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Joseph Limprecht Memorial Website



Eulogy for Ambassador Joseph Limprecht
Howard Sumka, May 24, 2002

Ambassador Limprecht came to Albania in 1999. In his nearly three years there, he made all indelible mark on the country and on its people. He came knowing, or claiming to know, little about Albania.

Over the years, as governments changed, he and I made many courtesy calls on new ministers. I well remember the first round of visits we made in 1999, after the new Government of Prime Minister Meta was in place. He was quick to point out that he wasn't an expert on the Balkans, that he had just arrived from Uzbekistan, and had a lot of learning to do.

We made our last round of calls just in the last few months to the new ministers of Prime Minister Majko's second government. By then, he could no longer make that claim. He still may not have thought of himself as an expert, but that would only have been because his standard for being expert was incredibly high. The Ambassador developed a vast store of knowledge about the politics of Albania, its history and culture. I was always amazed at his ability to pull out in conversation some seemingly obscure bit of Albanian history.

He even became something of an assistance expert. Recently, we made a courtesy call on the current - our third -- Minister of Health. The Ambassador made his usual diplomatic comments and then went into a short riff about primary health care and women's reproductive health. complimented him later on his mastery of the topics and he smiled at me wryly.

Knowledge, though, is only a part of what it takes to do a good job -especially the job of Ambassador. He had the ability to sift through the information, understand the subtleties and nuances, and turn the knowledge into keen analysis about what makes Albania work the way it does. He never deceived himself into thinking he had it all figured out. He knew that Albania, like all of the Balkans to us outsiders, is full of mystery and intrigue. To have thought he had it all figured out would have been a disastrous miscalculation. It could have led him to drop his guard and that would have diminished his effectiveness. He knew that. More importantly, his counterparts in the Government knew that.

It was, I believe, not just his understanding of Albania, but his cautiousness and his healthy dose of skepticism that made him so effective. It was that combination that won him the enduring respect of so many in the Government of Albania, in the international community, and here in Washington among those who relied on his judgment in their policy making.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, during her condolence call to us, quoted someone, just a private citizen, who was lamenting the Ambassador's passing. That person had said he was such a "good representative for the people of'Albania." Fortunately, no one said that to the Ambassador's bosses in Washington, for there is no greater sin than to forget that we in Albania represent the American people and our Government, not that of our hosts. And certainly the Ambassador never made that error. No one was more keenly aware of his responsibility as the foreign policy eyes and ears of America than was he. But that ordinary Albanians thought of him this way was a mark of his genius and his humanity.

Often he and I talked about how the rest of the world viewed Albania. His favorite refrain was how much "perception lagged reality." It is no longer 1975 when Hoxha ordered the construction of the famous bunkers. It is no longer 1991, when the country went through a violent rebellion against oppression. It is no longer 1997, when it rebelled equally violently against a "democratic" government that forgot what democracy is about. And it is no longer 1998, when a weak government could not guarantee the protection of Americans from terrorism and we had to leave. The Ambassador constantly reminded Washington of where we are in 2002, of how much progress had been made and how focused Albania is on joining the Euro-Atlantic structures. This did indeed make him an excellent representative of Albania and its people.

But many of the important things about the Ambassador to those of us who worked with him are far more personal. He made our embassy a place in which each of us could excel. I don't want to pretend he was always easy. He had strong opinions, and he was outspoken. He was demanding, and he could be harsh. But all of that came from his own incredible demands on himself and on what he wanted all of us to achieve - both Americans and Albanians. I have never worked for anyone who gave his staff so much room to succeed. Win his confidence, and you had all the free rein you needed to do your job and make your mark. I watched him carefully. I tried to understand how he thought and took lessons from how he worked with people and handled issues. Many times we confided in each other about this problem or that. I took much away from his advice to me. And I was much honored by his asking me for advice.

Ambassadors and USAID directors often have to struggle to coexist. We work for organizations that see the world through different optics. We sometimes have different agendas. We each have our own rules and constraints. And I would never pretend that he and I agreed on everything all the time. But I never had a better relationship with a boss. More than once when we disagreed, I was able to convince him that my position was valid. When I did, we followed my plan. He never had a problem with pride or ego getting in the way of changing his mind when a better case was made. I respected him enormously for that. And that made it easy, when I couldn't change his mind, to do the necessary with enthusiasm and a full understanding for his point of view.

But the most important thing ! need to say is that Joe Limprecht was a friend of mine. We spent much time together on the road dedicating projects and meeting local people, which was one of the things he found most rewarding. We had just finished a three-day, five-city tour. In Peshkopi, we did our usual meeting in the mayor's office and he said his usual piece and then he said all the things that were usually in my script. But I got my revenge. When we went outside to dedicate the sidewalk USAID had rehabilitated, as usual I stepped to the mike first. We both spoke extemporaneously at these events since we had done so many and knew the lines so well. As I rolled on, I realized I was saying things he usually said, but I just went on. He came to the mike, smiled and said, "The more Howard and I do these dedications, the more we step on each other's lines."

When Joe arrived in Tirana, we were under very fight security restrictions. We could go nowhere without armed guards. For six months, I'd been asldng the RSO if we could join the Saturday Hash. For those of you not familiar with it, this is basically a rambunctious, running and beer drinking group. When I asked, John, the RSO, would look at me like I was from outer space. Then Joe arrived, said he wanted to do the Hash, and John said, "Yes, sir." From that moment, the embassy opened up to the entire community. We dramatically changed the way we operated and expanded our public interactions. Joe and Nancy became stalwarts of the Hash, he becoming known as "Big Daddy Joe," one of the few Hash names that can be mentioned in polite company.

When Joe arrived in Tirana, we were an unaccompanied post. Washington promised him Nancy would be able to come out within three months. Joe made the unusual error of actually believing what Washington told him. It took nine months, but once Nancy arrived we began to feel more like a normal post. We were no longer, as Nancy once said to me, boys at summer camp. We enjoyed that part, we boys. But we knew we would have to return to adulthood at some point.

Joe loved parties and was always at the Marine House for theirs. He and Nancy hosted the best ones in Tirana. On the eve of the September 2000 elections, hundreds of election monitors - international and Albanian -everyone who'd ever run the Hash, and anyone who could make any claim to knowing Joe and Nancy were at the Residence. Lots of beer kegs got emptied that night.

Joe was also a pre-eminent patron of the higher arts in Tirana. More than once, as we traveled around the country, we'd spend time in the gallery of a local artist. He had accumulated quite a collection of local art. Often I accompanied Joe and Nancy to the opera, the regular chamber concerts, and the symphonies in Tirana.

Nancy, your loss is very much our loss. Although we were about to go our separate ways -- you and he to Tampa Bay and me to Sarajevo -- I always expected we would connect again, as one often does in the Foreign Service. i expected to have friend I could call on for advice. I will miss him greatly.