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Peace Corps to Ambassador: Darryl Johnson in Thailand

Many young people enter the Peace Corps with the idea, if not the outright goal, that they might eventually become a diplomat. In 1963, Darryl Norman Johnson was just 24 years old when he sent off his application to the Peace Corps almost on a whim. He had also taken the Foreign Service exam around the same time, which he recalled as being the hardest test of his life.

Darryl Johnson (1962) | Friends of Thailand
Darryl Johnson (1962) | Friends of Thailand

But he ended up passing his oral examination weeks later, and could have begun his career in the Foreign Service right then and there––but by then he was already halfway through his Peace Corps training. Feeling obligated to see it through, Johnson put diplomacy on hold and went on to spend the next two years in Thailand as one of the country’s first volunteers. How many people could say they’d do the same?

Far from being detrimental to his career, Johnson would go on to distinguish himself, over a career spanning four decades, as one of America’s top diplomats and Asia specialists. From 1965 to 2005, between stints at the State Department in Washington, he served in some of the top U.S. missions abroad, including the American Embassy in Beijing, the American Institute in Taiwan, and the American Embassy in Moscow. But when he was given the last major assignment of his career, Johnson felt like he had “won the lottery.” He was nominated U.S. Ambassador to Thailand in 2001.

In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps and the enduring connection between the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, this is the first in a series of “Moments in U.S. diplomatic history” that look at individuals who were given the rare distinction of being assigned as ambassadors to countries where they previously served as Peace Corps volunteers. Excerpts include Johnson’s experience with the Peace Corps in Thailand; his life there as a teacher, young husband and father; the moments of poignancy he experienced years later upon his return as ambassador; and finally, the difficulty of having to leave for the last time, at the end of 2004––just days after the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck Thailand and the country needed help.

Darryl Johnson’s interview was conducted by David Reuther on March 26, 2006.

Read Darryl Johnson’s full oral history HERE.
Read Moments highlighting former Peace Corps volunteers in the Foreign Service HERE.

Drafted by Daniel Schoolenberg

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Excerpts:

“Thailand was… really hot and humid, and the welcoming garlands of jasmine were full of bugs.”

           
Johnson (left) and his students in front of a school building at Chakkhamkhanaton School | Friends of Thailand
Johnson (left) and his students in front of a school building at Chakkhamkhanaton School | Friends of Thailand

Arriving in Thailand

I met my first wife, Carol Lee Franz, on the first day of training, and we were married on February 9, 1963, at my family home; the ceremony was performed by Dr. Robert G. Albertson, my former professor at Puget Sound.

Lee and I and the others in our group left for Thailand on February 14, had an overnight stopover in Tokyo, then arrived in Bangkok on February 16 (one result of this timing was that Lee had no birthday that year because we crossed the international dateline around midnight on February 14 and missed February 15). Our first impression of Thailand was that it was really hot and humid, and the welcoming garlands of jasmine were full of bugs.

During our first week in Thailand, we had several orientation sessions and got to know the PC staff and several people from the Thai Ministry of Education. Lee and I stayed with a young host family, a couple who had recently returned from studying at the University of Michigan, Thermphan and Darawan Bunnag––after whom we later named our daughter. They were from a prominent family; her father was later the head of the Royal Thai Air Force.

One event of note that week: because we were among the first PC Volunteers to come to Thailand––Group 3––the Ambassador hosted a reception in our honor at his Residence. Little did I realize that one day 40 years later I would be living in that Residence and hosting a reception for the members of my Peace Corps group!

“Our arrival was classic––no one was there to meet us.”

           
Darryl, Kathleen and Darawa Johnson (center) with two other couples who had babies (August 31, 1964). | Friends of Thailand
Darryl, Kathleen and Darawa Johnson (center) with two other couples who had babies (August 31, 1964). | Friends of Thailand

Living and Teaching in Buriram and Lamphun

JOHNSON: At the end of that first week, we left for Buriram, a relatively poor province in Northeastern Thailand, accessible only by train twice per day. Our arrival was classic––no one was there to meet us, and we had no idea where to go or even whom to ask for. Fortunately, some concerned people who got off the same train took it upon themselves to take care of us, and before long a group of people from the school arrived and hustled us off to a typical Thai-style house, which was to be our residence. They were profusely apologetic.

