I began life as an only child, born in Wisconsin at the beginning of the Depression. My father was a lineman for the Bell Telephone Company, and my mother a housewife. She had attended a small college for two years; he was the only one of seven children to finish high school.

          We traveled around a lot in my early years, depending upon where new phone lines were being strung. We lived for some of that time in a small, boxy house-trailer, with me in the upper bunk. I went to three different schools during my kindergarten year.  

          I had nearly finished grade school when my father left the phone business and bought a rocky farm in northern Wisconsin, not far from where he and my mother were raised. I went to a one-room schoolhouse, with all eight grades taking turns with the single teacher. We had horses, no tractor, and a plank wagon for mucking out behind the cows. In the spring, we picked rocks that had been pushed to the surface by the frost. It was hard going, and my mother and I were both pleased when my father took over the local telephone company as manager. I liked climbing poles and tending switchboard more than pitching hay and manuring the fields.

          Midway through high school, we moved to Minnesota, where my father became a farm implement dealer. I decided late to go to college, but Hamline University opened its enrollment to let me in. College years were uneventful, marked mainly by which card game I specialized in each year. Except for one formative experience. I applied for SPAN, the Student Project for Amity among Nations, a summer study abroad program, and went to England in 1950. My research project was to try to discover the rationale of the Labour Party in selecting which industries to nationalize.  


Reserving my opinion

but willing to be entertained
The farm in Minnesota

          My father had already offered me a third of the implement business if I would manage it, and I had accepted. SPAN changed all that. I became interested in international affairs, and went to study at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service when I finished at Hamline, earning a second bachelor's degree.

          The Korean War was on when I graduated and I volunteered for the draft, knowing I would be called sooner or later. Assigned to Camp Gordon, Georgia, I was fairly miserable and determined to get out of there. After nearly being court-martialed for writing to my senator, Hubert Humphrey, I was transferred to Tokyo with a psychological warfare unit. I traveled through Asia on leave, flying space-available on military aircraft, culminating in ten days in India with less than $50 in my pocket. My interest in international work deepened.

          After finishing my draftee stint, I returned home and fattened cattle for a few months on a farm my father had acquired. We hit the market luckily with our first herd, and I traveled East in a new car bought with the proceeds to see friends from schools and the army. At Georgetown, I called on the placement director, and regaled her with tales of being down and out in Asia.

          When I returned home to feed more cattle, there was a wire from the placement director asking if I was interested in being advance man for several teams of scientists planning to observe an annular solar eclipse in the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Ceylon, Cambodia, and Taiwan. Was I?  It was the greatest job in the world at that moment, or so I remain convinced. I spent three months traveling around the world alone, checking out conditions at often rather remote sites in those exotic countries. The Duke of Harrar lent me a private railway car, equipped with interpreter, armed guard, and servant, for my visit to Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. Lots of experiences could be related, all positive. I went back with a team of scientists to observe the eclipse at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (Many of the photos on this site I took on that trip; the others are by Pen, mostly from our time in Lebanon.)

          After writing final reports, however, it was over. No more eclipses were anticipated for several years. I shopped for jobs, and wound up in the junior executive program of the CIA. The next six years don't need to be examined. I learned how to write a good report, how to weigh information skeptically, and a few other things. I can steam open an envelope if I have to. Mostly, they were not years very well spent except for one thing: I met and married my wife, Penelope, during that time, and we produced three children.

          I was seeking an exit from the Agency, when an old army buddy turned up as an assistant director of the US Commission on Civil Rights. He offered me a job working with state advisory committees and I leaped at it. It was a clear break from the intelligence field, and it gave me a chance to travel widely in the US, working with dedicated people seeking to change their communities through legal means. It was a good job, and I enjoyed it, but I remained keenly interested in international work.

          My break came when someone I knew recommended me to Frank Sutton at the Ford Foundation. Frank was a sociologist much interested in Africa. He had joined the Foundation to work on domestic programs but found himself drawn to new opportunities to work on African problems with Champ Ward. I went to New York for an interview with these men and stayed six hours. It was heady stuff, an intellectual environment to dream of. They were interested in me, and sent me to Personnel to work out the details.

