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.
Americas 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
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.
In 1988, Rochwarger returned to Rizal
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. Thats why it became so
And so began Rochwargers memorable career as the U.S. Ambassador to the South
Pacific islands of Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kirabati.
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.
Thats 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 Fijis return to a pro-Western constitutional government.
According to the U.S. State Department, Ambassador Rochwargers access to
and personal relationship with Fijis leadership was unparalleled in the
international community, and is one of the main reasons the U.S. enjoyed a unique position
in influencing Fijis 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. Theyre taking two years out of their lives and helping
in remote areas. And, besides all else, theyre forgotten much of the time.
Theyre just people who want to help others.
To be called a peace corps volunteer is a great honor. Most people dont
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 Buffalos Hertel area overcome humble
beginnings to become Buffalos first U.S. Ambas-sador? To hear him tell it, it took a
lot of hard work and luck.
Seated, from left, Fijian President
Im a peculiar combination of two very different people, Rochwarger
said. My father, was an intellectual from Russia, but we were poor. Materialism
wasnt 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 dont know how they got together. Somehow,
Im 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.
The first Jewish wedding in the
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
When you go overseas on a troop ship, youre 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
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 hed 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 Divisions 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
wasnt 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 didnt 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.
Santa and Arlene Rochwarger in Fiji, January, 1989.
The young lady I was with said that if I ever stepped in the ring again,
shed never speak to me. I tried to negotiate, to no avail. We ultimately got
married, and in our 46 years of marriage, I havent won a fight.
When I was in the ring, I won 18 in a row. And now, I havent won one in 46
years - and shes 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 Firstmarks Board Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from 1963 to
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
Universitys 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
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.
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. Thats the only
kind of post I was ever interested in - one with great challenges. Otherwise, it
wouldnt be fun.
Kim Ruiz-Balcerzak is Managing Editor of Living Prime Time.
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