Alumni Spotlight: David Lyon '69

The Graded Gazette

Graded alumnus David Lyon '69 served as ambassador to the Pacific Island nations of Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu, where he was responsible for US diplomatic relations as well as the promotion of peace, trade, and information exchange. He was born in Frankfurt and raised in Germany, Brazil, and the United States. After graduating from Swarthmore College with a bachelor’s degree in history, David joined the Foreign Service in 1974 and was posted to Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Australia, and Fiji. David retired in 2005 after a 33-year career with the Department of State. He now resides in Pebble Beach, California, where he mentors American students interested in careers in the Foreign Service. 

In this month’s issue of the Graded Gazette, David discusses the impact his childhood experience abroad had on his career, his incredible Foreign Service adventures, and his advice to current Graded High School students.

1. When did you attend Graded, and what is your fondest memory of the school?
My family and I arrived in São Paulo in the summer of 1959. The following week, my brothers Peter and Stephen and I began studying at Graded. I was in third grade, Peter was in second grade, and Stephen was in kindergarten. We stayed in São Paulo for five years and left shortly after I finished seventh grade in 1964.

Anyone who knows me would laugh if I said that the school's Theater Program was one of my most vivid recollections. They'd laugh because it's obvious to everyone that I have no acting talent, rhythm, or musical ability and have always preferred outdoor activities such as sports and scouting to live theater. Still, Graded's Theater Program was outstanding. The simple fact that I recall the director being Mr. Colby nearly sixty years later, despite never having had contact with him, attests to the impact his performances had on me.

The two plays I remember most vividly are Androcles and the Lion and West Side Story, both of which had sold out. I also remember the impressive auditorium on the new Morumbi campus. I was in seventh grade when West Side Story came out, and it changed the way we dressed, wore our hair (slicked back with ducktails), and talked. It also had every boy in the class debating about the Sharks vs. Jets game and looking for corners where teachers wouldn’t catch them rolling dice and playing craps.

David's school photo in the 1964 Aquila.


2. What brought you and your family to São Paulo and Graded?
My father worked for the US Consulate General in São Paulo as a Foreign Service officer. He joined the Foreign Service in the mid-1930s and spent the war in Lisbon, the Azores, and Portuguese Africa before joining US forces as they moved into Germany. My parents got married in 1948 and spent their honeymoon traveling from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Their next assignment took them to Germany, where my two brothers and I were born. After four years in Germany followed by four in Washington, DC,  we relocated to São Paulo.

Pictured: David, his brothers Peter and Stephen, and his mother on board the US Del Sud on their way to Brazil in 1962, soon before David started sixth grade at Graded.


3. How did your childhood experience living abroad influence your decision to pursue a career in the US Foreign Service?  
Living overseas was likely the determining factor in my desire to join the Foreign Service, although it took me several years to realize this. My brothers and I all liked Brazil and Brazilians, but, like most kids our age, we were often preoccupied with what we felt we had lost by moving abroad: our friends, English language TV, and even ice cream, which only became available during our fourth year in São Paulo. We overlooked or dismissed all we had gained, such as learning Portuguese, experiencing a completely different culture, watching world-class futebol (which is still my favorite sport), navigating a big, bustling city, and adventuring to places like the Amazon.

When we returned to Maryland after five years in Brazil, the students at our new school had no idea what to make of us, which made it difficult for us to fit in and make friends. I wasn't up on the latest trends in music (rock had just arrived), slang, or fashion. It got better when I got to boarding school. Still, it wasn't until I arrived at Swarthmore College that I began to feel fortunate rather than abnormal about having experienced things few others in the class had even contemplated. I even wrote my political science thesis on the 1964 Revolution in Brazil from my perspective as a child. In it, I described meeting senior Brazilian army officers who had been to my house searching for my father; they wanted to convince him that the new junta desired good relations with the US.

During my last year at college, I developed an interest in living and working overseas. At the time, there appeared to be three options for a history major graduate to go abroad: the Army, which in the early 1970s was not a particularly appealing option; the Peace Corps, for which I thought I had few applicable skills; and the Foreign Service. So I took the Foreign Service exam during my last college semester. Surprisingly, I passed it.  

Pictured: David and his wife Maureen with Colin Powell at David's ambassadorial swearing-in.  

4. During our previous conversation, you mentioned that in the 1960s, Graded was ahead of its time with respect to women's rights. How was this demonstrated on campus?
Graded regarded female students first and foremost as people. I only recognized this after leaving Brazil and seeing how differently boys and girls were treated in large public junior high schools in the United States. In the US, boys participated in various interscholastic and intramural sports; girls, on the other hand, only participated as cheerleaders. And all of our class officers were men. Even as a fairly oblivious and self-centered 13-year-old boy, I noticed that boys received more attention from teachers than their female counterparts.

