Theodore L. Eliot, diplomat, conservationist
Sonoma Valley lost a great friend with the passing of Ted Eliot on Aug. 9, 2019. A loving husband, father, diplomat, birder, A’s fan, raconteur, and living example of the best in life we encounter all too rarely, Eliot spent the last three decades of his 91 years keeping the land he loved as beautiful and open to everyone as he could, applying his considerable diplomatic skills to supporting open space, getting the taxes approved to acquire and maintain those spaces, and contributing to a wide range of like-minded groups, including Sonoma Mountain Preservation, the Sonoma Land Trust and many others.
Eliot’s relationship with Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley began long before he retired from the United States Foreign Service, with the teenage friendship of two young women, Pat Peters and Mickey Cooke, high school classmates in Marin who shared a love of horses and riding on Jack London’s Ranch. Together, they met Charmian London, and Pat worked summers at the Jack London Dude Ranch, which is now Jack London State Historic Park.
Ted met Pat after college and their romance grew into a lifelong partnership through a marriage of nearly 70 years that took them to exotic postings in Sri Lanka, Germany, the Soviet Union, Iran, and ultimately the ambassadorship to Afghanistan, a post Ted held for five years, leaving in 1978.
“Ted represents all the qualities that made America unique. He was and will remain for us the paragon of virtue, generosity, friendship and public service.” This was the communiqué from a distinguished Afghan leader on learning of Eliot’s passing.
Eliot’s credentials as a knowledgeable and successful career diplomat were evident with his post-career appointment as Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Listing Eliot’s many accomplishments and interests would fill a book. Some later highlights include board membership on the San Francisco World Affairs Council, on the Asia Foundation (where he is still listed as “emeritus”), and constant speaking engagements.
He was reading books on diplomacy and helping choose the best of the annual awards for the American Academy of Diplomacy as recently as the week before he died.
Understanding Ted Eliot’s impact on our daily lives calls for knowing his lifelong love, Patricia “Pat” Eliot, who passed away at age 87 in 2016.
“Mom and Dad were a team,” daughter Wendy Eliot said. “When he had his career overseas at embassies, they were a team on everything they did and she did with respect to that career.”
Wendy shares her parents’ love of conservation and is conservation director at the Sonoma Land Trust. She is one of the Eliot’s four children who experienced first hand the wonders of living in far away places where their parents represented the United States.
“My father didn’t know he wanted to live here,”son Ted Eliot III said. “Mother grew up in Marin County and had that experience as a young girl at Jack London Ranch and loved the area. After following him around for 30 years, it was her turn, and her turn was to buy the property Mickey (Cooke) found for them.”
“They shared an office (at home) on the mountain and were busy at their computers and on the phone for hours every day,” Wendy, added. “It was like having a pair of eagles up there. Whenever something was amiss, they would swoop down and take care of it.”
For Eliot, diplomacy was a personal thing. Mickey Cooke said that many a Sonoma Valley home in the hills is not visible today because he personally would go and talk to the landowner, getting them to nudge the building envelop this way or that, shielding it from the valley floor but respecting the new home’s views.
“I think he was born to be a Foreign Service officer; they have to get along with everybody,” Cooke said. “Ted was very good at that. He had an easy way with him, and would sit down and work with people of all kinds of views.”
Two of Eliot’s greatest assets were a big smile that could light up a room, and his eternal positive outlook on life, in spite of having lived in troubled lands for a good part of his life. “He was a very optimistic guy,” Ted III said. “He always saw the progressive and positive side. He always thought things would come together for the better.
“My dad was always trying to fix things in the world,” Wendy said. “If something needed attention, he’d dog it until it was done.”
Noting that he was at peace in the last week of his life, in an introspective mood thinking about the meaning of life, her dad said, “We are here to make the world a better place for those who come after us.”
“That was his core value,” she said.
Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.
– Jay Gamel