Reading Room

Tuesday, February 10, 2009  
Francis Underhill Macy - improved Russia relations

By: Peter Fimrite
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

A memorial service will be held on Feb. 21 for Francis Underhill Macy, an environmental activist and expert on Russian culture who dedicated much of his life as a citizen diplomat working to improve relations with people in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Macy, who advocated for racial equality long before the civil rights movement and was a well-known opponent of nuclear proliferation, died Jan. 20 in his Berkeley home from a heart attack. He was 81.

Born in Evanston, Ill., he was the youngest of four brothers whose parents were involved in the theater. Known to everyone as Fran, he received a bachelor's degree in government in 1949 from Wesleyan University, where he also excelled as an actor.

The course of his life began to take shape at Wesleyan, where he did what was, at the time, almost unthinkable. He became roommates with a black man named Chuck Stone, who would become a prominent journalist.

The two men worked together at one point trying to desegregate restaurants in Washington, D.C., and became lifelong friends.

After graduation, he enrolled at Harvard, where he turned heads rooming with another African American. He received a master's in 1951 in Slavic studies at Harvard and learned to speak Russian.

In 1953, he married Joanna Rogers, who embraced her husband's activism and remained his compatriot for life.

He began working for the Russian-language station Radio Liberty, which was based in Munich, at the height of the Cold War. He worked for the U.S. Information Service, which sent American citizen diplomats around the world to talk to people about American values and democracy.

In 1961, Mr. Macy led the first ever citizen diplomatic mission into the USSR. The group of Russian-speaking American graduate students were the first Americans many locals had ever met.

"The word got out and, rain or shine, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to young Americans," said Mr. Macy's wife, who accompanied him on the mission. "It changed their attitude about Americans. They saw for the first time that Americans were real people, not the rich capitalist racists who fit into the Stalinist stereotype."

It was such a moving experience that Mr. Macy turned down a prestigious government posting in Moscow and joined the Peace Corps. He also took time to join the 1963 March on Washington and was there when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.

"Fran saw that when you bring people together, magic happens," said his wife.

Between 1964 and 1972, he served as deputy Peace Corps director in India, country director in Tunisia and Nigeria and finally as director of all Peace Corps programs in Africa.

In 1983, Mr. Macy organized an exchange program. He has since taken delegations of educators, environmentalists, psychologists and civic organizers to Russia and the former Soviet republics for talks and professional training.

He got involved in nuclear issues after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which occurred while he was in Russia. In 1995 he founded the Earth Island Institute's Center for Safe Energy, which has trained hundreds of activists in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan.

He and his wife, an activist, author and teacher of Buddhist theory, have been involved in many local environmental groups and causes, including the Nuclear Guardianship Project, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and Tri-Valley CARES, a watchdog group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Besides his wife, he is survived by his sons, Christopher of Amsterdam and Jack of Berkeley; his daughter, Peggy Macy of Berkeley; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way.

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