HARRY KEELS THOMAS: EVERYONE HAVING AN OPPORTUNITY
[PHOTO AT LEFT - US AMBASSADOR TO RP, HARRY THOMAS; Starweek Cover photo by Jonjon Vicencio]
MANILA, JULY 10, 2010 (STAR) By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Harry Keels Thomas Jr. remembers the first question in his written examination for the foreign service: When was the Battle of Hastings.
The 27-year-old gave the correct answer: 1066.
He took the exam in December 1983. The Catholic boy from New York also remembers when he took the oral exam, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1984.
Like the foreign service exam in other countries, the one in the United States is one of the most grueling for entering public service. “Harry K” – or simply “K” to his family to differentiate him from his father, Harry Senior – had a long wait for the outcome. He was accepted into the foreign service more than three months later, on June 26.
Thomas celebrated his 26th year in the service the other Saturday in his latest posting, as America’s top diplomat in Manila.
It was not his original dream, he told STARweek in his embassy office overlooking Manila Bay. He entered the foreign service, he said with a chuckle, because “I needed a job.”
He is proud to admit this, he said, to emphasize that “somebody like me from Queens” can have a decent career in the US foreign service.
“I’m proud of our country for giving me this opportunity,” he said. “I’m equally proud that we can have people in the State Department from the University of Alaska or the University of Mississippi… we don’t care how fancy the school is or where you went. It doesn’t matter to us whether you went to Harvard or Howard. Can you pass the exam, can you adapt, can you do well? And I think that for me, that is important.”
“Opportunity” is a word that keeps popping up when you interview the American ambassador.
Born on June 3, 1956 in New York City’s predominantly black Harlem neighborhood, Thomas grew up in Queens, at a time when racial inequality meant lost opportunities for many black people across the United States. In the boroughs of New York the young Harry K saw poverty and urban blight up close.
Upon obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1978 from the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he described himself as an “average student,” Thomas volunteered as an urban planning intern in the South Bronx Development Organization. The agency was set up by then President Jimmy Carter together with Ronald Reagan, at the time a former California governor, with the South Bronx chosen as a symbol for fighting urban blight.
“On Charlotte Street was an area that had been burned. And we built houses on Charlotte Street. Prefab houses, very simple. People had to buy those houses,” Thomas recalled. “You go back there today and you’ll see those 150 houses where people have built fences, tomato gardens, still there and still functioning well. And why? Because nobody gave it to them. They had to spend their own money and work hard… it wasn’t a gift.”
Thomas, who counts Bangladeshi microcredit pioneer and 2006 Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus among the persons he admires most, says the success of the South Bronx project shows that “if you assist people who are hardworking, they would take care of something that’s their own.”
Thomas worked for three years without pay for the South Bronx project, admiring its chief planner, Edward Logue. Why did Thomas want to be an urban planner? “Like most young kids I wanted to save the world. And I really was disturbed with what I saw happening in New York City.”
He later found another way of saving the world, after funding for the South Bronx project ran out and Logue himself, a Yale law graduate and former member of the foreign service, advised the young intern to take the foreign service exam. Thomas went to the New York public library to find out more and decided he would give the exam a try.
In 2006 Thomas the diplomat literally became a savior, leading a task force that evacuated 15,000 Americans from Lebanon in the middle of violent confrontation between that country and Israel.
He is also proud of his work as ambassador to Bangladesh from 2003 to 2005, citing in a previous interview America’s $100-million aid program, counterterrorism and efforts to strengthen democracy in one of the poorest countries in the world.
In September last year, US President Barack Obama offered Thomas the post of ambassador to Manila.
“My first response when offered good news is to give thanks to God,” Thomas told STARweek. “I often look at Job 11 where he talks about being steadfast, having faith and not fear, and staying humble.”
Thomas was particularly pleased with his new posting because his father was assigned in Manila during Liberation. Army Staff Sgt. Harry Thomas Sr. guarded captured Japanese troops in Manila.
“He talked about how the Filipino people had suffered,” said Thomas, whose uncles also passed through the Philippines during the Vietnam War.