          The next day Champ Ward called and said the Foundation's president, Henry Heald, would not approve of my appointment because my association with the Agency was only six months past. I was devastated. More months passed and then I got a call from Frank Sutton inviting me to go to East Africa as his assistant to open an office. I couldn't figure out how my background could be too hot for a New York assignment, but okay for an overseas one, but I didn't argue. After four days in New York, we all flew to Nairobi. It was exciting, finding office space, hiring staff, thinking out programs.

          After six weeks, Frank returned to take up a reverse sabbatical at MIT, leaving me in charge, but with little knowledge of the organization. The biggest challenge came when a donor's meeting was held at Lake Como to secure funding for the University of East Africa. Frank's wife was sick, so he asked me to attend and said he would send a detailed memo with his thoughts on the Foundation's interests. The letter failed to arrive. I was on the spot. Sir Andrew Cohen was in the chair, a formidable fellow. Each day he would call on me for a statement of what the Foundation was prepared to support, and each day I had to waffle. Frank finally flew over and it turned out only one word, agriculture, had to be deleted from my statements, but those were anxious days.

          We lived in Nairobi for four glorious years. Working for Frank was a mind-broadening experience. I could write logically before that time, but he made me more aware of style. He's a classy, intriguing writer. Starting a new program from scratch was a challenge. The Foundation at that time was the sixth largest donor in the international development business. Another of the world's greatest jobs.

          After Nairobi, the Foundation sent me to the Littauer School at Harvard, now the JFK School of Government, for an MPA. Jim Watson, the DNA nobelist who had visited East Africa for the Foundation, offered us his 150-year-old house, not far from the Square, at a decent price. It was my first serious academic learning experience and I loved it.

          After Harvard, I spent two years in professional personnel work at the Foundation in New York, then a year studying the Middle East in preparation for my next assignment, five years in Beirut as Middle East Representative. By then Dave Bell and Mac Bundy had bureaucratized the Foundation somewhat, so crafting a program was not quite as free-wheeling and autonomous an exercise as in East Africa, and we were dealing with declining budgets rather than expanding ones.  But it was still a superb job, at least until Beirut fell apart. Our last year there, 1975-6, Pen and I farmed out the children to relatives and friends in the US and traveled together in the region so she would not be left alone in Beirut. The rest of the staff had been relocated to Cairo or Amman, but I needed to settle with local staff and put closure to a number of grants before closing the office. Since then the Middle East program has been run from Cairo, something I resisted because it makes the program too Egypt-centered.

          Back in New York I spent some time evaluating the Foundation's work in economic planning and management in East Africa, and then went on loan to the Brookings Institution to work with Lester Gordon of Harvard on a study of foreign aid for the new Carter administration. My chapter of the report proposed that science and technology be taken out of AID and made into a separate institute for cooperation with the third world. President Carter liked this idea, and announced his intention to create such an organization. I left the Foundation and joined a small team of people engaged in planning the Congressional presentation, working from the Office of the Science Adviser, Frank Press.

          After two years, Congress authorized an Institute for Scientific and Technical Cooperation, but the appropriations committee failed to fund it. Eventually, its new authorities were rolled into AID, thus defeating its main purpose. On fourth down and one, Carter elected to punt.

          In the midst of the ISTC planning exercise, I had been asked by the head of the Reconstruction Council in Lebanon to consult with him on rebuilding that shattered country. I went to Beirut on one-month visits three or four times a year for about five years, drafting plans, negotiating with the World Bank, etc. During that time, the situation gradually worsened, culminating in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. After that, USAID provided a five-person consulting team to the council, and I was no longer needed, to my relief.

          For several years, 1980-85, I worked as a private consultant. For a year I was senior international fellow of the Kettering Foundation, during which time I wrote an account of the ISTC experience. Then I was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to write an appendix to their study on the US capacity for research on tropical diseases. The appendix dealt with institutional mechanisms in the US for collaboration with foreign research centers.

          By this time, my two oldest children were off at college, and we moved to our summer house in Vermont so my son could attend a smaller high school than those available in the Washington area. I maintained an apartment in Washington, but returned home for four days every two weeks. Our Vermont house remains base camp for the family.