I'm not sure why, but Graded was the exact opposite in almost every way. I'm sure the girls suffered prejudice that the boys did not, but these were not obvious to me, even in retrospect. There was a girls' sports team for every boys' team. Though the cheerleading team at Graded was primarily made up of girls, I remember several occasions when members of the boys' teams would come over and lead cheers for a girls' team. The student body president was a girl. Even more unusual: she was a shot putter on the girls' track team, as well as the Homecoming Queen.

5. Upon returning to the United States, you earned a bachelor of arts in history from Swarthmore College. What aspects of your liberal arts education helped prepare you professionally?
As a liberal arts college, Swarthmore placed a strong emphasis on exposing students to as many diverse courses and fields as possible. For example, as part of a history degree requirement, I had to take at least two classes about three different regions of the world. I ended up taking lessons in American, Latin American, Asian, European, and African history. While Swarthmore had little to offer on Latin America, I was granted permission to enroll in a graduate-level course in Latin American history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Swarthmore's small class size and the faculty's apparent preference for discussion and debate over lectures helped prepare me professionally. I took several courses during which most of the class time was spent analyzing and debating student papers. This taught me how to express and defend my views and understand the value of critiquing the work of others without offending them. Even more importantly, it taught me to discern between a critique and personal attack; officers who were unable to do that in the Foreign Service typically do not progress quickly or far.

A Melbourne newspaper article written by David a few days after 9/11, with a photo of him among the many flowers and personal keepsakes delivered to the Consulate General soon after the terrorist attacks. David is holding a young child's teddy bear.


6. You spent 33 years as an American diplomat, with posts in Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Australia, and Fiji. What were some of your most memorable experiences during this long tenure?
It's difficult to imagine anything more memorable or prestigious than being chosen to represent your country as an ambassador. From the initial communication from the White House and my Senate confirmation hearings to being sworn in by Secretary of State Colin Powell and meeting President Bush, and finally presenting my credentials to the presidents of Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru, as well as the King of Tonga (the absolute monarch of the last great Polynesian kingdom dating back to pre-European times), it was one honor after another.

One of my most vivid memories during my time in the Foreign Service is my return trip to Washington, DC, after my first tour in Lagos. Traveling overland across West Africa, I stopped in Timbuktu before crossing the southern Sahara Desert. I flew from Dakar, Senegal, to New York, then changed flights to Washington, DC.

If my career had a recurring theme, it would be coup détats and civil insurrections. One of the reasons I was chosen for the ambassadorship to Fiji, a country known for its culture of revolt, was because I had been through 13 coups, including failed rebellions, military governments, and other major political disturbances.

The consular staff in Lagos, Nigeria, 1975


7. What was the biggest challenge you faced during your career with the US State Department?
When I was in charge of consular activities in China, I ran into the biggest challenge of my career. American planes flying for NATO in an attempt to stop the genocide in Serbia accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which had previously been occupied by a Serbian security service. The building was destroyed, three diplomats were killed, and many more were injured. 

The Chinese reaction wasn't fast — the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square was approaching, and the government was preparing to close universities and ban all public gatherings — but it was furious. The government stoked, organized, and directed genuine public anger toward the US. Thousands of students from prestigious colleges under strict Communist Party control came to the Chinese Embassy about eight hours after the attack. They began a loud, initially peaceful demonstration that was fully covered by Chinese and international television crews. My officers had already arrived at a nearby annex. Since we had first learned of the bombing, they had activated our warden system, reaching out to the tens of thousands of American residents in China, as well as the major international hotels, advising Americans to hunker down, remain off the streets, and refrain from visiting the US Embassy for assistance.

The following five days were a blur of 20-hour working days, as I oversaw emergency protective services for Americans, maintained close contact with official Americans holed up in five compounds around Beijing, coordinated with the four other posts in China (all of which were also under siege), and pressured the police and local authorities (the Ambassador focused on the Foreign Minister and national governments). It was a surreal environment. The city appeared normal from our apartment's rear windows, but if you stepped out the front door of our building, you could hear a constant roar from the demonstrating students less than half a mile away. 

After five days, China’s Vice President Hu Jintao appeared on television to praise the students for defending the Chinese people's honor, and the demonstrators immediately dispersed.

Standing in front of the badly damaged Beijing Embassy after five days of violent anti-American demonstrations in 1999.


8. Your wife also had an international career. How did the two of you meet?
Maureen began her international career years before we met.  She grew up in a far more international family than most Americans, as the daughter of a Portuguese-American farmer from California and an Australian war bride. While still in nursing school, she joined the US Army. Maureen served at several bases stateside before being assigned to Okinawa, where she worked as an operating room nurse for three years, primarily helping soldiers who had been severely wounded in Vietnam. When she finished her military service, she immediately applied to join the Peace Corps, was quickly accepted, and only a few months later found herself in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, for in-country training. She then worked in public health nursing in Maceió before being transferred to Recife, where she eventually became the Peace Corps Medical Officer for Brazil's 100+ volunteers.

