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Mr. Ambassador

Lake Placid grad named top U.S. diplomat in Algeria

October 20, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - John Desrocher - the 1982 Lake Placid High School valedictorian - is settling into his job at the U.S. embassy in Algeria.

He's the new ambassador.

Nominated by President Donald Trump in the summer, Desrocher and his wife Karen Rose recently moved to Algiers, where he celebrated his 53rd birthday on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Article Photos

Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon administers the U.S. ambassador to Algeria oath of office to John P. Desrocher, the 1982 Lake Placid High School valedictorian, on Sept. 7 with his wife Karen Rose by his side at the State Department in Washington, D.C. His brother-in-law Ken Rose stands behind.
(Provided photo — U.S. State Department)

"What I'm really hoping to do is to build a really positive relationship," Desrocher said about the U.S. and Algerian people. He spoke with the News before taking the oath of office on Sept. 7 at the State Department in Washington, D.C. "My predecessor there did a great deal to push forward our economic relationship and our diplomatic relationship, and I want to continue that."

Like many teenagers living in Lake Placid in 1980, Desrocher got his first taste of international relations when he was 15 years old. That's when the Winter Olympics came to town, and it made quite an impression.

"Growing up in a small town like Lake Placid, it's your little small town and you think you know it and it's your little part of the world that you understand," Desrocher said. "Then the Olympics come, and you're exposed to this extraordinary, huge community of people for this very intense period of time, and your head spins a little bit. You can't help but sort of look around and say, 'Well, all of this is very interesting, and I want to find out more about it.'"

With the Olympics sparking a curiosity about the wider world, by the time Desrocher was a high school senior, he had decided that working in the State Department may be a good career choice. A Feb. 22, 1982 press release in the Lake Placid News about Regents College Scholarships clearly showed his intentions: "He plans a career in foreign service." His school of choice was the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

"I wouldn't say I was really committed to anything at that point," Desrocher said, "but my interest was piqued, and then obviously when I got to college and started studying, the interest grew."

Now, almost 30 years after entering the foreign service, he's the top American diplomat in Algeria.

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Lake Placid years

John P. Desrocher was born on Oct. 14, 1964 in Plattsburgh, the son of Roy and Mary Desrocher. The family, including older brother Michael, LPHS Class of 1980, moved to Lake Placid in January 1968. His parents would have one more child, daughter Victoria, the Northwood School Class of 1986 honor speaker.

A resident of Grandview Hill, John graduated from St. Agnes Catholic School in 1978 and the Lake Placid High School in 1982.

John's mother still lives in Lake Placid. His father, a pharmacist who bought O'Neil's Pharmacy when they moved to Lake Placid, died on April 30, 1982 in Hilton Head, South Carolina, the result of a swimming accident. In 1978, Roy Desrocher moved his business from 354 Main St. to the newly opened Cold Brook Plaza and changed the name to Plaza Pharmacy.

While the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee took over the Lake Placid High School - the only school in the state to be issued a liquor license - to house the press corps, John had some time off to explore the Olympic Games.

"We were fortunate," he said. "We went to a number of the hockey games, was able to get to the USA-USSR hockey game. My mom and my sister were able to get to some of the figure skating stuff. We were able to see a fair bit of it. We were also keeping the pharmacy open and running. It was obviously a very busy time there, too, but we managed to work it out."

One of John's best memories of the Olympics - "of course" - was the Miracle on Ice game between the U.S. and Soviet Union. But there was so much going on that he can't really pinpoint one memory as his absolute favorite.

"I still remember the opening ceremonies and just this enormous influx of people and how during this two-month period, this little town was just flooded by this entire United Nations of countries and everything was just shut down," he said. "I was working some in the pharmacy, and all these different sorts of people were coming in, and it was just fascinating talking to all of them and meeting all of these people."

Living in cities around the world for the past 35 years, John still has fond memories of his hometown.

"It was a really terrific place to grow up, and I still feel really lucky having come from there," he said. "It's a small town where everybody knows everybody. We were very comfortable there. There was a real sense of community, and there was a sense of a larger community spirit."

John got to meet a lot of people working at his father's pharmacy, and that also made a big impression.

"It wasn't at all an anonymous place. It's a very hard-working place," he said. "I had parents who set an extraordinary example and just a community that I've always found a very positive place. I learned a lot there. I was always encouraged to think big and look around at the wider world. ... Those are the things that form you, and you can't help but carry them with you for the rest of your life."