We had arrived just before the school holiday, so we were able to take our time getting adjusted. Although school was not in session, we did start giving English language classes to teachers and officials and business people. Not long after that, Lee became ill and had to go to Bangkok to be closer to medical care. We discovered that her “illness” was actually pregnancy.

Peace Corps did not have a policy at that time about volunteers having babies. But fortunately for us, three couples in Group 1 had already had kids, and two other couples in our group were already expecting. So PC decided not to send us back to the States, but rather to transfer us to a place where Lee could receive good medical care. That place was Lamphun, about 20 miles south of Chiang Mai, and the medical facility was the McCormick Hospital, a U.S. missionary hospital where Lee was a patient of Dr. Edwin McDaniel, who later delivered our daughter, Darawan, whose Thai name means “complexion like a star.”

Q: …Any of your students ever turn out to do interesting things?

JOHNSON: Oh, yes. Very interesting. I kept up with some of them and the first year that I was there in Lamphun was the first year that the American Field Service program was sending Thai kids to the United States for their senior year of high school. Two of my kids were nominated for that program and went that first year (1963-64) and then two others the second year (1964-65).

The first year one of the kids who went was the best student I had the whole time I was there. He came from a very poor family, had been raised in a wat. In the States he lived with a family near Detroit. Just to sort of condense the story, after going to the States, he came back and was in the first graduating class at Chiang Mai University, and from there went to Chiang Mai University Medical School and graduated number one in his class in the first class from that institution… He has meanwhile gone back to Lamphun and set up a clinic of his own called Clinic Mo Kamtorn (Dr. Kamtorn). And his two sons are both doctors. He was smart in everything, but he was especially good in English and is still. It really makes such a difference.

In the second group, one of the guys, this fellow Annop, did his AFS year in Missouri, I think. The girl in the second group, Chawiwan, went to California. Anyway, Annop later went back to go to college in the States and lived in Florida for eight years and worked with George Papagiannis, then came back and is now the head of the English Department at Chiang Mai University. He often works for the Consulate and for the Embassy when we need an interpreter because he’s virtually a native speaker of English now.

The other student, Chawiwan, is now the Assistant Dean of the nursing school at Chiang Mai University; she’s the one who went to California. I had not seen or kept in touch with her, but she was involved in helping to organize the welcoming banquet for us when we went to Lamphun the first time as Ambassador; she and her husband are still living in that area. And she is the person who handles external exchange programs for the CMU nursing school––including the program with the University of Washington. Small world.

“I had won the lottery… truly a dream come true.”

           
Ambassador Johnson and wife Kathleen Johnson at a dinner event while hosting a reunion for Thailand 3 group (2003) | Friends of Thailand
Ambassador Johnson and wife Kathleen Johnson at a dinner event while hosting a reunion for Thailand 3 group (2003) | Friends of Thailand

Ambassador to Thailand

JOHNSON: Jim Kelly had been confirmed without difficulty and he took over the EAP Bureau as Assistant Secretary in mid-April. About the same time there was a problem in Indonesia, and Jim asked Ralph (“Skip”) Boyce, the Deputy Assistant Secretary with responsibility for that region, to take on the role of Ambassador to Indonesia. Skip was, at the time, expecting to go to Thailand as Ambassador, and his papers had already gone to the White House. Skip had served in Thailand twice, and his Thai language skill was the best ever in the U.S. Foreign Service. Kelly was also trying to find an ambassadorship for Ray Burghardt, who had been my successor both in Beijing and in Taipei. Ray was due to complete his assignment as Director of AIT-Taipei in 2002. Again for reasons of serendipity, Hanoi opened up. At one point, Jim asked me whether I spoke Vietnamese; I said, no, but Ray did. On April 24, I was in my office on the phone when Jim Kelly came to my door and made the Thai gesture of greeting, the “wai.” So I knew that through this convoluted sequence of events, I had won the lottery and would be going to Bangkok as the U.S. Ambassador––truly a dream come true from the time I came into the Foreign Service 36 years earlier.

