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Stempel of love

Former Consul General for the U.S. John D. Stempel talks about diplomacy, his life in Chennai and the affairs of his heart

John D. Stempel believes in faith-based diplomacy — Pic. by S. Thanthoni

HE IS still as tall, lean and as American as the traditional slice of apple pie.

John D. Stempel might have stopped being Consul General for the United States of America at Chennai a good l6 years ago but his enthusiasm for talking, teaching, explaining the American point of view continues to propel him forward with an attraction that can only be described by one word: Unstoppable.

"How would you like me to pose?" he asks the photographer.

"Can you give us an Arnold Schwarzenegger grin?" we suggest.

"Like this?" he asks stretching his mouth wide in an Arnie the Terminator smile. "But I'm not so big, am I? I'm not as big as Arnold?" he wonders out loud, stopping in mid-smile. We tell him that it's fine; we are not looking for an exact look-alike, just the smile.

Book on Iran

By the time he left India, he was already well known in academic circles for a book on Iran that he had written called "Inside the Iranian Revolution" (Bloomington IN Indiana University Press, l981) which is still considered a definitive view of the events that led to the sudden collapse of the Shah's regime and the subsequent backlash as reflected by an American perspective. It was therefore only natural that he was asked to teach at "The Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, on retiring, where he continues as Senior Professor of International Relations. "Do you know," he asks indignantly continuing the conversation on American attitudes to Iran, "There are 112 people working on Iraq and the Iranian desk has just 2 people?"

It's a truism that an old diplomat never retires. He returns to re-arrange the furniture in the countries that he has served, but as Stempel observes Iran is still out of bounds for him.

It is furniture and not foreign policy that we talk about since Stempel has agreed to describe how he was forced to re-arrange his life soon after he left Chennai. His first wife Nancy had made a name for herself redecorating their home at Chennai. She had painted the narrow pencil vaulted ceiling of their official living room at the "Riverside" mansion a pale blue, curtained the window seats and matching round bolsters, with beautiful crewel embroidered fabrics from Kashmir in jewelled colours, hung Indian dhurries from the high walls in the informal dining space and created a floating garden at the entrance foyer using an enormous "urli" fitted on a pedestal. One of the most elegant pieces that they had was a tall lectern type of bookshelf, just to accommodate the family dictionary! Their joint retirement plan was to make over a stately house that they had bought for themselves in Kentucky. As Stempel describes it they had barely settled in for five months, when they decided that they were headed to Splitsville, an elegant term for divorce, and Nancy left taking most of the antique furniture. It was decided to put the house up for auction, but he was able to retain possession of the house. I was longing to ask about the dictionary stand, but Stempel is raring to tell me how he began to date at the age of 58!

"It's not an easy thing to start dating again at that age," he explains, "It's really difficult coming out of a relationship, so of course I really didn't want to do this, but I had this friend, a wealthy woman in the community, who suggested that Susan and I meet. So we went out and it was a nice day, and Susan was very attractive... " he stops to pull a picture of both of them that he carries in his wallet and displays it with all the pride and affection of a University freshman.

"She is very intelligent and not very Southern, I know this sounds hilarious," he confesses. She used to have her own programme on television before they met but was working as the Editor of the University Research magazine.

Kentucky home

He describes how they went out for a couple of movies together and then there came a point when the friendship went, as he says, from being just that to something more serious. As though to make things perfect, Susan also had a legacy of English furniture that she was able to bring into their Kentucky home that is now on the heritage home trail.

The process of getting to know each other was not without its problems. On their first date the young man who was waiting at their table was the son of Susan's first husband. Susan herself has a daughter named Alix through her first marriage and Stempel had to take care that his own two daughters, Jill and Amy, would approve of his choice. As it happened he need not have worried, the girls got on so well that Amy nudged her father into taking the final step.

He finally took the courage to ask Susan to marry him at a restaurant in Lexinton. "I'm really happy just being with Susan and the family," he says.

As for his work, Stempel explains that he's been trying to initiate a process that he describes as Faith Based Diplomacy. It's a way of moving forward by going round a problem, by using techniques that are similar to those used in conflict resolution by getting people to talk to each other.

It's to create an environment for such an initiative that he's come back to South India on a flying visit. "I'll be back here again, with Susan," he says.


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