Jerry LaFleur, a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Diplomatic Courier Service, spoke at the 100th anniversary celebration of the service this past November. LaFleur, of Eola, was director of the Courier Service twice in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jerry LaFleur reflects on 37 years in U.S. Foreign Service
For 37 years, Jerry LaFleur dedicated his life to the U.S. Foreign Service, including two terms as the director of the Office of Diplomatic Couriers. It was not unusual or inappropriate that the Courier Service tapped its retired leader to help celebrate its 100th anniversary this past November.
LaFleur was born in 1934 at the intersection of Watermelon Bayou and Bayou Boeuf in Eola. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service after he graduated from USL in 1963.
He was a guest speaker at the anniversary celebration on Nov. 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C.
The Courier Service came into being with the signing of the armistice ending World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, LaFleur said.
As the world’s leaders were meeting in Paris, U.S. Gen. John Pershing ordered U.S. Postal Express Service-Europe director Maj. Amos Peaslee to “organize and operate a courier service of American officers and enlisted personnel for the benefit of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace in Paris,” LaFleur said. “Pershing’s instructions to Peaslee were simple: organize a courier service that was confidential, dependable and frequent.”
Within three weeks, the new courier team had reduced the time to deliver classified correspondence between Washington and Paris from five weeks to less than two weeks. This earned them the nickname, “Silver Greyhounds.”
When the Silver Greyhounds team was disbanded in 1919, the jobs were turned over to dispatch agents within the State Department.
When the U.S. Senate rejected joining the League of Nations in 1921, America’s role in international diplomacy was lessened, LaFleur said.
In 1932, the courier service was disbanded. However, a year later President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Diplomatic Courier Service to be reinstated -- in large part because he realized the U.S. had nothing to compare with Britain’s King’s Messenger System.
In World War II, the Courier Service ran military and State Department missions. The military agents were phased out by 1946 and the program became the primary carrier for diplomatic correspondence, LaFleur noted.
LaFleur is a virtual encyclopedia of Courier Service history.
In June 1989, during his first term as director, “I successfully pursued an important objective that allowed the outside hiring of Diplomatic Couriers for the first time since 1969,” he said. “This returned the Courier Service to a full professional organization. Vacancies would be open to outside hiring and not filled from within the department.”
In his second tour as director in 1998 he led a State Department delegation to China “for the purpose of organizing Diplomatic Courier travel on American Flag containerized shipping from the West Coast to the major port city of Hanjin, China,” LaFleur recalled. “Such travel would be required for the construction of new embassies and consulates in China and Southeast Asia.”
LaFleur said his desire to work in the Foreign Service dates back to 1943 when he discovered “the interesting world in which we live” by reading a set of Compton’s World Encyclopedia his mother received from the Mellow Coffee Company for being a faithful customer for 10 years.
That youthful dream of world travel became a reality 20 years later when the U.S. Department of State accepted his application to become a diplomatic courier in the Foreign Service.
“My career in the Diplomatic Courier Service became an adventurous and rewarding lifestyle,” LaFleur said. It involved “providing regularly scheduled delivery of classified mails and materials to U.S. diplomatic missions in 160 countries around the world.”
LaFleur said those who served as diplomatic couriers before him, with him and after him have realized that organization is different from others.
“It was appealing, it was attractive and it was interesting,” he added.
The couriers serve all agencies of the government in a “top-secret job that is dedicated specifically to the efficient, orderly and secure movement of classified materials around the world to the overseas missions of the United States.”
LaFleur said the couriers generated enthusiasm for their tasks and their “remarkable camaraderie, their motivation and their sense of duty made for an unusual and content group of employees.”
A PERSONAL STORY
While LaFleur received satisfaction in his career with the Foreign Service, he also obtained something of even greater value as a result of his courier duties.
His wife, Silvia Romanelli.
LaFleur said the couriers in Vienna would meet around 7 p.m. at the Vienna International Hotel’s Capriccio Piano Bar for a beer and to decide where they would have dinner.
“On one of these occasions in 1969, while at the Capriccio Bar, I glanced around and for the first time set my eyes on a young lady named Silvia Romanelli, from Sierre, Switzerland, a student at the Vienna Ballet Academy,” LaFleur recalled. “She was with one of her ballet colleagues at a typical Vienna marble table at a lounge that averaged about 50 attendees.
“I introduced myself and, as time allowed, we were married three years later in June 1972 at Zermatt, Switzerland,” he added.
LaFleur said Silvia did not speak English and he did not understand any of the four languages she did speak -- French, German, Italian and Romanish.
“It’s all about the eyes,” he said.
In November 1972 he finished his duties in Vienna and was transferred to Washington, D.C.
“When I checked in at the Intercontinental, I asked the reception desk manager to walk with me to the Capriccio Bar. I pointed to the marble table where I met my wife three years earlier and told him that I wanted to purchase the marble table,” LaFleur said. “He replied that the hotel was not in the business of selling its marble tables. I responded that I would be at the hotel for 10 days and for him to ‘think about’ my request.”
On the morning he was leaving for his new assignment, he met with the hotel management staff about his request.
The decision was that the hotel would not sell him the table -- but it would give it to him if he would let them tell his story in their hotel magazine. The hotel also wanted a photo of his wife and photos of him and his friends moving the marble table to the embassy vehicle.
He agreed to the terms.
“I asked my courier colleagues to help me carry the two-piece marble table to our courier van,” he said.
The table was taken to the airport “where it was placed in the first-class section of an Austrian Airlines plane,” he said. “Shortly thereafter, the ‘Romance Table’ story began to appear in several European newspapers and magazines.
“The table still remains a popular mingling place in our home,” he added.