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Worldly Perspective

From enlisted to ambassador, Bismarck Myrick ’72 has left his mark on the map

A MAN IN A SUITBismarck Myrick ’72 is ambassador-in- residence at Old Dominion University following an accomplished State Department career. Photograph by Kristen Zeis

By Jim Morrison

Plot the stops of Bismarck Myrick's life on a map, and you risk running out of pins marking one historical highlight after another.

Start the eight-decade journey with an impoverished childhood in segregated public housing in Virginia. Make a stop in Vietnam leading dangerous river missions in the Mekong Delta. Keep going on to Ethiopia when its longtime emperor was overthrown. Land in Somalia during one of the world’s worst refugee crises.

Venture down to South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela is released from prison and apartheid ends. Put starred pins in Lesotho and Liberia for ambassadorships. And end the mapping with a pin back near where the journey began, this time at a university in Norfolk.

To Myrick, that journey happened naturally.

“You don't know the course of your life,” he says one afternoon in his cramped office at Old Dominion University, where walls crowded with photos and awards chronicle his past. “There's no formula to get you from Point A to B. But my belief is when opportunities come, if you're going to make an impact, you have to be ready.”

For Myrick, who graduated from UT in 1972, getting ready meant lifelong learning and cultivating colleagues based on a simple principle easily said but often hard to live: Treat them the way you want to be treated.

SEEKING PEACE IN AFRICA

One opportunity arrived in an unlikely place, a tennis court outside Washington, D.C., where he ran into an old State Department colleague. It was 1990. Myrick was ending an assignment chairing an interagency working group on strategic nuclear policy, and he was looking for his next challenge. His friend asked him to come to South Africa and head the diplomatic mission in Durban.

“I hadn't even thought about that (job),” Myrick says. “This is where the value of friendships and partnerships and respect for colleagues comes in.”

He was ready — this time. A few years earlier, Ed Perkins, the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa, had asked Myrick to join him. But Myrick had young children. He didn't want to expose them to apartheid. Now, apartheid was ending. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in February 1990 after 27 years. Myrick arrived in Durban that May.

As he has throughout his career, whether as a soldier at war or a diplomat seeking peace in Africa, Myrick found himself at a flashpoint in history.

He realized his childhood experiences attending the Black high school in Portsmouth, Virginia, and facing segregation and racism in the United States didn't apply to South Africa. “It was so challenging because you change politics, but you don't change people's mentality,” he says. “It is a mistake to conclude that there are direct parallels and similarities between the segregated conditions in the United States and in South Africa.”

Americans strived for equality, though imperfectly, he notes. The apartheid system in South Africa never recognized the equality of races. It separated them into groups, and it was illegal to marry across racial lines or to interact socially.

Myrick used his station to break down those barriers, first in Durban and later in Cape Town, where he lived a few houses away from Bishop Desmond Tutu. He invited people from different ethnic groups and different political affiliations to his consul general’s residence.

During the transition from apartheid, he’d invite Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, and members of the opposing African National Congress. “We’d often see people at the end of an event — a dinner or some type of social thing — joking with each other, shaking hands and behaving as friends for the moment. Doing that kind of thing repeatedly, I think, helped to smooth the transition.”

A PHOTO OF A PHOTO SHOWING TWO MEN SHAKING HANDSBismarck Myrick ’72 calls Nelson Mandela “an extraordinary personality.” The men would cross paths when Myrick was a diplomat in Durban, South Africa. Photograph by Kristen Zeis

SOME GIANT ROLE MODELS

That kind of personal outreach has been a guiding principle throughout Myrick’s more than six-decade career. “I think your possibility of being successful in your life is enhanced by having respect for other people and recognizing that all of us are human beings. You see me shaking hands with Nelson Mandela,” he says, pointing to a photo in his office. “But that same afternoon, I'll be shaking hands with someone out in a village who's suffering from the lack of a job and housing. I don't see people as being different from each other.”

He cites Tutu and Mandela as models. Tutu, he says, was the conscience of the nation during and after apartheid. “What you saw was what you got — a genuine, caring, human being opposed to hypocrisy, opposed to wrongdoings,” Myrick says. “He was critical of the new government, by the way, for corruption. He was just a solid leader for correctness.” 

Mandela often visited Durban, where a large Indian population was among his backers. Though he was one of the world’s most famous people, Mandela never forgot his personal touch. “He was such an extraordinary personality, and he always remembered who I was,” Myrick says, adding that extended to his later time as the ambassador to Lesotho.

During Myrick’s time in Durban, violence erupted among the competing factions. There might be 300 people killed on a weekend. Once again, he brought together opponents. “I would go there, and the most amazing thing was if you talked to people about why this happened, no one can explain,” he recalls. “I was involved in trying to help the South Africans find peaceful solutions.”

His years in South Africa naturally led to his next post. In 1995, Myrick was appointed ambassador to Lesotho, a small mountainous constitutional monarchy with a figurehead king entirely encircled by South Africa. Myrick worked on healthcare initiatives and agricultural development projects.

