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Relying on the Kindness of Strangers — The Start of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation

Established in 1980, the Una Chapman Cox Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the effectiveness and professionalism of the U.S. Foreign Service. Its founder, Una Chapman Cox, created it after a Foreign Service officer named Royal Bisbee got her out of a dilemma in Bombay in 1948. Her gratitude inspired her to do what she could to help the Foreign Service. You can learn more about the foundation here.

In the following excerpts from ADST’s oral history collection, Royal Bisbee, who was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2010, gives his account of his fateful encounter with Ms. Cox. Betty Atherton, a Foreign Service spouse interviewed by Mary Louise Weiss in 1987, talks about the creation of the foundation.

A Passage to India
Royal Bisbee

Q: We are talking about the immediate post-war period. Life was quite different then…. It was pretty freewheeling.

BISBEE: It was not only freewheeling, but people thought they could do anything they wanted to do. It was just not possible. It was just like Miss Cox, for instance. She came to the coast of India on a ship from Nairobi. She just thought she could get off the ship, come ashore, and go do anything she wanted to. She couldn’t. It was not possible to do that, certainly not without her passport and other documents. So what happened was she landed in jail.

This was in 1948.…Her full name was Una Chapman Cox.

She was incarcerated, in jail. I was called by the locals. “Sahib, come quickly. The police have one lady in jail and she has to be taken care of. Come quickly.” As soon as I found out what the evidence was in terms of who she was and why she was there, I went and talked with the Consul General. He said, “Do what you can. Get her out.”

That’s exactly what we did. What I did was to take my local right-hand man and go and interview her to find out what ship she had come from, and to send word back by the local agent to get her documents and papers, get them validated locally, and get her out of jail. The Consul General put her up and got her off to New Delhi and points east.…

Q: I’m surprised the authorities would make a fuss about this.

BISBEE: They didn’t really. I smoothed it out as much as possible. They didn’t know who she was or what she was doing there….They didn’t know what she was up to. The captain of the ship was of no account. He was a drunk.

Q: How did she react?

BISBEE: She was very pleased. She was a person who was interested in what was going on. That was the reason why she had come ashore, because she was interested in what was transpiring. Who was to know that later on she was going to be.…

Q: You might explain the reason why we are dwelling on this. The Una Chapman Cox Foundation has been a significant factor in the Foreign Service. Many years later, she set up the foundation to help things dealing with the Foreign Service.

BISBEE: She was instrumental in donating large amounts of money to aid and further the ability of Foreign Service Officers to broaden their horizons and academic activities, without which they would not have had the opportunity to accomplish. It has been a very fine opportunity….

Q: You had no idea this was in the offing?

BISBEE: No, I had no idea who she was or what she was until a couple of years ago when I was informed.

What could she do to repay the Foreign Service
Betty Atherton

If anyone had asked me ten years ago who Una Chapman Cox was, I would have said I haven’t a clue. In subsequent years I have learned a great deal, and I’m very grateful to Una Chapman Cox. Most, no, all Foreign Service people should be as well. She was a very wealthy Texan woman, owning land and oil and timber, who was traveling around the world by ship just after the Second World War. When she disembarked in Bombay,

she, for one reason or another, neglected to take her passport with her. She was picked up by the police in Bombay and put in jail.

An as yet unidentified vice consul from the consulate in Bombay went to see her and took her some fruit and food, befriended her and got her released from jail and back to her boat in time to sail. She was so eternally grateful that–and now we are talking thirty years later–she asked a Foreign Service officer whom she knew from her home town of Corpus Christi if there was anything she could do to repay the Foreign Service for what this young man had done for her in Bombay. He said, “Well, why don’t you establish a foundation for the Foreign Service, and why don’t you do it while you are alive?  Because that way you say exactly what you want it to be for.” She established the Una Chapman Cox Foundation, the sole purpose of which is to further and strengthen the Foreign Service.…

The whole purpose of the foundation is to do whatever it can to be of assistance to the Foreign Service, and while money is not yet as great an amount as it will be when the estate is finally settled, it has, nevertheless, sent a Foreign Service couple to the Aspen Institute, among other programs. It created a series of scholarships for sabbatical leaves for Foreign Service officers. It’s done its best to try to improve the Speakers Bureau in the State Department, so that the State Department is more of an advocate for itself.