Since Foreign Service spouses can’t have careers, Maureen had to start from scratch at each of our posts, managing US Embassy commissaries in Accra and Manila, working for an English language newspaper in Bangkok before being chosen as the US Embassy’s community liaison officer and helping newly arrived families adjust to life and schooling in Thailand. After managing a home health care business in Washington, she was hired as a senior personnel assistant at the US Embassy in Beijing, after which she was offered a Foreign Service officer appointment. During my last two posts, Maureen was not employed by the US Embassy or the local economy, but that does not mean she did not work. In addition to being an incredible hostess for official events — we entertained frequently, and our Fourth of July parties at our residence in Fiji regularly drew 300-400 guests — she managed a large fundraising auxiliary for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and was President of the American Women’s Club in Fiji.

David (with his wife Maureen) visits the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, before presenting his credentials to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. David dressed in formal attire regularly while in the Foreign Service, but this was the only occasion he wore a top hat, morning coat with tails, and gloves.


David and Maureen at the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia.


9. How have your two children kept up the tradition of living abroad?
Nathan and Jo, both born in Manila and raised in several countries, have stayed overseas since we left them in Australia to earn their university degrees. However, they've never left Melbourne. Nathan works as a teacher at a post-secondary school that prepares international high school graduates for elite Australian universities. There, he keeps up his Chinese by conversing with Chinese students. He also uses a surprisingly broad array of Korean and Japanese slang with students from those countries.  Our daughter Jo would like to live elsewhere, but her husband — one of Nathan’s Australian mates from school in Beijing — is a city planner, a skill that doesn’t travel well.

David and his family on a New Year's Eve cruise to Mexico.
(From left to right: David's son Nathan, son-in-law Grant, daughter Jo, and wife Maureen.)


10. What keeps you busy in retirement?

The Foreign Service has an up or out system, and since I joined very young, I was only 53 when I reached the maximum number of years in the Senior Foreign Service. After living in California for a year and assisting my wife in caring for her terminally ill father, I spent 12 years as a part-time senior mentor with the US Army, Marine Corps, and US Forces Korea. For the most part, it was a fascinating job that allowed me to apply my skills and experience to help military officers better understand the locations they could be called upon to deploy to or fight. I loved it. I was constantly engaged with the Korean Peninsula, China, and the South China Sea. I was also asked to provide insights on far-flung parts of the world, such as the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, the Sahel, and Central America. 

Since leaving the military in 2017, I have volunteered at the Middlebury Institute of International Affairs in Monterey. For years, I had been mentoring American students interested in joining the Foreign Service. With more time on my hands, I contacted the head of the Foreign Service’s large Chinese translation and interpretation program. I started working with her students to provide them with a more nuanced understanding of Americans, our politics, foreign policy, and our views toward and relations with China.

I have loved working with these students because I believe the US-China relationship is pivotal in today’s world. I am also fascinated by how different the world views are of these Chinese students today from those of the young Chinese whom I met only 20 years ago.

Former US Ambassador to Fiji David Lyon spoke about embassy settings at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, during the Joint Foreign Area Officer course.


11. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to current Graded High School students as they apply and transition to college?
I know I’ll be approaching this mainly from the perspective of an American who lived and studied in Brazil for only five years, very long ago. But, as a former Graded student and the parent of two American third-culture kids, I hope what I say applies to Brazilians, Americans, and expatriate students who plan to attend college abroad.

Speaking to the students:

To maximize the benefit you will bring to universities overseas, try to expose yourself to and soak up as much of “Brazil” as possible. We Americans tend to see the world through the lens of our limited national experiences, which leads to a lack of understanding of where individuals from other nations are coming from. Bring with you not only a foreign language from Brazil but also an understanding of the country's history, distinct demographics, geography, physical characteristics, and economics. You will have a far better grasp of how governments determine their priorities and establish national and international policies. This knowledge will enable you to step outside the narrow prism of the world held by most Americans your age.

Finally, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you should do everything possible to broaden your experiences, knowledge, and skills — whether academic or practical. Take advantage of the American system of allowing students two years before deciding on a major to study subjects you know nothing about, whether or not you will utilize what you learn directly in your future. Get out of your comfort zone in your coursework, summer jobs, or vacation — open closed doors and poke your heads inside; don't just walk past them.  

I can’t promise it, but I’m certain that if you follow some variation of this road map, you will graduate from university as well-rounded and equipped as possible, poised to succeed in whatever you decide to do next.