In 1960, fresh out of college, John boarded a prop plane bound for Hawaii. There, he taught at the Punahou School on Oahu, where Barack Obama would one day earn his high school degree. The mix of cultures in the Hawaiian archipelago appealed to John, and a career that included two decades as a CIA operative was launched.
GW’s Elliott School helped to shape that career. Awarded a GW fellowship through the Masonic Scottish Rite, John became absorbed in classes ranging from introductory geography to the history of United States diplomacy.
Most compelling to John was introduction to the post-World War I Middle East, a region as politically charged then as now. “Important changes were going on, and I was captivated by the issues.” Of greatest personal concern was an untold side to the Palestine problem, and he thought “something should be done to bring it to the American people.”
John’s guiding principle is to help people see both sides of the issues, and he spent some 20 years with nonprofit agencies dealing with the Middle East. There were frustrating moments, such as a period early in his career, when, as director of public affairs for one organization, he lobbied Congress. “For four years, I banged my head against the wall,” he once told a reporter.
By the late 1980s, it was time to head overseas, and John signed up with the CIA. He served in major trouble spots across Asia, holding posts from Jordan to Pakistan to Indonesia. While he has been retired since 2005, he remains fascinated by the challenge of weighing opposing views to find balance and move forward.
In this, he has something in common with the subject of his recent book, Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who built the Nation’s Capital. Thirty years in the making, it is the first comprehensive biography of the D.C. native, one-time plumber, and self-made businessman who transformed the city’s physical and political landscape. John and the book were featured in an article in the Washington Post this past fall.
In 1871, when “Boss” Shepherd was appointed D.C.’s vice president for public works, Washington was a divided city recovering from the Civil War. Downtown, dirt roads churned with mud, and sewage sloshed in the major canal. The urban landscape was bleak, a far cry from the grand capital city that Pierre L’Enfant had envisioned.
Navigating D.C.’s rocky politics, Shepherd graded and paved miles of roadways, planted thousands of trees, and installed streetlights. He consolidated competing jurisdictions into a unified municipal government. By enclosing the silt-filled canal, he even constructed a thoroughfare that has become today’s Constitution Avenue. As former D.C. mayor Tony Williams wrote, John’s biography of Shepherd is a chronicle of “how Washington became a city.”
To uncover Shepherd’s story, John pored over thousands of pages of original texts: letters, diaries, and public records. He has donated the best of these materials to GW’s Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection. “I like having the Small Collection at GW,” he says.
John remains engaged with his alma mater, attending lectures, especially those that address the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. He is proud that the Elliott School has risen in the ranks of schools of foreign affairs. “We all are tied to institutions,” he says. “My own development has been enhanced by the growth of the Elliott School.” John remains grateful for the Scottish Rite Fellowship, which, he says, “made all the difference.” —Amy Aldrich