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February 1996

Our Man In The South Pacific

 

by Kim Ruiz-BALCERZAK

The setting is the mid-80s in the picturesque South Pacific. The Cold War is losing steam, and the ANZUS military treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the United States has hit a snag.

America’s strongest ally in the South Pacific is Australia. CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command) needs to keep the lines of communication open between its headquarters in the Hawaiian Islands and Australia.

CINCPAC is the head of all U.S. armed forces in the Pacific.

New Zealand is out of the picture. The tropical island of Fiji, in the midst of political and economic turmoil, is the best route.

The situation calls for the utmost in tactical diplomacy. But, who is up to the challenge?

If this sounds like a scene out of ‘Mission Impossible,’ think again. The U.S. was able to achieve its goal, thanks in part to the work of U.S. Ambassador and native Buffalonian, Leonard Rochwarger.

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In 1988, Rochwarger returned to Rizal Stadium
in Manila, where he won the
All-Service Championship in 1945.

“At the time, Fiji was of great strategic importance to the United States,” Rochwarger said. “New Zealand decided to ban all nuclear ships and warplanes from its shores and soil. That, in effect, broke the ANZUS treaty.”

“The New Zealand route was now lost. The principal options were Papua New Guinea or Fiji. The U.S. decided that Fiji was the route to use. That’s why it became so strategically important.”

And so began Rochwarger’s memorable career as the U.S. Ambassador to the South Pacific islands of Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kirabati.

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Leonard Rochwarger

His mission also included consular oversight for the French Pacific Territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia on behalf of our Embassy in Paris.

“All in all, the territory was 5 million square miles,” he said. “That’s twice the size of Europe. The only
difference was that 99% of mine was under water.”

During his ambassadorship from 1987 to 1989, Rochwarger received high marks from the U.S. government and the nations which he served, for his successful efforts to restore economic and political stability in the region.

Fiji was recovering from two military coups in 1987. Discussions were under way between the two major ethnic communities on a new constitution. U.S. interests in the region depended on Fiji’s return to a pro-Western constitutional government.

According to the U.S. State Department, “Ambassador Rochwarger’s access to and personal relationship with Fiji’s leadership was unparalleled in the international community, and is one of the main reasons the U.S. enjoyed a unique position in influencing Fiji’s progress.”

The Ambassador, whose father was a Russian immigrant, accomplished quite a lot. The State Department noted that:

“The people that are the Peace Corps volunteers value that title very highly,” he said. “They’re taking two years out of their lives and helping in remote areas. And, besides all else, they’re forgotten much of the time. They’re just people who want to help others.”

“To be called a peace corps volunteer is a great honor. Most people don’t think of it that way, but it is. My wife, Arlene, and I were surprised and proud when we received this honor.”

Just how did a man who grew up in North Buffalo’s Hertel area overcome humble beginnings to become Buffalo’s first U.S. Ambas-sador? To hear him tell it, it took a lot of hard work and luck.

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Seated, from left, Fijian President Ganilau,
Prime Minister Kamisese Mara, and U.S. Ambassador Leonard Rochwarger, at an official reception.

“I’m a peculiar combination of two very different people,” Rochwarger said. “My father, was an intellectual from Russia, but we were poor. Materialism wasn’t important to him.”

“My mother, on the other hand, was a blonde, blue-eyed Jewess. And boy, was she aggressive. She could tear down a garage if she got angry.”

“They were not a matched couple. I don’t know how they got together. Somehow, I’m a peculiar dichotomy of a most physical person and an intellectual one. Those two influences are what guided my life.”

Rochwarger, a graduate of former Buffalo Public School No. 21 and Bennett High School, enlisted in the military in 1943. He served in the infantry during World War II, and saw combat in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

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The first Jewish wedding in the
history of Fiji.

His military achievements included receiving the Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Conspicuous Service Cross.

It was in the Philippines in 1945, where Rochwarger became the reluctant Welterweight Boxing Champion in the All-Service Boxing Championship. Boxing was a sport he was pulled into.

“When you go overseas on a troop ship, you’re in very crowded company,” he said. “They had shipboard boxing matches to keep the troops occupied. The winner would get three pieces of fresh fruit, which was considered gold, and three candy bars.”

“I waited for a kid that was about my weight. He almost killed me. I struck a lucky punch and knocked him out. It was the only punch I hit him with. I found out later that he’d been the three-year undefeated Texas Golden Glove Champion.”

When the war ended, Rochwar-ger was stationed in the Philippines. Try-outs were being held for the Division’s Boxing Team. He shied away from entering.

“Most of the men who tried out for the team were professionals who were beginning training to return to their careers as professional boxers,” he explained. “I wasn’t even an amateur.”

At the urging of his Regimental Colonel, Rochwarger entered the contest, and ultimately won the Championship.

In 1946, he returned to Buffalo, began studying at the University at Buffalo (UB), and met a pretty young lady during his sophomore year.

At the time, he was fielding offers from professional boxing promoters.

“I didn’t really like boxing, but the money offers were pretty good,” Rochwarger said. “I was a poor kid. I thought I could still do some college work and box at the same time.”

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“Santa” and Arlene Rochwarger in Fiji, January, 1989.

“The young lady I was with said that if I ever stepped in the ring again, she’d never speak to me. I tried to negotiate, to no avail. We ultimately got married, and in our 46 years of marriage, I haven’t won a fight.”

“When I was in the ring, I won 18 in a row. And now, I haven’t won one in 46 years - and she’s not even in my weight class!”  Rochwarger went on to graduate from UB, Beta Gamma Sigma - the Honor Society of Business Management Colleges - with a degree in business administration.  His varied business career included working as an auditor for New York State, serving as Senior Partner in the regional accounting firm of S.L. Horowitz, and heading a small leasing company which later became the world-renowned Firstmark Corporation.

He served as Firstmark’s Board Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from 1963 to 1987.

He presently serves as Board Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Rockmont Corporation, an investment holding company. He and his wife, Arlene, have two children - Jeffrey and Michelle - as well as seven grandchildren.

His community activities include serving as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UB Graduate School of Management. He also serves as Director on the Boards of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the University at Buffalo Foundation, National Fuel Gas, Marine Midland Banks - Western, the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo and Target, the National Program of Alcohol and Drug Education for High School Students.

He also is Board Chairman of the Weinberg Senior Citizens Complex.

In addition to receiving the Outstanding Alumnus Samuel P. Capen Award from UB, Rochwarger received the Endowment Development Award from the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, the Buffalo News Outstanding Citizens Award, the Annual Award from the Buffalo Council on World Affairs, an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Canisius College, and the Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Jewish Welfare Board, to name only a few.

But perhaps his most vivid memories lie in the sand and surf of Fiji.

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Ambassador Rochwarger assists a handicapped student in a Fiji classroom.

Like the time his daughter, Michelle, decided that she wanted to be married on the island paradise - right in the midst of the turmoil in Fiji. It was the first Jewish wedding in the history of Fiji. They even had to fly in a Rabbi.

Or the time Rochwarger posed as Santa Claus in sweltering heat to brighten the days of the Embassy staff and the native islanders. Santa also made a special trip to visit a young boy who was dying from leukemia.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Rochwarger said. “There were some dangers like illegal arms shipments and such, but it was a challenge. That’s the only kind of post I was ever interested in - one with great challenges. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun.”

Kim Ruiz-Balcerzak is Managing Editor of Living Prime Time.

 

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