Jodie Lewinsohn

By Michael Schneider
A pioneering woman among Foreign Service Officers and “Asia Hands” in the U.S. Information Agency, Joann “Jodie” Lewinsohn passed away at Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital November 9, 2023, after a brief Illness.
USIA colleagues and neighbors gathered at DACOR January 9 to remember Jodie and honor her achievements and friendship. “Jodie stories” were present in abundance.

With support from her parents who were successful clothiers in Oklahoma City, Jodie gained admission to Stanford University where she met the influential political scientist and Asian specialist Claude Buss. Prof. Buss became Jodie’s life-long mentor. Having served in the U.S. Foreign Service in the Philippines and China, Professor Buss encouraged her to consider a career in the Foreign Service and recommended that she apply to USIA.

Buss also recommended that Jodie attend SAIS to pursue an MA degree. Her introduction to Asia continued with her participation in a summer seminar sponsored by SAIS in Rangoon and a year in the Philippines as a Fulbright Fellow.

After graduation from SAIS in 1956, Jodie served as Administrative Assistant in the Embassy of Cambodia in Washington, D.C. When Cambodia Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk toured the U.S. in the fall of 1958, Jodie accompanied him to translate his speeches from French to English which, she recalled years later, “… I did with difficulty…”

Jodie joined USIA in March 1959 as a public affairs trainee. At that time, each class of USIA trainees contained only a handful of women officers. Younger officers today might be astonished at the antique rules and culture of those times, such as the requirement for women FSOs to resign their commission if they wanted to marry. Or the “two for the price of one” regime that included a section related to the wife’s contribution to the mission on the individual officer’s annual performance review.

In other words, early on in her career Jodie had barriers to surmount to gain respect and greater authority.

I saw first-hand Jodie’s strong personality, keen intellect, and compassion. We met in early 1968 when Jodie returned from Manila to be the Indonesia/Philippines Desk Officer in IAF – the Bureau of East Asia/Pacific Affairs at USIA. The Area Director, Daniel P. “Big Dan” Oleksiw, was a formidable presence. Jodie was at best 5’3” or 5’4”, but Dan and all the rest of us listened carefully when she spoke.

She was highly respected by her colleagues in the foreign affairs community as an individual with great integrity who demanded much from herself and from others. She was an astute analyst of politics and public affairs, a realist about contemporary issues and a fair-minded judge of personal character. Her down-to-earth presence was complemented by a hearty sense of humor, a lover of performing arts, and good food. She was widely admired for her hospitality and generous care for friends.

“Jodie stories” are legendary – some were expressed at the celebration of her life and others in correspondence.

Several participants at the remembrance recalled Jodie’s hospitality. Roberta Schneidman, 97, was the spouse of Harold Schneidman and served in Manila in the mid-60s when Jodie arrived after initial tours in Phnom Penh and Jakarta. Even then as a relatively junior officer, Jodie was a special host, according to Roberta.

Other participants recalled Jodie’s care for others and how she helped them deal with personal and professional crises and how decisive was her support for their careers. Her household manager, Melanie Barroba, recalled how diligently Jodie worked when she was PAO in Stockholm to find job opportunities with diplomats in Sweden for five Filipina workers stranded by conflict in Lebanon and then helped them search for work in the U.S. 

Loretta Phillips, who worked with Jodie for several years in the EUR Office at USIA, read a tribute from former USIA Counselor Jock Shirley, who was Jodie’s supervisor and friend, and who recounted his many shared encounters with Jodie.

Jock wrote, “Jodie was what the French call une originelle. ‘An original’ is an inadequate translation because it doesn’t suggest the charm, of which she had a generous supply, nor the occasional disregard for convention in which she took such delight….” He recalled Jodie’s “very comfortable Swedish street-cleaners uniform” worn to work at USIA on a slush Washington winter morning and in a meeting with then-USIA Director James Keogh (much to Keogh’s delight).

Jock also helped Jodie become a dog-lover when he introduced his Welsh Terrier, Jones, while he and spouse Kathy stayed at Jodie’s Georgetown house. Jodie became a devotee. Anyone interested in her career -- and her love of Welsh Terriers -- can witness an interview with a SAIS representative, .

