Beyond first impressions

No matter how fitting the use of a word or short phrase can be in describing a person, the true essence of that individual cannot be captured with such simplicity. Is it enough to call Barack Obama or George W. Bush Presidents of the United States and expect that to reveal who they are as individuals or how they run the country? Such mediocre descriptions would be equivalent to saying that the two men are interchangeable – revealing no differences between them.

Just as the personalities of these two men can’t be presumed from a job title, the essence of Rob Proctor can’t be surmised from one of his current roles as a professor.

Students of Proctor’s might make that mistake when attempting to define him without looking beyond the obvious. Single word adjectives as varied as “kind,” “boring,” “easy,” “tough,” “dry,” “funny” and even “vengeful” are used by his students on the website ratemyprofessor.com. Still, some students put a more thoughtful effort into describing Proctor and his teachings.

“His style is relaxed while at the same time being highly informative,” said SRJC student Michael Gilardi. “He thoroughly knows his subject. He would bend over backwards to help each student understand the subject and complete their [sic] assignments. He also has the key ingredient to being a great teacher…a sense of humor!”

Though well-intentioned, even those attempts to define Rob Proctor fall far from the complex truth of who he is. An accurate description of Proctor as a professor is only a small part of who he is as a man.

In his travels, Proctor has learned six languages, broken bread with a sitting president, monitored the actions of the United States’ largest enemy nation, helped bring peace between two countries, and managed to be a model parent on top of it all.

Proctor grew up in Santa Rosa, graduating from Montgomery High School in 1968. He was a dedicated boy scout and a diligent student.

After high school, a growing desire for travel – which has become a theme in his life – led him to join the Merchant Marines. Proctor had wanted some time off of school so he could explore the world. However, personal decisions at such an early stage of his adult life were not entirely his own to make. Slightly against his wishes, he started college at Stanford. His first year was not one he would call productive.

“I like to say I majored in bridge my first year,” Proctor said.

Wanderlust overcame his scholastic sensibilities. Giving in to the call for adventure, he took a year off from his studies to travel Europe.

“I was in the Merchant Marines and saw there were different ways of seeing the world,” Proctor said. “That was more of what I really wanted to do than be an undergraduate at Stanford.”

While wandering Europe, Proctor found himself in Rotterdam. While there, he decided he was ready to return and finish his studies. True to his nature as an adventurer, he presented himself as an unemployed American sailor to a Norwegian freighter and managed to get passage back to the United States in exchange for work on the vessel.

Returning to Stanford, he combined his thirst for travel with his capacity for education and enrolled in two overseas programs with the school – one in Vienna and the other outside of London.

Sometimes, when a person goes out looking for adventure, he ends up finding himself.

“When I decided I wanted to get back to school, and I really wanted to be there, it became a great experience,” Proctor said.

After graduating from Stanford, he worked for a while as a live-in counselor at a halfway house.

“My mom was a psychiatric social worker when I was growing up and my dad was a farmer,” Proctor said. “I had always assumed that I would go into one of the helping professions.”

The halfway house experience didn’t offer Proctor job satisfaction. He wanted bigger results relative to the amount of work he was willing to put into a job.

So, Proctor continued on his path of education and politics.

“Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies…offered me a really generous fellowship to study in their program in Bologna, Italy,” Proctor recalled. “For the first time, I made money for going to school. So, I spent a fabulous year in Bologna and got a degree out of that program.”

Early in his travels, he decided that he was going to live in New York at some point in his life. Proctor, whose original school of choice had been Columbia University, fulfilled his wishes and was accepted at Columbia in a joint program that bestowed upon him additional graduate degrees in International and Comparative Education and International Public Policies.

Proctor furthered his education with a doctoral program at Columbia. However, during his time in Italy, he had taken the Foreign Service exam. Doing very well on both the written and oral exams, he received several appointments to enter Foreign Service classes.

“I got very tired of being a poor graduate student,” Proctor said. “I took a five-year leave of absence from the doctoral program at Columbia. I figured I would pay off some student debts, see a little of the world, and joined the Foreign Service. I extended that five years to six, then to seven and it eventually ended up being 20 years.”

Though he never finished his doctorate, Proctor spent a fascinating career in service to the U.S. Department of State, where he was able to utilize his vast education and quench the constant desire for adventure.

His primary responsibilities as a political officer were to analyze what was happening in his assigned country as those developments impacted U.S. interests in that region and to represent U.S. government views to the host government.

His first assignment overseas was in Liberia, in West Africa. There, he was responsible for observing the trade movement, looking at what was happening with the students and student population’s ethnic groups, and overseeing law of the sea negotiations taking place at the time.

“It was there that I had met my future wife, doing public health work,” Proctor said. “It was a great time, even though Monrovia [Liberia’s capital], that first year, had 360 inches of rain and the country only had 60 miles of paved road.”

Toward the end of his tour in Liberia, Proctor’s role switched to a mission of peacekeeping. It was 1976. Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, Jimmy Carter was president, and the Sinai Field Mission began operations. Israel and Egypt agreed to third-party cooperative monitoring from the United States and United Nations in a joint effort to de-escalate potential conflicts and growing suspicions between the two nations.

Proctor’s peacekeeping role was as a liaison for the two armies – his efforts helped to establish trust between the two, which ultimately helped the successful signing of 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Accord.

“Each side had so much misinformation about one another,” Proctor said. “It was confidence building between the two. It was satisfying on a lot of levels.”

There was a lot of work to be done and the results were definitive, but there was also a great deal of down-time. Proctor spent several days out of the week sitting in the dessert ensuring that no one breeched terms in the agreement. Much of that time was spent idly – playing games of chess with his Egyptian counterpart, the son of an Egyptian chess grandmaster.

