LEWISTON — David Wittlesey never planned to work for U.S. ambassadors, meet kings or stage rescues for refugees.

“Back in the ’70s, I lived in Bowdoinham in a drafty old house heated by an old cook stove (with) ducks, chickens and gardens,” Wittlesey said Thursday. His job had him tending to coffee and “putting Twinkies in the vending machines” at area mills, beginning each day with Lewiston’s then-bustling Bates Mill.

Then, he heard a radio ad for an Augusta office administering the foreign service exam.

He scored well and was rushed through the State Department’s School. Soon, he was working in an embassy in Reykjavík, Iceland.

He learned how embassies worked, how to give people visas and how to help visiting Americans who’d lost their passports.

And he began to address the bigger issue of understanding peace and building relationships.

“Don’t think of accomplishments in terms of victories or defeats but rather as stepping stones in the stream as life flows past,” Wittlesey said.

From Iceland, he went to Morrocco, where he watched an ambassador run a kind of proxy campaign for President Ronald Reagan, who was running for his second term.

As Wittlesey traveled with the ambassador, he witnessed ridiculously bad communication.

“It was quite a scene, handing out (campaign) bumper stickers and pens to uncomprehending Bedouins and Berbers who could neither write nor drive and certainly not vote,” Wittlesey told the Great Falls Forum audience Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library. “You’d think it was New Jersey.”

Then he watched the same ambassador build invaluable friendships.

“Diplomacy, working at the interface between one’s country and other countries of the world, is exciting and fun and challenging and difficult and rewarding and frustrating and exhausting and ultimately enough for me,” Wittlesey said.

In 1990, Wittlesey left the foreign service to work for the International Organization for Migration, “a multi-governmental, U.N.-type organization” that works to help refugee populations. In 2000, he left there to help create Interpeace, which also works with refugee groups.

In 2006, he returned home to Bowdoinham, spending time on the town’s Board of Selectmen.

“I packed it all in to see what I could do in my own backyard,” said Wittlesey, who remains a senior adviser to Interpeace.

“What it really means is I’m old and have no authority,” he said.

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