After three years in Lesotho, he returned briefly to the U.S. for a year residency at Spelman College in Atlanta, where one of his courses, “African Diaspora in the World,” was mandatory for freshmen. There, he continued his personal outreach hosting a Thanksgiving meal, this time inviting abused women.

But Africa wasn't done with Myrick. In 1999, he was appointed ambassador to Liberia, a challenging post. The United States had withdrawn its ambassador in 1989 as Liberia plunged into a years-long civil war. Charles Taylor, who led the overthrow of the government, had been elected president in 1997. (He was convicted as a war criminal in 2012 and has been imprisoned since.)

Myrick called the ongoing violence senseless and urged peace through democratic means. The party supporting democratic change praised him. Taylor's National Patriotic Party called for his arrest. Myrick says he wasn’t concerned for his safety, noting his years as an infantry officer in Vietnam.

“What I wanted to do was to help the Liberians develop infrastructure - hospitals, schools, roads, their economic infrastructure,” Myrick recalls. “But Charles Taylor didn't want to do any of that kind of stuff. What he wanted to do was the continuation of trade in weapons and diamonds. So he and I did not get along.”

Myrick describes his tour during the country's transition to democracy as successful, noting that Taylor eventually was arrested, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the first female president of an African country. (In 2009, Sirleaf was the speaker at UT’s spring commencement, and she was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters.)

THE ARMY AND THE UNIVERSITY

Myrick’s 27 years in the diplomatic corps form the middle of three lengthy careers. The first was more than two decades in the U.S. Army. The third was his appointment as ambassador-in-residence at Old Dominion University following his State Department career.

Like the others, Myrick's Army career began when he saw an opportunity rather than a hurdle and advanced because of his passion for lifelong learning. He was a good high school student. He had a scholarship to a Virginia school after graduating in 1959, but he didn't have enough money for everything else to attend college.

Walking down the street one day, he saw military recruiting signs. After eliminating the Navy (he couldn't swim), the Marines (too tough, he thought), and the Air Force (he'd never been on a plane), he chose the Army and enlisted. After basic training, he became a military policeman stationed in Japan.

His desire for more led to Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and served in Korea before a tour of duty in Vietnam leading the mobile riverine force in

the Mekong Delta during the bloody Tet Offensive. His service earned him the Silver Star, four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart after being wounded in the leg. When he was able to walk again after recuperating in Japan, he finished his tour though he could have returned home. “I was dedicated to the policy goals of our country,” he explains simply.

Throughout his Army career, Myrick took correspondence courses — core basics in everything from science to English and social science. When the Army offered him the opportunity to get his degree, he chose The University of Tampa because his wife had roots in relatively nearby Columbus, Georgia. His correspondence courses earned him two years of credits, and he graduated in 1972 with a history major and a political science minor. A year later, he earned his master's degree in history from Syracuse University.

“Education is a difference maker for people” who come from his kind of background, he says.

He continued his education in the Army after graduating from UT after he saw an item in the post newspaper at Fort Benning, Georgia, (now Fort Moore), say- ing the Army was looking to train regional specialists. It was another opportunity. He was ready. He had the academic qualifications. He'd been recognized as a hero for his time in Vietnam. His training led to opening an office in Ethiopia as an Army foreign area officer. He was there when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a military coup d'etat.

In 1975, he returned from abroad to direct an African studies program at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and teach at Fayetteville State University for four years. “Now 20 years had passed, and I said, I have achieved what I aimed to achieve from the beginning — job, education,” he says. “So I retired.” When he did, the enlisted private had risen to become a major.

His love of education and teaching led to his third career at Old Dominion University when he came back to the area of his childhood following his final State Department posting. Portsmouth, the city where he grew up, named two streets after him, Bismarck Myrick Street and Bismarck Myrick Crescent.

The university dangled a position as ambassador-in-residence. Initially, ODU’s president asked him to assume some administrative duties. But Myrick was a lifelong learner and teacher. He wasn't about to stop now. “What made me most happy is engaging with students,” he says.

Myrick’s courses focus on Africa, a place he says Americans need to understand better. Those courses have been a hit with students, according to Austin Agho, the provost and vice president for academic affairs. “When he's teaching African politics and history, he's not taking it from just a textbook,” Agho says. “He is sharing a lived experience.”

 A MAN SITTING BEHIND A DESKThe ambassador's advice: “If you're going to make an impact, you have to be ready.” Photograph by Kristen Zeis

LIFE GOAL: ‘POSITIVE ENDS’

Asked what advice he'd give those who want to follow his path, Myrick points to a list of principles illustrated by his journey: Invest time and energy in intellectual and educational skills; cultivate respected mentors; associate with those who share your good values; and look strategically at professional development, so you are prepared for unexpected opportunities.

“Belonging at the top of the list is never thinking that you are better than others because you achieve some success,” he says. “Do not take yourself so seriously.”

Myrick says he doesn’t often reflect on his journey, those pins on a map signifying one moment in history after another.  “I have just tried in my life to make the time that I have count towards positive ends.”