Bob Gersony ’63
How a Peddie alumnus dramatically — and anonymously — influenced U.S. foreign policy over four decades
Bob Gersony ’63 said his time at Peddie was short but impactful. After only one year in Hightstown, he was left with lifelong friends, a passion for reporting from his days on The Peddie News and a mentor relationship with English teacher E. Graham Ward that lasted for decades.
Gersony, the subject of best-selling author Robert D. Kaplan’s recently published memoir, “The Good American,” served as a consultant for the federal government in more than 40 hot spots across the globe. Anywhere there was a humanitarian crisis —natural or human-caused — Gersony was there. On each mission, he interviewed hundreds of victims and survivors, sometimes for hours at a time. His meticulous notes were turned into confidential reports to the U.S. State Department that ultimately helped inform and influence foreign policy decisions. Kaplan’s book calls him “the U.S. government’s greatest humanitarian.”
Gersony, self-described as a “simple field worker,” went into conflict areas that others were desperately trying to flee. Mozambique, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Guatemala, Uganda, North Korea, Gaza and others. In all, he had 55 assignments over 40 years.
Crisis after crisis, decade after decade, during the administrations of both Democratic and Republican presidents, Gersony’s work was highly valued.
“I developed a way of asking chronological questions that didn’t involve influencing the answers,” Gersony said, adding that he always approached the interviewees with respect and deference. “They were the ones who were experts on the topic. Many of them couldn’t write, but they were experts in what they had seen.”
Gersony said he is confident the stories of those he interviewed had an effect in Washington. “Their views informed the highest levels,” he said. “There is no conflict between good national security and good humanitarian policy.”
There is no conflict between good national security and good humanitarian policy.”
A year at Peddie
Gersony, raised in New York City before coming to Peddie in his junior year, said he had a reading problem that he tackled later in life, which made Peddie challenging.
Ward, Gersony said, was the first teacher to tell him he was a good writer and a good thinker.
“He was encouraging in a very quiet way. He would invite me over to his room, and we would sit and talk for an hour. Those talks meant a great deal to me,” Gersony said nearly 60 years later. “I felt like I was no one, and he made me feel like a valuable person who had something to contribute.”
“Decades later, I would come back from an assignment, and I would phone (Ward) or visit him. He was interested in the work I was doing. He would read my reports, and we would discuss them,” Gersony said. “He was a mentor way beyond my years at Peddie.”
Likewise, he said, friends that he made in 1961 remain a part of his life today. “Even though some of them I haven’t been in touch with for decades, when I resumed contact with them after this book was published, it was as if we were still at Peddie and no time had passed at all,” he said.
He met some of those friends while working on The Peddie News, where Terry Christensen ’62 took him under his wing. “Terry was a very thoughtful person with a very good character,” Gersony recalled. “He was a person who encouraged me along.”
It was his work at The Peddie News, he said, where he developed his style of interviewing and reporting factually without judgment.
“Peddie did more to prepare me than any other part of my education,” he said. “Peddie is considered a college prep school, but it helped me prepare for my life, which was different from most of my classmates.”
A career in humanity
Gersony’s year at Peddie would be his last formal schooling. Eventually, he began working in the commodity trade with his father. He found it profitable, but not satisfying.
All the while, Ward continued to mentor him. Three years after leaving Peddie and in the midst of the Vietnam War, Gersony joined the Army. An excellent typist, he was a company clerk for a medical evacuation division in Vietnam.
Upon his discharge from the Army with a Bronze Star, he was sitting in on (but not officially enrolled in) sociology classes at Long Island University. A professor leading a group of students to Guatemala needed an assistant to help him advance the trip. Gersony was recruited to go along. He arrived eager to learn Spanish.
“I was sitting in the park next to some young kid, and I got into a conversation with him in rudimentary Spanish,” Gersony recalled. The boy, Luis, earned 50 cents per week working in a garage. “I offered him a little bit more to work with me 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and all we did was speak Spanish. He was an extremely intelligent guy.”
Gersony decided to remain in Guatemala. Eventually, so many Americans asked him to recruit other Spanish tutors for them that he founded a network of 150 full-time teachers in three Guatemalan cities. It grew into a Spanish teaching center throughout Latin America.
On February 3, 1976, Gersony traveled to Mexico City for a meeting with the Ford Foundation. Hours later, an earthquake struck Guatemala. More than 23,000 people died, and another 75,000 were injured.
He returned to Guatemala to work on the reconstruction and was soon asked to take over the U.S. aid program. It would be the first of 55 foreign assignments on behalf of the U.S. government.
Gersony’s work often intersected with foreign service officers, local embassy staff and aid workers. “But the most important people were the 8,200 ordinary victims of conflict and natural catastrophe who stopped what they were doing to speak to me for an hour or two,” he said.
He learned the importance of good listening from his mentor at Peddie.
“In a way, what I do is what Ward did with me. Ward gave me confidence. He spent time with me, and he listened to me,” Gersony said. “That’s what I do with people who don’t expect to be listened to and don’t have confidence and have no idea what life has in store for them.”
Gersony said it is critical to pay close attention to every word that his interviewees say. “I think they are appreciative to unburden themselves of the terrible things they have witnessed,” he said. “People who look at my career always comment on the security dangers I was exposed to, but the greatest dangers didn’t come from security. It came from internalizing and absorbing the extreme violence and inhumanity that we humans are capable of inflicting on each other.”
He made sure his senses were never dulled to it.
“When you hear each individual person recount their story, you cannot abstract their experience into statistics,” he said. “Each person’s account resides inside of you permanently and cumulatively.”
Still, Gersony signed on 55 times.
“What keeps you going is that you are able to use the expertise from those 8,200 people to dramatically improve their situation and in some cases end mass murder and brutality,” he said.
Paul Irwin ’63, one of the lifelong friends Gersony made at Peddie, called his classmate “the smartest person who ever got bad grades.”
Irwin said the best description of Gersony comes from a famous Theodore Roosevelt speech, “Citizenship in a Republic,” also known as “the man in the arena.”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”