Just A Thought Or Two
By Tom Reilly
I’m back, if only for a moment, because you see I let Jeff Nedoroscik down once and I don’t intend to do it again.
When I was back in graduate school, a fellow teaching assistant used to use an exam question which suggested that when we fail to appreciate a work of literature, that the fault is not in the book, but in ourselves.
We may not be mature enough when the book first encounters us, but later on, as we learn and experience life, we may come to the point where OUR meaning can finally be understood by the noble work we encountered.
So it was in 2004, back when I met Jeffrey Nedoroscik for the first time. I wasn’t ready for him. It took me until 2005 to come to appreciate his hidden meanings.
But I won’t fail him a second time. As news of his death in an apartment fire in Washington DC spread throughout the region on Wednesday, I realized that I wanted people to know about one of the best people I ever wrote about.
A living treasure. A work of art. A man for all seasons.
It was nothing about Jeff himself that prevented me from writing the story on deadline. He was polite, insightful and patient with me. I could understand what he was saying and I think I asked good questions. He gave me plenty of material for background information but it didn’t matter.
In the end, I did the worst thing a writer could do—I failed to deliver the story.
It would be a joke around the Chronicle office if it wasn’t so sad, the tale of how the Boss (Mrs. Belisle) sent out the reporter to do the old “local boy makes good” story and write it up for the following week. Piece of cake, or it should have been. After all, stories like this, no matter the content of the character being profiled, are generally pretty matter of fact. The subject tells you all about his life growing up in the old hometown, fills in the blanks regarding where he’s gone and what he’s done, and with notes in hand, the reporter bangs out the piece and goes home happy.
But for whatever reason, once I finished, I just couldn’t write the story.
Maybe it was because I felt that my prose was inadequate to capture just how special Jeff Nedoroscik was and is. And so the notes I took from my conversation with Nedoroscik (at the now-closed “Honey Dew Donuts” on Route 146,” no less!) languished in my files, alongside the other material he and his mother—then-Sutton Town Administrator Pat Nedoroscik—so kindly lent to me. But as the year passed, nothing happened. Was it writer’s block, or pure laziness? I don’t know. Articles came and went, but this one never got written.
Time and tide wait for no man, of course, and it took a story in the December 31, 2004 issue of the~Worcester Telegram and Gazette~to get me to finally put fingers to keyboard because despite a year’s lead the city newssheet beat me to the story. If you want to check out the reference tools on the CW Mars website or spend some time on the T&G’s website, you’ll note that then-local Sutton beat reporter Steven Foskett ably wrote the story that I never did.
At least to that point.
The piece does everything I wanted to do as far as tracing the story of how Nedoroscik, the son of Sutton’s then-Town Administrator Patricia and her husband Andrew, has made an incredible difference in spectacularly diverse countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe as a member of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the main economic development arm for the United States State Department. It also detailed his recent~reception of two awards—the Meritorious Honor Award (for serving for five weeks as the acting embassy management officer for the American embassy in Croatia, a cross-over in responsibility between USAID and the State Department that is extremely rare) and a special certificate from the Inter-Agency United States Government Management Council.
Nedoroscik had previously received four other Meritorious Honor Awards as well as an USAID Safety and Security Award.
But there were still things about Jeffrey Nedoroscik that I wanted to make certain that people knew. I wanted to tell them about a Sutton fifth-grader whose “passion for Egypt” was set ablaze by high school art teacher Tura Dudley. I wanted to write about a boy who dreamed of exploring the temples and pyramids of King Tut and the other pharaohs. Someone needed to tell the story of the young man who was randomly~assigned Selma Botman, an author on several books on Egypt, as his advisor at Holy Cross.
There needed to be a story about a young man who turned a political science major at Holy Cross into a chance to study abroad, the first Holy Cross student to study in Egypt (and whose family thought he was crazy at the time, but told him that if he could bring it all together, that they would support him). Someone needed to tell the tale of how that dream of living and working in Egypt was realized partially with funding from the Sutton Arts Council, perhaps the most exotic use of that money in the council’s existence, propelling a Sutton student from Manchaug to Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world.
You needed to know then and you need to know now about how Jeff survived his first day in Cairo, where donkey carts and cars whiz crazily through intersections, and floods of people over-pour the sidewalks to the point where he had to walk three or four miles simply to cross the street to reach a phone to call home.
It’s a tale of how a Westerner fell in love with Egypt after the first three days of his stay, an experience he once described in print as “a venture into the heart of the Arab world, a venture into both history and reality.”
This is about a young man who ultimately returned to Egypt again and again, the next time with the help of a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, one of fifty of these prestigious awards granted each year in return for living independently in a foreign country and then writing about it.
This is a college student who won the trust of the poorest of Egyptians to the point where he spent much of his time in the gigantic cemetery of Cairo known as “The City of the Dead,” a misleading name for a place where enormous numbers of the outcasts and homeless of Egyptian society live within and beside the tombs of their ancestors. And how these people, the poorest of the poor, welcomed an American man who won a welcome~that is often denied to upper class Egyptians. He won a place in that world primarily due to his genuine interest in the lives of the people he encountered.
