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Speech at Posthumous Induction of Joseph Limprecht into Westside High School Hall of Fame
It is a great honor to be invited here this evening for the induction of my late husband, Joseph Limprecht, into the Westside High School Hall of Fame. In death, Joe has kept me busy acknowledging honors on his behalf. In July, my mother-in-law Marge and I returned from Albania where a university library, built with the help of the University of Nebraska, the Soros Foundation, and the US government, was dedicated to my husband’s memory. It joins the street, rose garden, lake, and wing of the Police Academy already memorializing him there. What was it about Joe Limprecht that his death not only shook his family’s life to its foundation and stunned his friends back home, but grieved the country to which he was Ambassador as well?
Howard Sumka, a friend and colleague at the US Embassy in Albania, said that in the days after Joe’s death, a private Albanian citizen who lamented the Ambassador's passing had been quoted as calling the Ambassador a "good representative for the people of Albania." Fortunately, Howard, explained, no one reported that statement to the Ambassador's bosses in Washington, for there is no greater sin than for a US diplomat to forget that he represents the American people and its Government, not that of his hosts. Certainly, Howard said, “the Ambassador had 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.”
At the time Joe was nominated to be Ambassador to Albania in 1999, he claimed to know little about the country or the Balkans. But he began studying in the systematic way he had already studied Germany, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Joe enjoyed the unique position he was in as Ambassador to have access to the country’s intelligentsia and their ideas. Joe was a good listener, a voracious reader, and an astute and pragmatic thinker. He developed a vast store of knowledge about the politics of Albania and its history and culture, often drawing parallels, historian that he was, with similar periods of American or European history. Joe brought a sense of perspective to events that those caught up in them often fail to see, and I think it contributed to not only to his sanity and calm, but to his ability to give heart and courage to those despairing of or impatient for a solution.
But along with that, Joe, as representative of “the world’s sole remaining superpower”, as he was so fond of referring to the U.S.), had a role that he could play to the hilt. Constantly in the news, giving interviews, making speeches, attending cultural and civic events, Joe had one of the most recognized faces in Albania. Once when a friend was visiting me in Tirana, I suggested to her, ”Let’s turn on TV and see what Joe’s doing!” Having listened to many of his speeches, I commented once to him on their didactic tone. Joe told me that he had found that his most effective speeches were those in which he, after complimenting the Albanians for the difficult progress they had already achieved toward creating a stable, democratic country, would clarify the work yet to be done (such as establishing the rule of law, fighting corruption, and working for transparency in government) and inspire them to do it. Given the stage Albania was at in its development, and given its relationship with the US, almost all Joe’s speeches were exhortations. Indeed Albanians were seeking inspiration and assurance that they were capable of achieving what was necessary. The country had been left practically a basket case by 50 years of a repressive Communist dictatorship followed by two periods of total anarchy and financial bankruptcy. With frequent and often violent political battles and cronyism undermining attempts to build a civil society and meritocracy, the typical Albanian citizen had little trust in politicians.
They had tremendous respect for America and its representative, however. Joe made a point of visiting practically every city in Albania, meeting with its mayor and town council, listening to their problems and accomplishments. Because of his curiosity, interest, and attempt to insure that US aid was spread as equitably as possible, Joe was frequently regarded as a greater friend of Albania than some of their own elected officials. That he would eventually represent his country as an Ambassador was beyond Joe’s wildest dreams. Joe joined the Foreign Service in 1975, and was an excellent officer, rising through the ranks, getting a reputation as an effective manager, a insightful thinker, and someone with a particular knack for working with difficult people and problems. When Joe was assigned to be Deputy Ambassador in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he told me it was his big chance to run an Embassy (the Deputy Ambassador, or DCM is basically like the Chief Operations Office of a company)—something he had always hoped to do, even if it was in the middle of nowhere (a strategically located nowhere, nonetheless).
Joe definitely rose to the challenge. Under him, the Embassy grew and morale improved. While helping run the Embassy in Tashkent, Joe taught economics at the University there and, for the first time in his life, took a role (and one of the leads, at that) in an amateur theatrical production produced by English speaking expats. He told me acting was not difficult. In his official role, he was performing every day of his life. Whether playing a part or doing his part, Joe enjoyed his role and had an ability to make it his own. A fit and active guy, both informal and friendly, Joe would work out daily with the guards and Marines and almost every weekend went hiking and beer drinking with the Hash House Harriers. He also threw great parties to whom everyone from fellow diplomats to fellow Hashers, drivers and Peace Corps volunteers were invited. This is not behavior typical of ambassadors but it was a persona that Joe chose to project. Fun-loving, down-to-earth, witty, tough, powerful, direct—all these characteristics came together to form an irresistible man that many, many came to love.
I met Joe in Richard Winchell’s Far East History and Philosophy class at Westside. I was a senior, and Joe was home for Thanksgiving from the University of Chicago, visiting his favorite teacher. My life changed its direction, for I then followed Joe: first to the University of Chicago, then to UC Berkeley, London, Washington, Bonn, Boston, Germany, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Albania.
A fifth generation Nebraskan, Joe never forgot his roots. Between all our postings we always returned to Nebraska, and Nebraska returned the favor when Senator Chuck Hagel introduced Joe for his Senate hearings prior to confirmation. It was Nebraska art that we hung in our residence in Tirana, and it was to Omaha that Joe came to speak of his work in Albania. It was Joe’s great regret that his father Hollis did not live to see him make Ambassador. Having had such a well-known father, Joe would have been pleased to receive this honor and recognition on his own behalf in the town of his father’s fame A bit of a bohemian intellectual when we met, a brash and fairly intolerant person, Joe mellowed over the years, and though still forthright and occasionally blunt in expression, became increasingly comfortable in his own skin, increasingly happy in his own life, proud of his children, content with his own accomplishments. But the main thing I will always remember about Joe-- the thing that he has bequeathed to me-- is his joy of life and his enjoyment and pleasure in the moment, his savoring of every opportunity. Having narrowly escaped two medical death sentences--Hodgkins Disease when he was 30 and pancreatitis when he was 43--Joe was not one to take each year for granted. He died too young, but his life was varied and full, and if he could have staged his own demise, he would have had it no other way: in the fullness of his life, at the pinnacle of his career, on a beautiful spring day in a remote and gorgeous place in a country whose hope and self-respect he had reinforced with his own love and optimism.