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Editor's note: Home Grown is an occasional series highlighting the extraordinary successes of the area's native sons and daughters. If you have suggestions, pass them on to Stephanie Mathieu at stephanie.mathieu@tdn.com or call (360) 577-2504.

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Robin Raphel's classmates might have been right when they voted her most likely to succeed.

The 1965 Mark Morris graduate (then Robin Johnson) worked for the CIA and was an ambassador for both the Clinton and first Bush administrations over a diplomatic career that spanned three decades.

What started as teen dream of traveling and experiencing cultures developed into a busy and rewarding career that's taken her to several continents and allowed her to meet key political leaders. She's spent the last year jetting between her Washington, D. C., home to Iraq, where she advises the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction.

Before that, she worked with the State Department as a coordinator for the country's reconstruction.

"The difficulty has been that the security situation deteriorated, and the political situation isn't stable," said Raphel, 59. "But, we persevere."

Former classmate Dr. John Kirkpatrick — also voted "most likely to succeed" — said Raphel's prestigious career is no surprise.

Home Grown success stories
Here are the four other "Home Grown" success stories profiled so far:
• Kathy Lefebvre: recognized by Bush administration for her marine biology work — July 30
• Ted Selker: Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, inventor — Aug. 17
• Doug Christie: NBA player, reality television star — Sept. 23
• Andrea Coleman: Los Angeles purse designer, former Disney animator — Oct. 15

"Everybody knew that she was going to do something special," said Kirkpatrick, a Seattle physician who still keeps in touch with Raphel. "She seemed to have a worldly sense about her and was interested in much broader things than (what was) happening in Longview."

Raphel's family moved from Vancouver to Longview in the '50s when her father, the late Donald Johnson, became manager of the Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum plant. Raphel's mother, Vera Johnson lives in Seattle.

"We were fairly serious students," Kirkpatrick said, "and we were in most of the honors classes and had a fair amount of homework."

Raphel played tennis, competed on the debate team and enjoyed outdoor activities, such as hiking. While in high school, Raphel's family hosted a foreign exchange student from France, piquing her interest in international affairs.

"It was a nice town to grow up in," she said of Longview. "We had the typical upbringing of children in the '50s and '60s. … But I was anxious to see the world."

After graduating high school, Raphel attended the University of Washington, and studied abroad at the University of London during her junior year. She got bachelor's degrees in history and economics, then earned a master's in economics from the University of Maryland.

Raphel started her first international job teaching history at Damavand College in Iran. IN the late 1970s she landed a post at the CIA as an economic analyst. At that time, the agency was dominated by men.

"Women have come a long way," Raphel said. "It is not a profession in which men are somehow by nature the most gifted at. It is about figuring out what motivates other people. It is about negotiating and persuasion and advocacy."

Raphel — fluent in French and Urdu, the national language in Pakistan — started working as a U.S. ambassador in 1984, concentrating on Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia.

In 2000, she began a three-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, a small African country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

A highlight in her career took place when she was working in South Africa at the end of apartheid, a nearly 50-year period of government-mandated racial segregation.

"The whole political landscape was changing," Raphel recalled. "It was exciting to be in a position to learn about that — and for it to be your job to learn about that."

She met activist Nelson Mandela (later a South Africa president) after he was released from prison in 1990 and was awed by his tolerance and sophistication.

"He's a very, very classy guy," Raphel said. "He has all the wisdom of his years and more."

The ambassador's fast-paced career left little time for her family, but now that her two daughters Anna and Alexandra are grown, Raphel believes they understand the sacrifices their mother made to serve the country.

"They used to find it a bit of a bother because I traveled a lot," she said. They've come to appreciate government service and the fact that it's hard work, but it's a worthy career to engage in."

At least one daughter may, like her mother, embark on a diplomatic career. Anna is a University of Chicago junior studying political science and Arabic.

Raphel encourages students interested in her line of work to become active in civil affairs and debate and not to dismiss a high-profile government job as unobtainable.

"It's not the purview of the elites anymore," she said.

Although she has no interest in moving back to Longview, Raphel fantasizes about coming back to the state where she grew up.

"It was a far more relaxed, open environment," she said. "I've always been pleased that I grew up on the West Coast. … The East Coast environment is more of a pressure cooker."

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