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Foreign service

Desrocher is a graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a multiple recipient of the State Department's Superior and Meritorious Honor Awards. He is a former Deputy Chief of Mission and Consul General overseas at seven U.S. missions and senior State Department official in Washington, D.C.

"It's been a fascinating business," he said. "I'm glad I ended up in it. It's been a terrific way to make a living and a terrific profession, seeing extraordinary things, opportunities that not a lot of people have. I've really enjoyed it."

Desrocher is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and has served as an American diplomat since 1988, just before the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its satellite states of the Eastern Bloc ended. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Asked how the job has changed over the past 29 years, given the global changes in politics after the Cold War ended, Desrocher said the job is still about pursuing and promoting the U.S. national interests abroad.

"I think that perhaps security has played a bigger role in the environment in some parts of the world where the work becomes more difficult," he said. "I started in this business just as the Cold War was ending, and so a larger political context of the world shifted, but the basic job, I think, has pretty much stayed the same."

Desrocher spent his early years serving in the U.S. embassies in Monrovia and Bonn as well as in the State Department Operations Center and Office of European Union Affairs. He served as State Department desk officer for Iraq in the mid-1990s and participated in Palestinian-Israeli economic negotiations while serving at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem in the late 1990s. While detailed to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, he led portions of free trade negotiations with Chile and Singapore.

He has extensive experience in international trade and in Middle East issues, and he speaks French, German and basic Arabic. The June 21 White House press release announcing his nomination referred to these attributes.

"He is known for his economic acumen, leadership, knowledge of the North Africa and Middle East regions and ability to manage people and resources in high-threat environments," stated the press release.

Desrocher was the Counselor for Economic and Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo before serving as the U.S. Consul General in Auckland, New Zealand from 2006 to 2009. He served in Baghdad, Iraq from 2009 to 2010 as Minister Counselor for Economic Coordination, responsible for U.S.-Iraq economic policy issues and then served in the Department of State as the Director of the Office of Iraq Affairs, briefly as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Maghreb Affairs. In 2013 and 2014, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In September 2014, he was named Deputy Assistant Secretary for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State and was in that position until being named the U.S. ambassador to Algeria.

"My ultimate goal was really to get as much out of the career as I could," Desrocher said. "There's a real sense of service here. One thing that I've found very common with all of my colleagues is a sense of patriotism and a sense that serving abroad in the name of the United States is a real privilege and is a real honorable thing to do. That's always been meaningful to me. It has given the job real significance. I've just always been guided by that and always tried to find things to do that exposed me to new things that I find interesting."

The title of Desrocher's new job is technically called "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Peoples' Democratic Republic of Algeria." He succeeds Joan Polaschik in that job.

As ambassador, a main part of Desrocher's job is to make cultural and business bridges between the U.S. and Algeria, and he understands that getting those messages to the younger generation is a key to his success.

"There's an increasing interest, I think, among young people for more exposure to things about the United States, and I definitely want to work on that as well and just generally try to raise the profile of the U.S. in Algeria and do what I can to help them understand it better," he said.

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Message to U.S. youth

Desrocher has seen firsthand - even proven it to himself - that a kid from an Adirondack small town such as Lake Placid can travel the world, serving his country, and make a true name for himself, even becoming an ambassador to a country in North Africa. That doesn't happen every day. But it's certainly possible for any student in Lake Placid, New York state or small towns and cities across the U.S.

Desrocher's advice?

"Think big. Think broadly," he said. "If something really intrigues you and interests you, it's worth pursuing. You don't want to be in one of those situations of wondering 'If.' You don't want to be looking back wondering 'If I tried this' or 'If I tried that.' You should always try these things. I was very glad I did. It's been a fascinating 30 years, and I felt that that was sort of a perspective that I very much got from my parents and the community there."

During his interview with the News, Desrocher made a point to promote careers at the State Department, which can be found online at www.state.gov/careers.

"That's where people should go if they think this might be of interest to them," he said. "It tells you all you need to know if somebody thinks that this might be something they want to look into more. I encourage people to do that. Obviously, I'm really thrilled that I did."

Desrocher reminds students that there are many ways to serve their country. It doesn't have to be in the State Department, and it doesn't have to be abroad.

"There are people who serve in the Armed Forces, and there are people who serve in government but don't serve overseas, most of them, obviously," he said. "And there are civilian roles overseas where you get to represent the United States abroad. There's a lot of people that serve in a lot of different ways, but it is true that certainly in all the years that I've been in this business, one thing I've found in conversations with colleagues is something that pushes them in this direction is that sense of service and the sense of privilege of being able to represent the United States abroad. It's an important thing."

 
 

 

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