While waiting for agrément and then his Senate confirmation, Thomas began preparing for his next posting, reading up on the Philippines and learning the language. Thomas already speaks Spanish, Hindi and Bangla, from his postings in India, Bangladesh and Peru. He was also assigned in Zimbabwe.
Last November, he started a 16-week course at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in Virginia. His professors were three “talented and very, very demanding” Filipino-Americans, two of them descendants of revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio: Reginald and Susan Bonifacio. The third, Daisy Pee, is married to a Malaysian.
“I’m still learning all the basics. The first thing they teach you is magandang umaga. And then they just go through the grid. Magandang umaga. Magandang tanghali. Magandang hapon. Magandang gabi,” Thomas recalled.
“What they do in Tagalog is teach you greetings. Then they teach you family relationships. Then they teach you about food. And then they go to the verbs,” he said. “They start with the ‘mag-’ verbs, so you think it’s easy. But once they leave the ‘mag-’ verbs and you have the other verbs, then they go into the grammatical conjugations, and that becomes much, much, much, much more of a challenge.”
Then he was given a book called “Luzviminda,” for Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. It’s about “Luz and her little brother Lito,” Thomas recalled, and their experiences “all over Manila, in the provinces, with their lolo…”
He pronounced “hapon” like Japan and said “tanggali” instead of “tanghali,” but Filipinos appreciate the effort to learn, which is unusual among native English speakers in this country. Thomas said that since his arrival in Manila in April, Filipinos have been “welcoming.”
Thomas, in his own words, is “one of the worst singers,” so karaoke is out for him while in Manila. He also plays golf “horribly” although he would try a game with Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao, whom he described as “Tiger Woods.”
But he could enjoy Pinoy food. He has sampled lechon and adobo and is prepping himself for durian. Months before Filipino-American Friendship Day 2010, Thomas tried balut, but one made in Maryland, so he is prepared to sample an “all-Filipino” one.
The foreign service can call for sacrifices in personal relationships. Thomas’ predecessor, Kristie Anne Kenney, the first female American envoy to Manila, spent her four years here away from her husband William Brownfield, who was also an ambassador to Chile, Venezuela and then Colombia.
Thomas will also not be joined by his wife, musician Ericka Ovette, because she wants to finish her university course on modern languages in Washington.
The ambassador flew home in May for the graduation of their only child, Casey Merie, with a degree in anthropology. Casey, Thomas notes, was born on “8-8-88.”
He also went home to celebrate the 85th birthday of his mother, Hildonia, a retired social worker and teacher with a master’s degree in sociology from New York University, Thomas said with pride. “Like Filipinos, you have palayaw. So we call her Donnie. But her four grandchildren call her Nana.”
Thomas is also proud of his only sibling, elder sister Nelda, a paralegal in South Carolina, who started and funded together with her husband a weekend breakfast program for the homeless.
“My family gave me opportunities,” Thomas said. “It’s my job to give my daughter opportunities. It is all of our job to give the people who are at risk – the vulnerable people, wherever they are, whether they are in New York or Manila – opportunities.”
He would soon be going around the Philippines, he said, to meet with people and find out how they wanted the US government to help their families, “because in my time in the State Department I’ve learned that certain things are universal: parents love their children, parents love what is best for their children.”
One of his priorities as ambassador is to stop human trafficking. Before the interview he met with civil society representatives and journalists to discuss ways of battling the scourge. The US government has put the Philippines on the Tier 2 watch list of countries that are not doing enough to combat human trafficking – a classification that could hold back US development aid.
“I think human trafficking is something that we all must fight, no matter who we are, no matter where we are,” he said. “It’s my personal belief that I can help end it… that is what we’d like to see, everybody having an opportunity.”
The United States’ first African-American ambassador to Manila said he did not feel that racial issues affected his chances in any way in his career.
“I think you can see America has elected President Barack Hussein Obama, and I think that Americans are looking for people who are talented, who take advantage of opportunities, no matter their background, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation. And that what’s extremely important is competence,” he replied. “So I’m really proud of being an American.”
The Philippines and the United States, he said, face many challenges, and he is excited to be working with a new administration to provide better opportunities for Filipinos.
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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