Nedoroscik told me that he “went in as a friend” and as a consequence the people embraced him. In doing so he was embracing the sentiments of historian Dorothea Russell who wrote that in order to know Cairo “you must have time on your hands, for only to the loiterer and wanderer are her intimate beauties revealed.”
Nedoroscik quipped that he spent “a good three years really looking.” And as a result turned that experience into a book entitled “The City of the Dead: A History of Cairo’s Cemetery Communities,” a book he dedicates to the residents “whose stories are told here, and for my mother who encouraged me to tell them.”
He told me matter-of-factly of surviving an earthquake that killed 400 people and injured thousands more. He told me about bombings that took place nearby and yet lived without fear in a world where many Americans would be hesitant to venture because he believed that Americans were always welcome in Egypt and that Egyptians love Americans in general.
And I think of Jeff when I think of the struggle for democracy in Egypt and wish he were here to give us his unique perspective because he seemed to excel at finding the thread of sense in a chaotic world.
But then this was a man who found that while Sutton was home in one sense, that Egypt had become home in another.
In 1994, while working on his Masters degree at the American University in Cairo, Jeff took a job with USAID, the State Department agency that works on international development issues. It works to assist in the development of more democratic and market-oriented economies. He eventually grew to be regarded as an expert on the issues which drove Egyptian unrest, including Islamic fundamentalism.
In 1998, he was asked to go to Rwanda in the aftermath of the massacres that killed hundreds of thousands of people, taking on the role of deputy executive officer for USAID in that country. He worked tirelessly to provide the promise of economic development in a place that was only months away from a vicious civil war.~ And yet, as he always seemed to be able to do, quickly became very much at home in what he called a “spectacular place,” although admitting that the first six months there were a “real adjustment,” sending him “home” to Egypt on four different occasions.
He praised the beauty of Rwanda, calling it the “Switzerland of Africa” for its natural beauty, the progress made since the war, and the work of the USAID staff.
Later, when he took first posting to Europe, it was to a hot spot: Croatia, a breakaway republic of the old Yugoslavia, just recovering from its own civil war. Nedoroscik, however, called it very stable and at the time, in 2004, he was serving as Supervisory Executive Officer, a position he held at the time my article came out in 2005. He told me that he was very happy because the centrally located Croatia was only a few hours away from all manner of cultural events, historical treasures, and scenic vistas. He expected that he would remain in his job as long as it lasted, which was supposed to be in 2008.
And at the time of his death on Tuesday, he had been the~Chief of Compliance and Oversight at~USAID’s Washington headquarters for over two years.
Jeff Nedoroscik will be missed and not just by his parents Pat and Andy, his sister Laurie, and his family and friends but by all Americans because Jeff was someone who understood the world on behalf of the country he served.
You see there are other sides to Jeff Nedoroscik as well, things I think you should see. The man who told me that he most wants to be what his parents taught him was important—a good, decent person, someone who cares about other people, who “remembers those who love you.” The boy whose parents always pushed him to be his best and the man that boy has grown to be.
The man who told me that he really respected that his mother quit her job when his sister Laurie was born and did not return to work until her daughter was twelve, because that was where Pat Nederoscik believed she needed to be. Jeff was a man who spoke frankly of the hazards that go with being an American official in a world that sometimes does not love America, including a colleague in Jordan who was killed doing the same job in Jordan that Nedoroscik did elsewhere.
I heard from Jeff when the article came out. He told me that he “just wanted to tell you what a great job I think that you did on the article that appeared in the Sutton-Millbury Chronicle. It was very personalized and not a normal news story. I appreciate the work that you did on it and numerous people have told me what a wonderful article it was.”
That’s just about the best compliment I’ve gotten for my writing and there’s no way I’ll pass up a chance to remind you all one more time about Jeff Nedoroscik.
There is a concept of an “Ugly American,” the loud, over-bearing foreigner who barges in and takes over, telling the locals how to run things, braying in English, not bothering to learn the local language and customs. Jeff Nedoroscik is the furthest thing from this stereotype as possible, mostly because he is “just who my parents brought me up to be,”a person without a superiority complex that would get in the way of helping people. The Jeff Nedorosciks of the world are our greatest asset because they are there to learn as well as to teach.
“There is just as much to learn from other cultures as they have to learn from us,” he told me that cold day in that doughnut shop by Route 146. And that sums him up beautifully. He made a good diplomat is because he never intended to be one. He was the perpetual student and the eternal learner and the patient teacher.
And sitting here, almost nine years later, I think I am finally doing the Jeff Nedoroscik story justice. In the end, he was the living embodiment of USAID’s mission—it’s all about economic development. He was the best export we had. America’s own. Sutton’s own. And Egypt’s.
And now, eternity’s.