Jodie and Loretta became fast friends as well as colleagues, often dining together over the years. “...Since I had never worked for a woman, I became curious about my new boss and decided to ask around. Some of what I heard gave me pause, but wanting to keep an open mind, I decided to check with another colleague, an FSO by the name of Lois Roth, whom I understood to be a close friend. She gave me the best advice. “Don’t believe what you hear, Loretta,” she said, “you and Jodie will get along famously.” I am happy to say she was not wrong. …”
In a recent note about Jodie, Bud Jacobs recalled a visit in 1978 to Oklahoma City with the head of a Soviet exchange exhibit and dinner with Jodie’s parents:
“ …. When Jodie learned that I would be visiting her hometown with the exhibit, she arranged for me to meet her folks, who in turn graciously hosted me several times for meals in their stately home in the capital. They were a charming couple and along with their caregiver (whose name I don't recall but who had been with them for decades), they entertained me endlessly with their memories. Jodie, for her part, required detailed assessments of their health and wellbeing when I was in Washington, and for a time, I felt a part of that wonderful family. Having met them, I can see how readily they would encourage Jodie to aim high, to attend Stanford (as a young Jewish kid from Oklahoma!), and to her career in the Foreign Service. And in her cultured, loving parents, I can also see the roots of Jodie's common sense and her interests in the opera, good food, travel, and people. …”
Former PDCA co-President Sherry Mueller wrote:
 “I didn’t know Jodie well but when I was conducting a research project for CU/OPP to evaluate the Asian and Pacific Student Leader project in 1972, I saw her in action in KL …. Jodie impressed me so much and helped me realize that women can play a whole variety of roles, not just those that were generally expected back then. Also, I remember attending a film festival where the Soviets were showing combines reaping wheat, and Jodie chose an avant-garde film of a mouth eating an orange. It struck me even then the variety of ways one can portray freedom in a culture.”
Barry Fulton wrote:
My first memory: Lunch in a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo (1972) with Jodie (visiting from Kuala Lumpur where she was PAO) and Alan Carter (PAO Tokyo). Outspoken and a bit intimidating, she surprised me by removing a small pepper grinder from her purse to season the Japanese cuisine. “Wow, this woman must have taste— and standards.” Well, yes, and I came to learn it didn’t stop with food. Always a standard bearer for USIA. 

Years later, prior to serving as PAO in Rome, she was nominated for a one-year detail at the National Defense University. Interviewed by a Colonel who didn’t have a clue, he asked about her reading habits. She didn’t like his condescending attitude and responded with the Ladies Home Journal and Redbook. The colonel, who didn’t catch the twinkle in her eye, vetoed her assignment. Their loss.

I must be one of many who heard Deputy Director Gene Kopp’s account of his visit to South Africa where she was PAO. “I wasn’t sure what to make of her until that visit. She was a force in the embassy and the country. She knew everyone and entertained with such style that I was dumbstruck. What a sterling model for America.” High standards and style, always.

My wife, MaryAnn, and I had the opportunity to visit Jodie twice this past year where we talked politics and literature—and the state of the world. We regret we cannot be with you today to share in your celebration of this wonderful, brilliant, woman who left her mark on USIA and all that we represented. …

Jodie’s long-time friend and colleague Len Baldyga concluded the formal part of the celebration noting her love of opera and classical music:
“…She had a seat across the aisle from us at the National Symphony, and she and Nancy (Jodie’s sister) had subscriptions to the Washington Opera and to the Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium…. One of her favorite things to do was attending the Metropolitan Opera’s HD, or High Definition, showings at the local theaters. In fact, just a week before her first heart attack, she and my wife Joyce were discussing which movie theaters would be best to see the operas.

And exactly two months ago to this day, Joyce and I were with Jodie at Sibley, her eyes were open but she was not responsive as we sat by her side, spoke to her, held her hand, or patted her forehead.

There was an opera playing when we entered the room and, I am certain, that Jodie, while not responsive to us, was listening to that opera as she left this earth and was ready to critique the choir of angels singing Hallelujah upon her arriving in heaven. Amen.”

We all are indebted to Patricia Roberts who is trustee of Jodie’s estate and, acting on Jodie’s instructions, encouraged colleagues, friends, and neighbors to organize a celebration of Jodie’s life. For those who visited Jodie at Sibley hospital during her hospice care, Pat insisted that they hold Jodie’s hand. The energy flowed both ways.