Owen Winthrop Roberts

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1924 - 2017
Owen W. Roberts, a longtime U.S. foreign service officer and former United States Ambassador to Togo, died June 10, 2017, in Redwood City, California, at the age of 93. He and his wife, Janet Roberts, had recently relocated from their longtime home in Washington, D.C.

Owen was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, on March 29, 1924. His parents were Thomas C. Roberts and Sylvia Goddard Roberts of Princeton, NJ. Owen graduated from Princeton University (A.B.) in 1948 and Columbia University in 1955 with an M.A. and PhD in international affairs.

Owen Roberts started at Princeton University as an electrical engineer, but enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. Landing in Marseille with the 14th Armored Division, his reconnaissance platoon advanced up the Rhone Valley and into Alsace, to Strasbourg. Immediately after the war, he served as a border and counterintelligence officer in Salzburg, Austria. He experienced deeply the uncontrollable savagery and vast waste entailed by any war, and decided to devote his life to diplomacy. His first step in this direction was attending a founding conference for the International Union of Students in Prague in 1947. This lead to working on the Yugoslavian Sarajevo Youth Railway, and then embarking on a solo bicycle trip in 1948 from Beirut through Iraq, and Afghanistan, and into India.

In 1955 he entered the Foreign Service as consular officer in Cairo, Egypt, then was a commercial officer in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (now Kinshasa, The Congo). He became a State Department desk officer for Africa. This was followed by postings in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. In 1976 he became Deputy Director of the Sinai Field Mission following the 1973 Egypt-Israel War. He was Director of the African Office at the Department of Defense from 1978 to 1979, and deputy chief of mission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 1979 to 1982. In 1983 he served as African adviser to the United Nations General Assembly. From 1982 to 1984, he was temporary chief of mission in several posts, and in May 1984 was appointed Ambassador to the Republic of Togo. He returned to the Inspector General's office in 1986 and retired in 1989. Owen spoke about his career at length in an interview: https://cdn.loc.gov/service/mss/mfd

Owen Roberts was particularly interested in influencing events through grass-roots work, during a career that saw the creation of the Peace Corps and many other international-development efforts. He took care in each post to facilitate local projects organized by the Peace Corps and aid workers.

On their retirement, Owen and Janet Roberts fell in love with Great Cranberry Island, off the coast of Acadia National Park in Maine, and spent several months there every year. This community became very important to them.

Owen Roberts played competitive tennis across the world, and maintained a high U.S. national ranking well into his late eighties.

Owen is survived by his wife, Janet Roberts, his sister Kitty Pierson, his son Read Roberts, daughter-in-law Monique Castiaux, granddaughter Gabrielle Roberts, and brother- and sister-in-law Dick Pierson and Adeline Roberts.
Published on NYTimes.com from Sept. 18 to Sept. 19, 2017
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