I was saddened to learn of the death of Ray Milefsky, one of the most prominent and engaging individuals in the international boundary community. I didn’t know Ray well (I think I met him three times in my life), but he was the sort of person who made a lasting impression. So, Martin Pratt’s moving tribute on his Bordermap blog has compelled me to add my own contribution to Ray’s memory.
As Martin notes, Ray was a long-time employee of the US State Department’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, where he was a leading expert in boundary and sovereignty matters. In that role, he was a steady friend of IBRU and a frequent tutor at IBRU training workshops. Although a consummate professional, Ray somehow had the air and enthusiasm of a brilliant amateur, a man who seemed always surprised by his knowledge…and delighted by it. And he shared that delight with others, bringing energy to all those around him. It is perhaps a cliche to call someone ‘full of life’ (and, I suppose, it’s a bit of an oxymoron in an obituary), but I can’t think of a better way to describe Ray.
I’d actually heard of Ray before ever meeting him. In 2004, Tom Chapman and I were conducting research in Key West, Florida on the various borderings and border-crossings performed there — between resident and tourist, island and mainland, straight and gay, and, of course, the United States and Cuba. During an interview with Peter Anderson, the self-proclaimed Secretary-General of Key West’s semi-farcical Conch Republic, Secretary-General Anderson told us about how, when the State Department gathered representatives from Armenia and Azerbaijan at the US Navy Base in Key West to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh and related issues, a State Department official taking a break from the negotiations walked into the Conch Republic office. What could have been a tense David-and-Goliath moment instead turned into a meeting of like-minded eccentrics. According to Anderson, the State Department official apparently ‘got’ the semi-serious but ultimately quite campy nature of the Conch Republic movement and, playing his part, he educated Anderson on his rights and responsibilities as a the leader of a sovereign state. Anderson proudly recounted how the State Department official left the office with a Conch Republic passport, a citizen of a ‘state’ that his employer did not affirmatively recognise.
Six years later, when conducting interviews with officials at the State Department on Arctic sovereignty issues, I was just a few minutes into an interview with Ray when I realised, ‘This must be the guy who has the Conch Republic passport.’ At the end of the interview, I asked Ray if he had been in Key West for the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations and, a few questions later, Ray confirmed that, sure enough, he was the person whom Anderson had told me about. Although Ray didn’t have his Conch Republic passport with him that day (it probably wouldn’t have been a very cool thing to bring into the State Department building!), he fondly recalled that meeting with Anderson so many years earlier.
To me, Ray’s playful brush with treason captured his essence. He was someone whose knowledge and power could have been intimidating. But he never failed to say things with a twinkle in his eye…not to disarm his listener, but because he genuinely was amused by the world and his place in it.
In The Little Prince, one of the asteroids visited by the protagonist is B330, where the Office of the Geographer is run by a pompous old codger who has no patience for the messiness or wonder of exploration. It is a credit to the US State Department’s Office of the Geographer that for so many years one of its leading lights was someone who was just the opposite.