Swan’s Island summer resident William Rowland was recently honored as a hero by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAM ROWLAND

Swan’s Island hero honored by U.S. State Department

SWAN’S ISLAND  Throughout his 25 years in the foreign service, Swan’s Island is where William Rowland would return after each of his assignments to readjust to life in America.  

“We are here now because I just recently retired,” he said in a conversation with the Islander last week. “I love the summers here… I’ve been coming up here for summers basically since I was born.” 

On Sept. 29, Rowland was honored as a hero by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., for actions he took while on his first assignment in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, more than 20 years ago. He is the first foreign officer to receive this designation, which is scheduled to be awarded each year to several people who have served in foreign service.  

Rowland earned his hero status for actions he took when civil war broke out in Brazzaville in June 1997. He had been working in the country for nearly two years as an entry level officer in the political and economic section at the United States Embassy. It was close to election time when tensions boiled over and a civil war broke out with gunfire outside the embassy.  

Rowland went outside the embassy to help evacuate Americans who were volunteering in the Peace Corps, on missionary trips, foreign service personnel or other embassy staff to bring them to safety.  

“All Americans have to register with the embassy so we can keep track of where they are,” said Rowland, explaining that records were pen and paper at that time versus being electronic, as they are now.  

One of his rescue trips during the civil unrest included driving the ambassador’s bullet-proof limousine across the city to retrieve two colleagues who were being held hostage by the rebels. In the ceremony to honor Rowland, which was held virtually due to COVID19, he recalled a Marine pointing out to him the difference in the sound between a bullet being fired by you and one being fired at you.  

Ultimately, when the last of the Americans had been rounded up at the airport to fly out of the country, Rowland was able to use what Russian he remembered from his studies in college to convince a Ukrainian pilot to take the group across the Congo River to the city of Kinshasa, then the capital of Zaire. Rowland is proficient in six different languages. 

“Flexibility is the big thing,” he said when asked what advice he would give others in the foreign service during the ceremony. “You can’t count on everything being the same. Just because things are one way today doesn’t mean they’ll be that way tomorrow.” 

After such a harrowing introduction to the foreign service, Rowland was asked what motivated him to continue. Being able to help Americans who can’t help themselves, he responded. 

“There was no assignment that I wasn’t willing to take on, whether it was going to Venezuela, whether it was going to Haiti,” he said in explaining how that stint shaped him professionally. “There was no challenge that was too much to take on.” 

Rowland’s next assignment to Bogota, Columbia, was where he met his wife, Claudia. Meeting her, he says, was one of his happiest moments in the foreign service.  

Throughout his 25-year career, Rowland went on seven other assignments to places like Port au Prince, Haiti, Caracas, Venezuela, Calcutta, India, Lagos, Nigeria and Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

“My parents were living on the island,” said Rowland, explaining about them being on Swan’s Island. “So it was an easy way to be near them.” 

Rowland grew up in Baltimore until he was a teenager and then his parents moved to Vermont. Now that he is retired, Rowland is planning to spend summers on Swan’s Island and winters in Columbia near his wife’s family.  

Traveling to new places is on his list for retirement, but it will have to wait until COVID19 is no longer a threat. 

“I’d love to go to Mexico and/or Argentina,” said Rowland, who offered the following advice for those in difficult situations, specifically in the foreign service, “No matter how difficult the situations are, there is something you can find to focus on that will give you personal satisfaction, whether it’s work or pleasure or anything else. Look for opportunities to make yourself happy.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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