by Joni Moths Mueller
Retired. Wait, maybe not. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is on the phone. Your country asks for one more favor. It’s a big one. “We need an old hand,” the secretary explains. But it means deferring retirement. It means getting back into diplomatic form. The Teffts answer, “OK. We have some practice at that … certainly more than we have at retirement.”
John Tefft, Arts ’71, and Mariella (Cellitti) Tefft, Arts ’70, are soft touches when it comes to love of country. When asked, they’ve answered, leading lives in the U.S. Foreign Service for 44 years, hopping continents, hosting missions, staffing embassies and shuttling children, two beloved daughters born during this career that has been a family affair from the start.
Four decades is plenty of patriotism. But when the country has a special need, the Teffts table a months-old test of retirement for one more term of service. They once again go through the State Department’s approval process. They get cleared by the FBI. They are interviewed and vetted by the White House. They accept the president’s bidding — “Russia is important,” Obama tells them — and find themselves in Moscow, with Ambassador John Tefft serving his fourth ambassadorial post in a career that was imagined during a train trip the summer after his junior year at Marquette.
Beware of traveling abroad. It opens eyes and ears to possibilities. For John, a European trip with his college roommate became a launch pad for thinking about career goals. It was another passenger on the train, a complete stranger, who spoke the words, “Have you thought about the foreign service?” What is the foreign service? John admits he hadn’t a clue. But an idea was planted, one he took home and cultivated with Mariella.
“We decided we should give it a shot,” they recount, during a recent visit — their first time back on campus since Commencement in 1971. While sitting in the Alumni Memorial Union, they chat and smile about all that has happened since they met in an Honors Program philosophy course and John came to Mariella’s rescue by answering a question about metaphysics that she couldn’t. The professor called John her “knight in shining armor.” He knew only half the story.
John’s interests were history and literature; Mariella’s mathematics and science. They outlined their future, and it began with the idea that John would go to graduate school — he was accepted into a master’s program in history at the University of Chicago. “That was the plan,” John says. They smile at the thought. The plan changed.
After intensive studying and training for diplomatic service and the extensive preparation required to move a household halfway around the world, the Teffts became a Foreign Service family, working in the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem. It was 1972, the year of the Munich massacre at the Summer Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. The Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973. In Jerusalem there was no access to telephones, no internet invented yet, “no nothing,” Mariella says. The Teffts were able to send one message home to family: “We’re fine.”
It was a fascinating time, they say. After the war then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began what became known as “shuttle diplo-macy,” relaying messages back and forth between Jerusalem and the White House to broker peace. “Every night I’d go into work about 10 or 11 p.m. and sit and wait for a phone call asking me to come to the King David Hotel to pick up Kissinger’s report for President Nixon,” John says. “It was double enveloped. I’d fall asleep until about 5 a.m. and then get Nixon’s instructions to take back to Kissinger. There was no email back then; everything was cabled.”
There also were no disposable diapers for their baby, born in Jerusalem in June 1973. Mariella used a ringer washing machine and hung diapers on the line to dry in the blowing sand. She had to sweep sand out of the house, shake every rug, every day.
The Foreign Service is not necessarily glamorous, but it does live up to many of its other nomadic promises. The Teffts have shuttled the globe in this peripatetic life, picking up and putting down roots over and over again. Back to D.C., where John worked in the office of United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and where their second daughter was born in 1977. On to three years in Hungary. There Mariella, who had added nurse to her resume, became the embassy nurse in Budapest. They returned to Washington to serve a congressional fellowship before being sent to the “hardship post,” Mariella jokes, from 1986–89 as counselor for political-military affairs in Rome. Then again returned to D.C., where John served as deputy director of the Soviet desk at the State Department, and later, director of the Office of Northern European Affairs from 1989–92, the years when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. “It was a really big period to be working on these issues,” John says.
Always in the back of John’s mind was one destination. He’d become enamored with it while in high school after viewing the film Doctor Zhivago. “That movie was mesmerizing; it had an impact on me,” John says. He took an elective in Russian history at Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis., and his teacher, who believed that the only way to learn history is to also learn culture, chaperoned a class trip to Chicago to see the Lyric Opera perform Boris Gudunov, featuring Bulgarian Russian baritone Nicolai Ghiaurov. After that experience, John says, “I decided that if I could get to Russia I would do it.”
His chance came in 1996–97 when he was picked to serve as deputy chief of mission and charge d’affairs in Moscow. Next John was assigned as ambassador to Lithuania from 2000–03 and then ambassador to the Republic of Georgia from 2005–09. Mariella put her skills as a nurse and biostatistician to work in the Republic of Georgia on a reproductive-age mortality project to identify the underlying cause of death among women who died in 2006. The cause of death was either unrecorded or not recorded correctly on death certificates. “What we found is more women died of breast cancer than any other cause between the ages of 15–45, the prime reproductive years,” Mariella says. The study had an enormous impact and resulted in the country committing more funds to health care for breast cancer.
John occupies a place in diplomatic history, earned after having served as ambassador to four countries: Lithuania, the Republic of Georgia, Ukraine and, yes, finally the top spot in Russia. The phone call from Secretary Kerry came in 2014. The department needed someone to not just work with Russia but also manage the embassy of 1,500 employees. The secretary’s message was simple: “This is a very difficult time. I hope you and Mariella will do this for your country.”
Holding the post in Russia has been challenging, Mariella and John agree. There isn’t much privacy and there’s no spontaneity to life because of tight security. “There are always times, because of the hectic pace of everything, that you have to stop and say to yourself, you’re not representing yourself, you’re representing your country — and therefore you do it,” Mariella says.
Always their focus is on making embassy guests feel welcome and comfortable, and planning embassy events to focus on what unites Americans and Russians, such as mutual love of the arts, literature and space travel.
Mariella manages the household staff at the official ambassadorial residence, Spaso House. She manages finances and plans events and menus. Every year the Teffts put on a Fourth of July picnic in the embassy garden. They pick a state or region of the United States, prepare food representing that place and host a band to play regional music.
Their record of service is dizzying and, in their case, John says, the country gets a two-for-one bargain with Mariella.
“Representing America is a big part of this,” Mariella says. “We’re proud of what America stands for, but we also like to meet and engage with people from other countries, not just ambassadors but also children and citizens.”
To illustrate the point John shares a story about a high school boy from the Republic of Georgia who won an international writing competition sponsored by the Peace Corps. His prize was a year studying at a rural high school outside of Emporia, Kansas, while living with an American family.
A few years later, John met him again and they caught up. “How was it?” John remembers asking.
“School was good; the girls were gorgeous,” the boy replied. “But I want you to know that I went out for the football team. They needed a kicker, and I could kick. The last game of the season we played our arch rival and with just 10 seconds left, they were leading 21–20. My coach told me that this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Get in there and win the game for us.”
The boy kicked the winning field goal and was carried off the field by fans chanting his name. “I just want you to know that was my American dream,” the boy told John, “and it came true.”
John calls that story an example of what “we Americans, from the goodness of our hearts, can do. With all the problems, all the things we get criticized for, we do good things and we represent the values that matter.
“And I would argue,” he continues, “we represent the things that America cares about. It’s amazing that even in autocratic Russia, you still have people who respond directly and still look to us as leaders, and it’s always about our values.”