by Thomas C. Adams, Encore Learning President, December 2021
I first met Ambassador John Sprott when I joined the Board of Encore Learning in 2018. At that time, he had become an ex officio member of the Board, having completed his dozen or so years as our first and longest serving President. I, and all other members of the Board, including then-President Art Gosling, found John’s continued participation on the Board invaluable, and sought John’s views on how to address the issues that came before the Board. John had a very kind voice, but he spoke with authority and on more than one occasion his advice saved us from making a serious mistake.
Encore Learning might not have survived in its early years or even gotten off the ground had John not willingly thrown his organizational skill and ability to work harmoniously and effectively with a wide variety of individuals into this new continuing education organization.
As critical as his efforts were with Encore Learning, John had already scaled great heights earlier in his lifetime. He was raised by a single parent, his mother, a nurse at a hospital in Prescott, Arizona. He was an indifferent student, dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. He then joined the Navy, where he became an aviation electronics specialist, serving in Korea and occasionally flying in combat aircraft as a radio and radar operator on Navy aircraft carriers. He credited joining the Navy as the best decision he made in life for the learning and maturity it gave him. He served four years of active duty, continued in the reserves and then obtained a college degree from University of Northern Arizona and a doctorate in economics from the University of Colorado. He married and he and his wife Joan had five children.
While I did not meet John Sprott while I served in the Foreign Service, I certainly had heard about him and his work directly affected how I carried out my assignments during my career. When I joined the Service in 1976, he was the Dean of Professional Studies at the Foreign Service Institute. He had been hired by the State Department to take a look at its economics training in 1965. John and others were concerned that in the post-World War II diplomatic environment, Economic Officers needed to have stronger academic credentials. John developed a rigorous year-long course that enrolled about 50 officers and, if they completed the course, they received the equivalent of a Master’s degree. My colleagues who took the course certainly found it challenging, and some even flunked it. But it created a cadre of officers who could better report economic conditions abroad and coordinate with their colleagues at Treasury and with the Bretton Woods institutions — the World Bank and IMF.
When John started at the State Department there was remarkably little training available for officers. While your average career military officer spent about a quarter of his or her career in professional military training, Foreign Service Officers had only a few weeks of basic training and perhaps a few more weeks of consular training, unless they were assigned to language training, which could run for a few months up to a year depending on the degree of difficulty of the language. What little professional training existed was poorly conceived and executed.
When he was appointed Dean of the School of Professional Studies at FSI, John challenged his staff to improve the quality and utility of the professional training and strongly supported their efforts. One of the first courses of training that was overhauled was the Consular course. Most new officers did a tour or two as consular officers, as every post had a need to screen applicants for U.S. visas and assist Americans who got in trouble. The existing training course sat new officers in drab rooms in Rosslyn to read the laws and regulations relating to consular work. When these officers arrived at a post, they had to have a more experienced officer stand behind them for weeks to guide them on the practical aspects of the job.
John led the effort to change all that. With the help of some experienced consular officers, he and they created ConGen Rosslyn, short for Consulate General Rosslyn. The training involved role playing, putting students into realistic situations where, for example, they had to decide whether a visa application was fraudulent through brief interviews and a study of documents. There was even a fake jail allowing students to practice visiting Americans imprisoned overseas.
I took this course and many students, including me, thought that the play acting was a little hokey and juvenile. But when I got to the field, I quickly learned that the training was spot on in helping me deal with a variety of situations. My first post was the Consulate in Zanzibar, which had two American officers. One day the newly-arrived Consul came into my office with a frown on her face to say that she had had a call from the Embassy in Dar es Salaam that an American-flagged cargo vessel from the Lykes Lines would be coming into Zanzibar harbor the next day to complete the formalities of discharging a seaman. She had never done a consular tour and she asked me if I knew anything about our responsibilities for shipping and seamen. One of the somewhat archaic duties of consular officers at that time was to make sure that any captain of a U.S. commercial vessel discharging one of his crew overseas followed the rules regarding pay and transport home. (In olden days, unscrupulous sea captains would dump sailors in a far-off foreign port to avoid paying their wages before sailing for home.) My boss was greatly relieved when I told her that I had some experience in this. I didn’t tell her until later that the sum total of my experience had been playing a sea captain in a skit dealing with this topic at ConGen Rosslyn.