          In 1985, HIID asked me to go to Indonesia to help set up an overseas training office in the planning ministry, BAPPENAS. Pen had by then started a dress making business in Vermont, so she couldn't spend full time there, but we had a good year and she found a local batik factory to produce fabrics for her expanding enterprise. When we returned home, I remained with Harvard as manager of an international diarrheal disease research project, and she employed five or six full time people in her business. We traveled together back and forth to Cambridge where we still maintain an apartment.

          We brought back some Indonesian antiques and furniture with us which people found attractive, so I decided to open an antique store featuring Asian goods. Both dress business and antique store were in an old barn in Pawlet, VT. In 1990, I retired from Harvard and devoted more time to the businesses. I continued to do consulting part time, however, mostly for HIID and the UNDP.

          The former secretary-general of BAPPENAS was promoted to Minister in the President's office, and he invited me to help him devise a program for upgrading the staff. It was a bit sensitive, but we worked together periodically for about three years before his ready access to funding dried up as a result of a change in ministers of finance. Pen would travel with me to Jakarta several times a year, designing fabrics and selecting antiques while I wrote papers. It was a highly satisfying pattern of existence, dividing our time between Jakarta, Cambridge, and Vermont.

          This idyllic life style was jolted in February 1992, when Pen developed viral encephalitis. She was in intensive care for a week and spent a month in the hospital altogether. The disease left her somewhat damaged, and she has not been able to resume control of her business. We carried it on for a while, but closed it, with substantial losses, in November 1994. In April of 1995, she suffered another severe bout of seizures, which resulted in a complete loss of short-term memory. She remains cognitively intact, but can't drive or live alone.

          I continued to consult with HIID and the UNDP periodically. I visited eastern Africa to write a report for HIID, and went to Iraq, Sharjah, Oman, Uzbekistan (see Tashkent Journal), Ukraine (see Kiev Journal), and Egypt for the UNDP. Pen remained in Vermont in the care of a retired nurse who also tended the antique store on weekends.

          On the brighter side, in every sense, are our children. The oldest, Sahlu, is a psychiatrist, who trained in psychiatry at the University of Rochester. She and her husband Mark now live with us and care for Pen when I travel. Shelby, the second, is a physicist, who left teaching at Colby College to take a job with Xerox when she married Lewis Rothberg, a physicist/chemist at the University of Rochester. Andrew is married to Helen and has three daughters.  He has a Wharton MBA and works for a brokerage firm in New York. Mary Jo, a surprise package who was born to an old girl friend when I was in the army in Japan and had been adopted, turned up in the mid-1980s and joined the family as if she had always been part of it. She saw what the others were doing, and promptly went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for an MPA and on to Brandeis University for a PhD. She is now a health care researcher in Boston, living with her daughter Natalie.

          All of the children were marvelous during Pen's illnesses and since then. Those not here take time from their busy lives to be with us a lot, and they each call a couple of times a week to see how things are going. They have been essential elements in my own stability during this trying period.

          In 1955, when I was working on the solar eclipse project, I chanced to have my palm read twice, once in New York and once in Saigon. Both readers told me the same memorable thing: that I would live until I was 64 years old. That was comforting for a while. I learned to fly in East Africa, for example, without undue fear. But now I'm 70, and feel as if Iím living on borrowed time.

          In retirement, I enrolled as a graduate student in the Human and Organizational Development program at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. It was fun and instructive, but I finally decided I needed to proceed in my own directions. I applied to the MacArthur Foundation for a grant to study the Singapore development experience.  I wanted to identify the policies the government pursued that fostered Singaporeís remarkable human development, as well as economic, environmental, and fertility successes, since independence. The Foundation claimed it wanted innovative proposals, and my rejection in the first round remains a very sore point.

          Since them, with the help of Sahlu and Mark, I have been working on my web site. I hope it will be a record for my children and grandchildren, but I am also hopeful that interaction with readers can be a way to advance knowledge of the complicated elements of the development process.

Courtney Nelson      October 18, 2000

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