John Kordek, diplomat who made home in Arlington Heights, dies at 82

  • John Kordek of Arlington Heights was chosen by President Ronald Reagan to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Botswana. It was a culmination of a foreign service career that took him to Yugoslavia, Venezuela. Belgium and Italy, among other countries.

    John Kordek of Arlington Heights was chosen by President Ronald Reagan to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Botswana. It was a culmination of a foreign service career that took him to Yugoslavia, Venezuela. Belgium and Italy, among other countries. Daily Herald File Photo

  • John Kordek, whose 26-year career in the U.S. diplomat corps including time as ambassador to Botswana, sits in his Arlington Heights home office in 2012. Kordek, 82, died Feb. 16.

    John Kordek, whose 26-year career in the U.S. diplomat corps including time as ambassador to Botswana, sits in his Arlington Heights home office in 2012. Kordek, 82, died Feb. 16. Daily Herald File Photo

  • John Kordek meets with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican during a diplomatic mission.

    John Kordek meets with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican during a diplomatic mission. Daily Herald File Photo

 
Updated 2/28/2021 5:53 PM

John Kordek's decades of service in the U.S. diplomatic corps took him to meetings with former President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and foreign leaders around the world, but in his latter years at home in Arlington Heights, he was just John.

"He would joke about a lot of things," said his wife, Alice, noting that her husband's humor would surprise those who expected only seriousness from a former high-ranking diplomat.

 

"(But) he took his job as an ambassador very, very seriously," she added.

Kordek, the former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana and a participant in the Geneva and Reykjavik summits between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, died Tuesday, Feb. 16. He was 82.

Raised in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood, Kordek joined the Air Force after graduating from Weber High School, eventually serving with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) 818th Air Division.

When he returned, he studied at DePaul University, where he met Alice. After only a handful of postgraduate dates, they were married, a union hastened by a quirky requirement for his first State Department mission, to socialist Yugoslavia.

"The department of state had a rule that said unmarried men could not go to countries such as that. In the end, he had to find a wife," Alice said.

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The marriage lasted 56 years, due not only to common interests in travel and geography, but also a shared sense of humor, she said.

Kordek's knowledge of the Serbo-Croat language proved valuable in Yugoslavia, where one of his first assignments was escorting Louis Armstrong during the trumpeter's 1965 visit as part of a state department cultural program.

He later was assigned as deputy chief of mission in Poland in the late 1970s, during the rise of the Solidarity and visits from Pope John Paul II.

"Life was difficult there because there was a food shortage," Alice Kordek said. "I stood in line for bread. We couldn't get sugar."

Other assignments during his career took the Kordeks to Italy, Belgium and Venezuela.

While foreign service officers are apolitical, Alice said her husband was particularly impressed with Reagan, who nominated him for ambassador to the south African nation of Botswana in 1988, and would eventually honor him with a presidential award for "sustained superior conduct of U.S. foreign policy."

Alice recalled a family trip to Washington, D.C., when they met with Reagan. Their son, Andrew, mentioned that his school, Quincy College, had recently played the president's alma mater, Eureka College, in football.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"And the president said, 'And, Andrew, how did you do?'" Alice recalled. "And Andrew said, 'We beat your butt.' To which the president responded, 'Well, things haven't changed.'"

As ambassador to Botswana from 1988 to 1990, one of Kordek's proudest achievements was opening the new embassy. He also became close with President Quett Masire, who had been a leader of the independence movement there.

Kordek was one of the few ambassadors to attempt to speak Setswana, the country's language, even going on a radio broadcast to explain the Fourth of July to the nation.

The Kordeks settled in Arlington Heights after his retirement. He returned to DePaul as an associate vice president and taught graduate-level courses on World War II and the Holocaust.

DePaul bestowed him with the "Via Sapientiae Award," the university's highest faculty-staff honor, for educating generations of students and faculty "about the horrors of bigotry and the promotion of the value of dignity and respect for all people."

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Kordek to two five-year terms to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington. He named Kordek a member of the U.S. presidential delegations to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps.

Kordek also chaired the Chicago-Warsaw Sister Cities program and was co-chair of the National Polish American-Jewish American National Council and served on the Council's Executive Committee and the Committee on Conscience, which monitors genocide worldwide.

Kordek remained on top of world affairs in his latter years and retained a hopeful outlook.

"He was still reading four of five newspapers a day," Alice Kordek said. "And he had an opinion that, 'This, too, shall pass.'"

Besides Alice, Kordek is survived by son, Andrew (Elizabeth) Kordek; daughter, Catherine (Lynn) Stover; grandchildren, Joshua Kordek, Henry Stover and Will Stover; brother, Phillip (Theresa) Kordek and sister, Judy (Chester) Pasowicz. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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