Proctor’s next appointment was in Saudi Arabia. The ambassador there, John West, was the first governor (formerly of South Carolina) to endorse Carter’s run for the presidency; the two were close friends.

West had difficulty finding someone to fill the position as his staff assistant. He needed an assistant who was both capable and compatible. In
terview after interview, he rejected everyone. West had even complained to Carter that he could not find anyone at all adequate. Until Proctor.

“I had never been to Saudi Arabia and probably would never be there otherwise, so I went,” Proctor said. “I found that the secret to John West was that his wife [Lois] had to feel comfortable with you. All these people went down and ignored [her]. I arrived and she invited me into the kitchen to help her cook and we hit it off.”

Proctor got the job and agreed to remain there for a year. He was West’s right-hand, going with him everywhere. That included several trips meeting with President Carter.

“That was really interesting because you don’t usually get the chance, even as a Foreign Service officer, to spend much time around a president,” Proctor said. “There was a lot of personal time, too. Partly because Mrs. West and I hit it off, and Lois West and Rosalynn Carter were good friends, too.”

By the end of his position in Saudi Arabia, Proctor had concluded that he wasn’t comfortable with U.S. policy in the Middle East. He believes today’s Middle East policies to be only slightly better than they were then.

“They are less reflexively pro-Israel today than they were at that time. I would argue that the same criticisms are true today; we pretend to be balanced when we’re not.”

He spent some time in Washington D.C. working as the desk officer for Zambia and Malawi to southeastern African countries before going back to Africa as a political officer in Dar es Salaam.

“That was definitely my best tour,” Proctor said of Dar es Salaam. The man he replaced had to be medically evacuated. The Foreign Service didn’t have time to give Proctor the training he needed to learn Kiswahili before he left. “So, I went to Zanzibar for two months doing nothing but studying Kiswahili. I had a little Honda-50, a left-over aide’s pickup, and this house right on the water. Zanzibar is a gorgeous, gorgeous place.”

His next adventure brought him to Tromsø, Norway as an information officer. There, he was responsible for counter-soviet campaigns in northern Norway. After a year in Tromsø, he was promoted to the head of the department’s political section in Oslo where he was responsible for about 1,000 miles of coastline up to the Soviet border.

“I had an apartment on the ground floor of this 19th century mansion right on Oslofjord. So, I got to look right out on the water, at the boats coming and going, and I had a little dock with a sailboat on it. The creature-comforts were nice.”

Though it was beautiful at times, Proctor didn’t deal well with the many months of darkness Norway experiences. By the end of his three years, he was more than a little anxious to leave.

It was during his next tour, as the Nigerian country officer, that Proctor married his wife, who was doing her medical residency in Washington D.C. Shortly thereafter, they had their first daughter.

Even though he and his wife had a live-in nanny for their daughter, he took a sabbatical from the Department of State so he could be more of an at-home parent.

Proctor embraced his role as a father. He went so far as to turn down a prestigious position with the National Security Council (NSC) because he would have rarely been home. Instead, he took a nine-to-five desk job as Director of Policy Coordination Staff, attached to the Director General of the Foreign Service.

After his wife finished her residency, they moved to Jamaica, where Proctor was head of the political section for three years. His wife was unhappy with her career and the restrictions Proctor’s work placed on it, so they decided that he would take an early retirement.

As retirement loomed, Proctor spent his last two years with the Department of State living in Maryland and teaching at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington D.C. – heading up its African Studies Program and Political Training Division.

Looking for a place to settle, Proctor and his family made their way to where his story began, Santa Rosa.

He has two daughters now, the oldest of whom is 22. His younger daughter is 16 and lives with him in the house he grew up in along with his mother, who is 85. He has been divorced for two years –his wife’s career took her in a different direction – but, it has been about 12 years since she has really lived with them.

Fatherhood, Proctor explained, “gives me as much satisfaction as anything I’ve done in my life.”

He remains very active in his children’s lives – participating in school functions and their many extracurricular activities.

He is currently a professor at SRJC (Petaluma and Santa Rosa campuses), the College of Marin, and Dominican University as well as a real estate agent with Frank Howard Allen Realtors.

Proctor’s great-great grandfather was one of Sonoma County’s first real estate brokers. “There was always the buying and selling of property,” Proctor said. That familiarity coupled with convenience of scheduling is one of the reasons he chose real estate as a supplemental career.

He teaches, and has taught, a variety of courses. At Dominican, he is teaching a course on international relations and diplomacy and a course on the United Nations. At College of Marin, he has an early civilizations course. At the SRJC campuses, he teaches American government and political science classes.

As a teacher, he is someone who will go to great lengths to see his students succeed; in 2008, after a political science student had contracted mononucleosis halfway through the semester, Proctor went out of his way to bring assignments to the student’s home.

Regarding his own style of teaching, Proctor admitted, “I spent an awful lot of time as a successful student regurgitating my professors’ opinions to get an ‘A’. That’s not what I want to see in my students. I try to find occasions to tell the students…how important it is to inform themselves in order to make intelligent decisions.”

Proctor is a man who has indeed chosen many routes to take in his life – and, he has many more still ahead of him.

“You choose your own routes in life that kind of make sense at the time,” he said. “I try not to look back or live with any regrets. It’s not productive to get bogged down with all that.”

Proctor is not just a teacher, a political officer, a real estate agent, or a parent. He is not simply kind, intelligent, timid, boring, or any other bland adjective that might be used. The twisting paths of his adventurous life have created a paradox of a man – simultaneously simple and complex – who deserves more than just a cursory glance before final judgment.