April 18, 2022: When Phyllis Elliott joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1957, at
age 23, she expected a short career. She was soon to marry Robert Oakley, a man from her “basic training” class – in South Asia, where both spent a lot of time, they would be called “batch-mates.” Under the rules then in effect, she would then be forced out of the service. But she did not expect that her career would involve being spokesman for the State Department or twice Assistant Secretary of State. She was half right.
Phyllis Oakley was, as expected, forced out of the service, and spent 16 years raising two children and living in such exotic places as Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Paris, New York, Beirut – and Shreveport, LA, her husband’s home town, while he was on an unaccompanied assignment in Vietnam. Offered the chance to return to the service when the old rules changed, she went with him to Zaire (he as ambassador, she working for USIA), but after that had an almost entirely Washington-based career. Her stint as Afghanistan desk officer, following her reinstatement in the service in 1974, made her into one of the State Department’s primary experts on Afghanistan. This set up her one overseas posting, to Islamabad, where her husband was Ambassador, and she managed U.S. aid programs in Afghanistan. During her Washington years, her time of greatest fame was as Department Spokesman, on daily television before an audience of journalists who would have intimidated anyone else.
Phyllis’s career and mine were intertwined in ways that would only have been possible for two women who were married both to the service and to fellow diplomats. Our only opportunity to work together was when she was State Department spokesperson. The Oakleys lived close to the Schaffers, and we joined forces for a “where-but-in-Washington” car pool. Every morning, after picking up Phyllis, we made a quick zigzag around the neighborhood to pick up three children whom we then left off at school, along with our two, before proceeding to the State Department. Phyllis’s children were more or less grown by then, and she rather enjoyed the nostalgia involved in shuttling the school brood around. It’s hard, as we both knew in our bones, to do justice to an intense Foreign Service job and to the demands of a busy family. She did both, with grace, and with sympathy for those who were engaged in the same juggling contest.
Phyllis was a professional powerhouse. She knew every detail of her brief. But despite her intense focus and long hours, she never lost sight of the fact that there is life outside the office. Her uproarious sense of humor lightened things up for everyone around her. And the Washington focus of her career reflected this: she did not want to spend any more time than absolutely required living away from Bob. And working on such intractable problems as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and refugees, she needed that sense of humor to get through the day!
Phyllis and Bob were colleagues – but their styles were quite different. Bob was a firm believer in the axiom that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to get bogged down in asking permission. Phyllis strove to avoid those binary choices. This too she did with charm – packaged with authority. Bob relished posts where everything was falling apart – physically and politically – and was both dogged and creative in searching out ways to put them together. Phyllis was equally fascinated by problem-ridden parts of the world, but was willing to organize her career’s journey to maximize her time with Bob.
Her memorial service in early April 2022 was in a packed church, the same one where Bob had been remembered some years earlier. I think she would have been pleased that it reflected both the personal and the professional sides of her life, tall grandsons recalling her stentorian voice admonishing them to get their elbows off the table “or you’ll finish your dinner in the doghouse” and a stylish woman recounting her triumphs in the normally thankless spokesman role.
When I was in basic Foreign Service Officer training I remember being told “never forget that you bring your whole self to this profession.” Phyllis never forgot.