Former Foreign Service officers recall Kennedy assassination, other events

By Nancy Barthel | For The Compass | November 20, 2013

Prossers were stationed in the Congo when JFK was killed

GREEN BAY — Jim and Mary Prosser of St. Philip Parish have had experiences that most of us only dream of. Their lives have been filled with adventure upon adventure serving the United States as Foreign Service officers with the U.S. Department of State.

Jim and Mary Prosser, members of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, page through a book of letters at their home. The Prossers met while they were Foreign Service officers with the U.S. Department of State. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)
Jim and Mary Prosser, members of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, met while they were Foreign Service officers with the U.S. Department of State. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)

And though it has been 23 years since retirement and choosing to make their permanent home in Green Bay, the Prossers’ life of service representing the interests of America is never far from their minds.

Their lifelong motto together during 53 years of marriage is one of staying positive. “Whatever happens, enjoy it,” explained Jim.

Both now 82, they were hired as communicators. Jim rose through the ranks of the Foreign Service to become integral in a variety of important telecommunications endeavors over 33 years of service. Mary served seven years in Bonn and Munich, Germany, resigning after their marriage (it was the rule back then). Coding and encoding communications was an important part of her work.

Their years together would lead them to living in 11 — and visiting a total of 85 — different countries. Being Catholic has been an integral part of their journey.

The Prossers recalled where they were on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Jim’s assignment had taken them to the Belgian Congo. Back then the Belgian Congo — now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — was always in the news. It had just gotten its independence in 1960.

There is an eight-hour time difference between the Central Time Zone in the United States and the Congo. It was the evening of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when Jim dropped Mary off at the movies and he went back to the embassy to relax on the ham radio.

He had ended one conversation when someone else introduced himself. Of all the people in the world he could have talked with that evening, Jim found himself chatting with someone on a flight crew flying into Dallas.

They conversed for a while, and then Jim recalled, the man said, “Stop a minute.”

The man returned to tell Jim they heard on another frequency that President Kennedy had been shot and he had to get off the line.

“Stunned,” that’s how Jim recalled his reaction to the news, and before anything official had come to the embassy it was he who notified the ambassador about the shooting. They would later get the official word that President Kennedy had died. Mary helped set up the official condolence book at the embassy. “You just wondered what would have happened if he had lived out his presidency,” said Mary.

“There was a Mass at the cathedral and all the Americans were invited to it,” said Mary. It was held the same day President Kennedy was laid to rest.

“Always be prepared, be ready.” That, said Jim, sums up the motto for anyone serving in the Foreign Service.

Jim is a native of Green Bay and a 1950 graduate of Central Catholic High School. Mary was born in Puerto Rico, and by the time she met Jim, she had already seen much of the world. Her father spent much of his 35 years in the U.S. Army as a band director.

Jim’s first assignment in the Foreign Service took him to French Indochina. He watched the French Foreign Legion leave and saw the beginnings of the shifts in the region and concern about communism grow, all ultimately leading to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

He was transferred to Germany, serving a few months in Bonn, then being transferred to Munich. He first met Mary in Bonn, but it wasn’t until she came to Munich that a friendship would grow into love. They drove together to a party and a dispute over directions led to a friendly wager — whoever was wrong had to buy supper. Jim was the loser — or rather winner — because he had to buy the meal, and as Mary said, they’ve been together ever since.

Their lives since have been a series of events that describe how both big and how small the world really is.

They were married at St. Sylvester Church in Munich in 1960 and celebrated at both the city’s famous Oktoberfest and with a reception at the Marine House.

Jim’s entire career was about telecommunications, and through a variety of promotions and transfers, among his experiences was coordinating America’s telecommunications for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks — commonly known as the “The SALT Talks” — between the Soviet Union and the United States.

And during his two years of service in Moscow he oversaw the secure line that allowed communications between the U.S. president and the Soviet leader. It was a fascinating assignment for Jim, a lover of Russian history who has been back twice since retirement to lead tours on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

As they explained, Foreign Service members’ apartments were bugged. They recalled a party they were at, hosted by a reporter for The New York Times. They began joking about how it was too bad whoever was listening couldn’t join them. Suddenly the phone rang and the sounds of a cork popping and a beverage being poured was heard.

Jim was also involved with the complex endeavor of moving telecommunications for NATO headquarters from France to Belgium in 1967.

In Washington, D.C., he was appointed executive director of the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service. It is a network of global telecommunications sites that is charged with providing a reliable and cost-effective communications network for the U.S. foreign affairs community.

“Change was our way of life,” said Jim.

With retirement on the horizon, in 1986 they took their last assignment in Rome, retiring in December 1990. With the papacy of John Paul II, it was an exciting time to be there.

A highlight for Mary was being in the front row during an audience with Pope John Paul II. As he shook her hand, she recalled with a smile how he didn’t let go as he worked his way to other people.

In fact, it is the memories of the many faith experiences they shared in multicultural and international settings, like the midnight Christmas Masses overseas, that are as important to the Prossers as the many pieces of memorabilia that adorn their home.

Not surprisingly, their only child, Stephen, has also made a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He attended college at Marquette University in Milwaukee (which was only two hours away from the Prosser relatives in Green Bay) and was recruited from there. He and his wife Jodi and their two children, Jennifer and Matthew, live in Virginia.

The Prossers thoroughly enjoy sharing their Foreign Service experiences. But they also believe in getting out and staying active. Both have been extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at St. Philip Parish.

There are also hundreds upon hundreds of friends and acquaintances to keep in touch with from around the country and world, and with Christmas card season soon upon us, Jim joked, “The best thing that ever happened to me was e-mail.”

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