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Where To Go For Foreign Affairs Talks? Try This Bethesda Retirement Community

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Ambassador Bill Harrop, left, Jack Frankel and Ambassador George Landau help coordinate the monthly Fox Hill Foreign Affairs Discussion Group. October's talk on "commercial diplomacy" was given by Ambassador Chuck Ford, right.
Rebecca Sheir/WAMU
Ambassador Bill Harrop, left, Jack Frankel and Ambassador George Landau help coordinate the monthly Fox Hill Foreign Affairs Discussion Group. October's talk on "commercial diplomacy" was given by Ambassador Chuck Ford, right.

On a Tuesday night in Bethesda, Maryland, in a buzzing and humming room off the main lobby of Fox Hill, a snazzy retirement condo community, 90-something resident Sherry Migdail is praising the achievements of her fellow retirees.

“My husband and I moved in three-and-a-half years ago; he died a couple of years ago,” she explains as she looks around the room. “But he was the Latin American guy for U.S. News and World Report. The man over there was an oceanographer with the Smithsonian. This lady was a doctor at [George Washington University Hospital] and had been in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation.”

Other residents, she says, were involved with the U.S. foreign service, either as consultants, wives of officers, or officers themselves. And several of those foreign-service officers are responsible for this evening’s gathering: a presentation by Chuck Ford, former ambassador to Honduras. Ford also served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service at the Commerce Department. Tonight, he’s visiting Fox Hill to give a talk on commercial diplomacy.

The lecture is part of Fox Hill’s ongoing Foreign Affairs Discussion Group, coordinated by a resident who knows a little something about foreign affairs: retired American career ambassador Bill Harrop. During his 39 years with the foreign service, Harrop did his share of globetrotting, as ambassador to Guinea in West Africa, Kenya in East Africa, the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the Congo and Israel. 

And when he moved to Fox Hill about eight years ago, he noticed many of his fellow residents had international backgrounds, too – or at least a strong interest in foreign affairs. When some of them approached him about launching a program on the topic, the Foreign Affairs Discussion Group was born. 

“And we’ve had about 50 speakers now, in the last 6 years,” he says. 

Thanks to Harrop’s connections -- and those of fellow retired ambassador George Landau, another Fox Hill resident — those 50 speakers have run the gamut, with expertise on particular places and subjects.

“We’ve had people speaking on China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Japan, South Asia,” Harrop says. “We’ve had speakers on the law of the sea, the future of the Euro, on space issues, international questions to do with space.”

Ambassador Landau’s resume also boasts an impressive roster of countries; he was ambassador to Paraguay, Chile and Venezuela. And he says the goal of the Foreign Affairs Discussion Group is to keep topics timely and relevant.

“Whenever a country has problems and [is] in the headlines, we try and get the relevant people to cover the occasion,” he explains.

Retired attorney Jack Frankel was among those who’d initially approached Bill Harrop about starting a foreign-affairs group. Though Frankel originally thought residents would just discuss international current events amongst themselves.

“Bill Clinton, some years ago, went over to North Korea to bring back a couple of American people who were detained,” he recounts. “And I thought, ‘Oh! Well, let’s use that as a hook.’ And then right away I ran into Bill Harrop, and he says, ‘Oh, just a minute. We can do a lot better than that.’ And he got the ambassador to Korea.”

The Foreign Affairs Discussion Group is one of many activities led by Fox Hill residents, from courses in American literature and Greek mythology to performances of old radio plays. But Frankel says with as many as 60 people attending the foreign affairs group each month, “this is considered to be one of the prime activities at Fox Hill now.”

Bill Harrop says much of the program’s success comes from Fox Hill’s location, so close to the nation’s capital.

“We’ve worked for 40 years in American diplomacy,” he says. “That was our world. And so we know a great many people who share our diplomatic experience and interest. And most of them live in Washington.

“It would be hard to do this in Cedar Rapids, wouldn’t it?” he adds with a smile.

At this point, Bill Harrop and George Landau are the only ambassadors at Fox Hill. Steve Low — the ambassador to Zambia and Nigeria who also helped start the group — died a few years back.

However, as Landau proudly notes, “We just acquired a widow of an ambassador. She just recently moved in.”

“That’s true,” adds Harrop. “An Ambassador to Ecuador.”

And this new arrival adds to the mix of seniors eager to engage and learn. Though, as Sherry Migdail points out, this eagerness is ageless.

“The place is lovely,” she says. “I mean, I have young friends of my daughter’s who say, ‘Can I move in?’ No! You’re too young!”

But even if they can’t “move in,” they can drop in on the Foreign Affairs Discussion Group. The monthly gatherings are free and open to the public.

[Music: "Around the World" by The Hollywood Rhythms Orchestra from Hollywood Film Vol. 5]

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