The consular course also prepared me to do more important things. I was able to procure release of an American imprisoned unjustly in Tanzania, and I helped numerous Americans apply for replacement passports, find a good lawyer, get needed health care, and deal with other problems that befall visitors. ConGen Rosslyn’s training taught many officers what to do as weekend duty officers when dealing with the gamut of consular emergencies that inevitably arose no matter where they were serving.
Dr. Sprott lobbied continuously for more and better training. He would regularly meet with Ambassadors and other senior officers to find out their training needs. When the State Department Inspectors expressed concern that over half of first-time deputy chiefs of mission were judged as failures, a course designed to help them manage an Embassy was created. Similarly, John initiated an upgraded training course for new ambassadors, which was particularly needed for the political appointees who were new to the laws and regulations under which they had to operate.
While John Sprott, as Dean of Professional Studies was not in charge of language training, his influence was such that some of his ideas and training methods were adopted in language training. When I was studying Hungarian, we had a module entitled “Duty Officer” where we faced different situations and learned the needed vocabulary to deal with them. On many a weekend in Budapest, I made good use of what was taught.
John grew up in Arizona near Yavapai Indian reservations and that, plus his time in the military taught him the value of multi-cultural engagement. As a result, he was a great supporter of the area studies program at FSI. These were short courses on the history and culture of the countries to which we were assigned. When I served in Hungary at the end of the Cold War, Hungarians were incredibly delighted that so many of us at the American Embassy spoke Hungarian and were familiar with Hungarian history and culture. (The Russian diplomats made them converse in Russian.) I remember one Hungarian who was stunned that I knew about the Battle of Mohacs, where the Hungarian army was defeated by the Ottoman forces. But the hard fighting Hungarians delayed the Ottomans from attacking Vienna long enough for the Habsburgs to get reinforcements that allowed the Sultan’s army to be crushed at the gates of the city. Hungarians were very proud that they had saved Vienna and were delighted that I knew something about it, which I did thanks to my area studies class.
John didn’t just talk to people who served in the field, he served there. He spent time in Chile as the head of the Joint State-USAID Economic section from 1968-1971. He was there when Salvador Allende was elected President.
When John returned, he became the Deputy Director of the Foreign Service Institute. Because he was hired in a unique employment category and later became a member of the Senior Executive Service, he never became Director as that job was reserved for career Foreign Service Officers. However, such was the high regard he was held in that John later was named Ambassador to Swaziland and still later the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizational Affairs, which was in charge of our activities with the United Nations. These jobs were normally given to career Foreign Service Officers, but John’s reputation was such that he was sought for these positions over the bureaucratic obstacles.
John did other amazing things during his career at the State Department. He often faced bureaucratic opposition to his ideas but his logical arguments and persistent engagement eventually moved the needle. The Foreign Service Institute was eventually able to get an impressive new campus in Arlington. Support from Secretary Colin Powell, who was stunned at the relative paucity of training given to Foreign Service Officers compared to the military, enabled the Department to get Congress to fund more officer positions so that there could be a training float that permitted more long-term training.
Anyone interested in learning more about John’s truly amazing career should pull up the 145-page oral history of Ambassador Sprott by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (https://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Sprott.John.T.pdf) It makes for fascinating reading of this man’s remarkable life.
Following his retirement in 1998, John pursued improving educational opportunities for a new student – retirees like himself. His collaboration and tenacity led to the launch of Arlington Learning in Retirement Institute in 2002. The first ten-year history of ALRI, now Encore Learning, can be found here.
Encore Learning, indeed Arlington County, was fortunate to have a visionary like John see the need for an organization like ours and bring it into being. His diplomatic and organizational skills were crucial to our early success and now our longevity. We will miss him greatly.