By Amanda McCarthy
Since 1965, Foreign Affairs Day has served as an annual homecoming for Department of State retirees, honoring their service and bringing them up to speed on current happenings in international affairs. Many look forward to catching up with colleagues over coffee, experiencing the camaraderie, and once again walking the halls that they frequented during their many years of service. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 event, the 56th Foreign Affairs Day returned with a new virtual platform—ensuring the health and safety of all.
The Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Executive Office (GTM/EX) spearheaded coordination for the 2021 iteration of Foreign Affairs Day months in advance, leaving no detail unturned. While securing coffee may not have been on this year’s to-do list, the team worked to ensure that the true meaning of the day was ever-present, celebrating the unwavering dedication and service of those that came before.
“From the base [Foreign Affairs Day] group, all the way up to the secretary of state and his staff, everyone worked hard to put this together,” said GTM/EX Special Assistant Clarissa Allen. “As we progressed, it became clear that we needed to pull in more and more people with [the] expertise required for a virtual event. We worked with production teams, editors, videographers, and sponsor organizations. Regular virtual communication was instrumental in keeping everyone connected and on the same page.”
Foreign Affairs agency leadership, Department principals and office directors, and more than 1,800 current employees and retirees logged into the virtual event, May 7. Guests were greeted with a brief history of Foreign Affairs Day along with a slideshow of past events before the opening ceremony where GTM’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kenneth H. Merten welcomed attendees, shared his appreciation to past colleagues, and expressed the importance of staying connected in his opening remarks.
“We all entered public service for different reasons, but for most of us, our unifying drive is the desire to make a difference,” said Merten. “To the retirees who are joining us today, during your careers, you worked tirelessly to advance America’s interest and make that difference… I know you still strive to have an impact. We welcome your partnership and invite you to continue making that difference.”
Merten then turned the ceremony over to Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR) President Paul Denig who announced the winners of DACOR’s highest honor, the DACOR Foreign Service Cup, at a small ceremony at the DACOR Bacon House in Washington. Since 1967, the DACOR Foreign Service Cup has been awarded to a retired Foreign Service officer who had a distinguished Foreign Service career and has made significant post-retirement contributions to the broad field encompassed by the term “foreign affairs.” Since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year’s event, Denig first presented the 2020 award to Ambassador Thomas M. Tracy. Tracy was honored for his dedicated service to the Department, for his invaluable assistance to the people of the Western Hemisphere through leadership at the Pan American Health Organization, and for his devotion as a leader in the American Foreign Service Protective Association and the establishment of the Senior Living Foundation.
Denig then presented the 2021 award to Ambassador Dennis Jett. Jett was recognized for his service with the Department and the National Security Council; for his academic career as a teacher, administrator, and scholar; for continuing to have a positive, practical impact on the Foreign Service; and for making significant intellectual contributions to the public debate on foreign affairs.
The ceremony then returned to Merten, who presented the 2021 Director General Civil Service Cup to former Bureau of Consular Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Brenda Sprague. Merten applauded Sprague’s more than four decades with the Department, including critical roles both domestically and abroad, and shared how her commitment and knowledge have had an enduring positive impact on the Department as a whole.
“I’ve served nine presidents and 15 secretaries of states. They come and go,” said Sprague during her acceptance speech, “but the career service continues on. Working for the Department of State is like playing for the Yankees. Even when we are having a bad year, we get to wear the pinstripes.”
The 2021 Director General Foreign Service Cup was then presented to Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon Jr. Merten recognized Shannon’s three decades of distinguished service, during which he served as acting secretary of state and deputy secretary of state, under secretary of state for political affairs, career ambassador, and more. He also acknowledged Shannon’s deep knowledge of America’s roots and history and his unique leadership and mentoring skills that led to him receiving this award. In his acceptance speech, Shannon acknowledged how this has been a challenging time and noted the importance of valuing the deep interconnectedness as a world community.
Award winners share: What was a lesson that you learned early on that stuck with you throughout your career?
Foreign Affairs Day concluded by commemorating the men and women who have lost their lives while serving the Department’s mission. The American Foreign Service Association’s (AFSA) President Eric Rubin hosted a memorial service dedicating a new memorial plaque wall in the Harry S Truman lobby with Secretary of State Antony Blinken who provided closing remarks.
“Even during a pandemic, this is a special day. It’s our homecoming,” said Blinken. “You all know that diplomacy is hard work. We’ve seen that again during the past year, which has challenged all of us. But, I know this is more than a job; it’s a mission. It demands sacrifice. It forges intense bonds between colleagues, many of whom become lifelong friends… There’s perhaps no spot in the world where that sense of sacrifice and sense of community is more evident than right here, in the State Department lobby where these memorial walls stand.”
Blinken honored the 300 individuals whose names are dedicated on the memorial plaques, remembering their significant service to American diplomacy. Blinken and Rubin completed the ceremony by placing a wreath by the wall.
View the full virtual recording of Foreign Affairs Day here.
Amanda McCarthy is the multimedia editor at State Magazine.