Wisconsin Department of Commerce Newsletter
December 2005
International's Lou Janowski Set to Retire After Long Diplomatic Career

It's a long way from the steel mills of Chicago to Ethiopia, but following his 1960 graduation from Washington High School on the city's South side, Lou Janowski found himself on a winding path that quite literally took him there and elsewhere around the world during his 40-year career.

Lou Janowski
Lou Janowski

One of seven children, the "Chicago Cardinals" football fan went to Northwestern on a navy ROTC scholarship. Unsure of his future direction, Lou dropped out after two years and signed on to work at a steel mill. The money was good – and starting in the middle of winter working an outside shift in below zero weather, he quickly learned why. The working conditions, shall we say, were brutal.

Dubbed "college boy" by his older co-workers, it didn't take Lou long to conclude that perhaps his first instinct – to get a college education – was a good one. He bid the steel mill farewell and headed down to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, where he put himself through school waiting tables, working as a lab assistant, a football referee and any number of things" earning a BA in History in 1965.

It was during his senior year, he says, that "on a lark" he  took the U.S. Diplomatic Service test – and  passed. Since that was not an easy thing to do the first time out of the gate, he concluded that he had the aptitude for Foreign Service.  After earning his  BA in History in 1965, he entered grad school.  However, after taking – and passing – the oral part of the diplomatic exam – he and his roommate dropped out of grad school, went to Florida and "blew all of our money."

Returning to Chicago he took a temporary job with Illinois Bell in the heart of the south side ghetto until he began working for the government on February 3, 1966.  Shortly thereafter,  he learned he was heading to Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his "training tour" where he worked at the U.S. embassy, and immersed himself in all things political, economic and administrative.

Although Lou says the Red Sea was "incredibly beautiful," living in Saudi Arabia at that time was "like stepping back into the Middle Ages." With movies, alcohol and dancing all against the law and dating local women impossible (there were only a "handful" of western women for about 200 single men stationed there), and enduring "the worst heat and humidity  in the world," he was not sad to see his two-year stint there end.

He was sent to Washington, D.C. to get briefed for his next assignment – Viet Nam a year after the Tet Offensive. Referring to himself as "young, romantic – and stupid" he found himself in a small Cambodian village in the Mekong Delta in charge of U.S. civilian and military programs.

His next stop was a city of 65,000 where he says it was a "wonderful education in the 'How Not to do Things' department" managing civilian programs dealing with economic development, agriculture, refugees and public health.

From there he was sent to Paris for four years and put in charge of American Citizen Services at the embassy. "You know in the movies when someone (comes into an embassy) and demands to see the American Consul? That was me." He says he also gained his 15 minutes of fame as the official in charge of burying  Jim Morrison , the lead singer of The Doors.

From Paris came Norfolk, Virginia and the Armed Forces staff college where he studied combined military operations and was involved in planning invasions. His time there was "pretty incredible".

Next was working at the Pentagon, and then four years as the sole State Department official responsible for environmental problem along the U.S./Canadian border. And so it went until "lacking anything better to do" he volunteered for some rather dicey duty in Ethiopia (as in at the time of the infamous Red Terror – where perhaps 1,000 students were shot one night on the street where he lived).

He spent some time working in Gabon, the location of Albert Schweitzer's hospital, before being sent to the United Nations in New York where he worked alongside Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King.

Then it was back to D.C. to the State Department's East African office and where he took up rugby in his spare time.  During the spring of 1979 Lou met his future wife Judi, who was running a "last stop home for girls in trouble in northern Virginia"  at a rugby party.  The couple married on May 17, 1980 and then took off for four years in Nairobi where Lou was the head of the political section. Their first son, Louis John was born there. The young family settled into a rambling house on an old coffee plantation with a staff of five at their disposal, and spent their free time on safari.

It was then back to D.C. where second son Jay was born, and a final stint in Ethiopia as the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Embassy there. Retiring out of Ethiopia, the family spent "three and a half months" coming home via India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Arriving back in the states they took their time driving from the west to the east coast, and spent several months enjoying the life of retirees until he heard about a job in Madison.

Lou was lured out of his first retirement by the notion that Wisconsin "always had a reputation of reasonably honest government" and the fact that he was looking for a "great place to raise the kids". He signed on at Commerce in October, 1989 thinking that he would "stay two or three years".

Sixteen years later, after starting out as the person in charge of  Wisconsin's overseas offices and ending as an outreach consultant working with companies that are interested in overseas sales, Lou says that his time here has ranged from the very good to the very bad.

When he officially retires – on February 3, 2006 (40 years to the day that he started working for the government) he's planning to "write a little bit" following up on his latest article in the Foreign Service Journal entitled, "Neo-Imperialism and U.S. Foreign Policy…a critique of the current administrations handling of Iraq".

Lou has a lifetime of memories stashed in the vault – including the time he accompanied former-President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn to Mother Theresa's hospice in Ethiopia. While the Carters, he says, are among some of the "amazing people" he met, (Audrey Hepburn was another) other American politicians and celebrities "aren't so impressive" such as the unnamed drunken Congressman he had to drag out of bed to attend a state funeral.

He walks away for a four decades-long career he says with a "certain understanding of the limits of power," and "an appreciation of the incredible range of human behavior." He hopes as well that he has "developed a little humility."

"One sees so many things wrong, in so many ways" (referring in particular to the early 1980's famines in Ethiopia and southern Sudan) that as he ends his career and reflects on the blessings and curses involved throughout the years, "I'll take the blessings part."

Those blessings include continuing to live in Madison, spending more time writing and enjoying time with his family.

-- Barbro McGinn

The newsletter is issued electronically every other month.

Please send comments or questions to Barbro McGinn, editor.

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