From 1974-76 they taught at the Cuttington College in Suakoko, Liberia. Returning to the United States, Mr. Palmer earned his doctorate at Indiana University, and then the Palmers moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., where he became a professor at Wake Forest University.

"One day I began to get itchy feet again," Mr. Palmer said.

He learned the Foreign Service exam was to be given. The Foreign Service is the smallest segment in the U.S. government, with only 3,800 to 4,000 members. The exam is intense.

Mr. Palmer was thankful again for his high school counselor's obsession with tests. The Foreign Service exam included essays; questions on economic policy, political history and English grammar; and personality measures. There was a group test on negotiating - the candidates competed against one another on the division of aid money. Four observers graded them on their skills - points were docked for being too forceful or too pliant, Mr. Palmer said.

He was accepted and entered the Foreign Service in 1982. Posts in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Paraguay, Sierra Leone and Korea followed, as did a Pearson Fellowship, serving as an assistant to the President of the University of Texas at El Paso.

He also worked in the State Department as a staff assistant to the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs.

Mr. Palmer was selected to attend the Senior Seminar, a yearlong project reserved for top government executives and senior diplomats.

"It was the most rewarding single year in the Foreign Service," Mr. Palmer said.

In August 1999, Mr. Palmer was assigned deputy chief of missions in Ecuador.

One of the ongoing projects Mr. Palmer has responsibility for in Ecuador is connected with Plan Colombia, a program started by the Clinton administration and carried on by Mr. Bush. The program is described by some as a carrot-and-stick approach to try to end the production of cocaine.

Mr. Palmer said the United States has provided Ecuador $20 million - $8 million of that to pay for alternatives to planting coca. The alternatives need to provide many jobs, such as building water systems and bridges.

The Foreign Service has become more dangerous in recent years because of terrorist attacks. In Ecuador the embassy was closed twice last year because of security threats, he said.

Still, diplomacy is the work Mr. Palmer lives for.

"I love this work. I've been doing this 20 years, and I'm still learning.

"In what other job can you actually be living in Rio de Janeiro ... and say, 'Where am I going next?"'

Mr. Palmer hopes his next assignment will be at the top.

"I would love to move on to my own ambassadorship. Being an ambassador is the plum," he said.

"I love Augusta still. Eventually I'm going to retire, and right now Augusta is number one on the list."

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.