All Souls Member Portrait: Ted Vestal knighted Grand Cross of the Imperial Order of the Star of Honor of Ethiopia.
One early morning in the summer of 1962, Ted Vestal, a young researcher in California, was woken up by the insistent ringing of his phone. An unfamiliar voice at the other end said, “Please hold for Mr. John D. Rockefeller IV.”
Ted was dumbstruck. Several months before, he had submitted an application to President John F. Kennedy’s newly founded Peace Corps, but never heard anything of it. With the defiant irrationality of a person in the first seconds of a life-changing moment, Ted Vestal convinced himself that the call from the assistant to the director of the Peace Corps had to be some cruel prank.
It wasn’t. Jay Rockefeller opened the door to a series of interviews culminating in a conversation with Sergeant Shriver, who hired Ted Vestal to join the Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia. Ted spent a year learning Amharic, the African country’s official language, before traveling with his wife and three young children to Africa in 1964.
In the land of the Lion of Judah
When Ted speaks about Ethiopia, his love for the country is in plain sight. He made it a point to visit every region and province in the country, quite an achievement in those days. He was also one of the very few joggers around. On his runs, Ted took quite a bit of good-natured ribbing from his neighbors, who compared him (unfavorably, he is quite certain) to Abebe Bikila, the famous Ethiopian Olympic marathon champion.
Ted met Emperor Haile Selassie twice during his two years in Ethiopia—at a Christmas reception for Peace Corps staff and at an art show. He remembers his wife Pat performing the required curtsey with a great deal of grace. Ted describes Haile Selassie as a man of great dignity and gravitas with the most piercing eyes, comparing the great man’s gaze to that of Maria Callas. He would know. After all, Ted sang in the chorus for performances of La Divina at the Dallas Opera House. Like so many adventures in Ted Vestal’s life, that’s a story for another day.
In the service of others
When his time in the Peace Corps ended in 1966, Ted Vestal and his family returned to the US. In Oklahoma, he taught political science at OSU but also kept working all over the world. He served as director of the Educational Resources Center in New Delhi and OSU Kyoto and taught Ethiopian Studies at Hamburg University in Germany.
After the fall of the Derg dictatorship in Ethiopia, Ted returned as a consultant to the new government and as an international election observer in 1992. Back in the States, he testified before the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs on “Ethiopia: The Challenges Ahead.” As the political situation in the country deteriorated, he began serving as an expert witness on behalf of more than 120 Ethiopians seeking political asylum, mostly intellectuals whose criticism of the regime put their lives in danger. To this day, Ted maintains lively contact and personal friendships with some of Ethiopia’s finest thinkers.
A crowning achievement
In March of 2018, Ted Vestal, his son Edward, his daughter Suzanne and his granddaughter Julianne travelled to Washington D.C. to attend the Victory of Adwa Dinner hosted by His Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile Selassie, President of the Crown Council of Ethiopia. In recognition of his “lifetime of service to Ethiopia,” Ted Vestal received the rank, honor and dignity of Knight Grand Cross of the Imperial Order of the Star of Honor of Ethiopia (GCSE).
When Ted talks about this well-deserved honor, he seems pleased, if a bit bemused. He doesn’t like to dwell on his title and spends a lot more time talking about the dinner, his fellow honorees and the pleasure of having his children attend the ceremony, especially since his wife wasn’t able to travel.
Ted calls his investiture a “wonderful capstone to my many happy years of work in the academy and in government service.” He was honored for a life spent in the service of others, helping people live better lives and changing America’s attitude towards Africa, one article, one book, one witness testimony at a time.
This was supposed to be the end of Ted’s member portrait. Except for one thing: A few weeks after the ceremony in Washington D.C., Prince Ermias visited Oklahoma and—without much notice—dropped by Ted’s house for tea. Ted arranged for a visit to Philbrook where the prince saw works by Acee Blue Eagle, who had once honored his grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie, with the gift of a war bonnet. Once again, Ted used his knowledge and love of Ethiopia and its history to be a positive influence on the present. It’s what he does.
Katja Blum is an All Souls member and beyondbelief.online contributor.
Cover Photo: From left: Dr. Gizachew Tiruneh, Dr. Hailu, Dr. Elias Wondamu, Ted Vestal.
Photos courtesy of Edward Vestal