The first visitors to our Residence were Ambassador Leonard Unger, his wife, and son Daniel. Unger had been Ambassador to Thailand for nearly six years, 1967-73, and had also been our last Ambassador to the Republic of China (Taiwan). He and his family were on a visit to the region before his son went to Vietnam to study for a few months. Accompanying them that day was Patricia (Trish) Young, the widow of Ambassador Kenneth Todd Young, who had been Ambassador when my Peace Corps group arrived in Thailand in 1963. Small world.

Our first trip out of Bangkok was to Chiang Mai, partly to visit the Consulate General there, led by Consul General Eric Rubin, and partly to visit the small provincial town of Lamphun, where I had spent most of my Peace Corps time in 1963-65. It was a memorable trip, including visits to the McCormick Hospital, where my daughter, Dara, was born, to the school in Lamphun where I had taught, to an elegant Northern-style welcoming dinner prepared by people who had been my students 40+ years earlier. One of the guests, Mr. Pramuan Chilanond, quoted from the farewell toast he had given when my family and I departed from Lamphun in 1965, saying that he hoped my career in the U.S. diplomatic service would be successful, and that I would return someday as the American Ambassador to Thailand! That was a moving moment.

Our second trip out of Bangkok was to the Northeast, where we stopped in Buriram, the province where my Peace Corps assignment began. Coming back 38 years later, I was amazed to find that not only did some of the elders remember, but they had even made me a copy of the message announcing our arrival––one day later than the day we actually arrived! They were at some pains to prove that the error was not theirs!

One time when I was Ambassador I was playing golf and having lunch in Chiang Mai when this former teaching friend arranged for 14 of my former students to show up for lunch! And they told stories for an hour or more about the English names I had given them, and their fear of being called on in class. It was as though we had just left the class that morning.

“It was painful for us to depart in the wake of such a disaster”

           
Ambassador Darryl Johnson and former teaching colleague Sumethee Srisaengkaew looking at old photos during a visit to Chakkhamkhanaton School in Lamphun (2002) | Friends of Thailand
Ambassador Darryl Johnson and former teaching colleague Sumethee Srisaengkaew looking at old photos during a visit to Chakkhamkhanaton School in Lamphun (2002) | Friends of Thailand

Leaving Thailand

JOHNSON: We packed our household goods and sent them off just before Christmas 2004. And on our last weekend in country, we went to visit the Elephant Training Center in Lampang Province, near Chiang Mai. We had been there before, and really enjoyed spending time with friends and with the elephants. Then on the morning of December 26, one of the people in our group received a phone call saying that there had been a terrible “flood” of some kind in Phuket. But we did not have any frame of reference so we could not tell what exactly had happened… It was not until we got back to Bangkok and turned on the TV that we saw evidence of the terrible tsunami that had struck Phuket and other areas along the west coast of the Kra Peninsula at 8 am that morning.

We departed as planned on the early morning of December 28, exactly three years from the date of our arrival. But I was working up to the last minute to get Thai government clearance to bring in some large cargo planes from Okinawa to the Thai naval air base at Utapao, southeast of Bangkok. This base served as the operational center for the huge relief and recovery effort mounted by the U.S.

It was painful for us to depart in the wake of such a disaster, but it was time to move on to the next phase of our lives. I officially retired from the Foreign Service on Friday, January 5, 2005.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in English, University of Washington 1956-1960
MA in English, Princeton University 1960-1962
Peace Corps 1963-1965
Buriram, Lamphun; Thailand––Volunteer
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
Moscow, Soviet Union—First Secretary 1974-1977
Beijing, China—Political Counselor 1984-1987
Taipei, Taiwan—Director of the American Institute in Taiwan 1995-1999
Bangkok, Thailand—Ambassador 2001-2005