He unwittingly came to the rescue of Ruth A. Davis, 80, who had just been honored for her 40 years with the State Department.
Davis was blessed with the return of a keepsake from her illustrious career. Patella earned some positive feelings for a good deed done well. And both Davis and Patella made a new friend.
A student in music business, Patella’s first thought was “somebody died” when he saw an autographed photo of Bill Clinton among the frames for sale in a second-hand book store.
He visualized an old person’s house being cleared out, their belongings dispersed to places like Goodwill.
Patella posted a note in the Washington channel of the social media site Reddit, mentioning that the photo was inscribed to “Ruth Davis.” Within minutes he had contact information. “Somebody linked to the government website with a phone number and an address,” said Patella, in a phone call from his Quakertown home. “I called her that same day.”
To his surprise, Ruth Davis picked up the phone.
She was stunned. “I hadn’t even missed it,” she said. She had been cleaning out closets and consolidating the souvenirs of her time with the State Department. Somehow the Bill Clinton photo went into the giveaway pile.
“I was really thrilled,” Davis said. The photo had come with a message from the former president, congratulating her on receiving the American Foreign Service Association’s Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award.
It was one of many honors in Davis’ 40-year career. The Atlanta native and Spelman College graduate was the first African American director of the Foreign Service Institute, the first African American female director general of the Foreign Service and the first Black woman to be given the AFSA’s lifetime award.
She began her career at consulates in Kinshasa, Congo; Nairobi, Kenya; Tokyo; and Naples, Italy. She was a consul general in Barcelona, Spain, and ambassador to Benin, a West African country between Nigeria and Togo. Davis served as director general of the Foreign Service from 2001-2003 and retired in 2009.
As a student at Booker T. Washington High School, Davis caught the travel bug on long car trips with her family. That wanderlust intensified at Spelman, where she won a Merrill scholarship that allowed a year of study abroad. She chose Paris.
It was the early 1960s and African countries were breaking away from their colonial servitude. “I met many African students who were going back to their home because African countries were just becoming independent. They were going back for nation building.”
She wanted to go too, and after grad school at the University of California, Berkeley, she joined the Foreign Service, seeking a post in what was then Zaire.
“I was always very, very happy, wherever I was,” said the retired ambassador. “Just the joy that’s of the foreign service, being in different places, meeting people, getting to know their culture. If you are somebody who gets out and really gets to know the people, you start to feel at home.”
She told Patella she’d be happy to pay him for the photograph so that he could mail it, but he insisted on bringing it over the next day.
That day Patella drove over. He was wearing shorts and an Elliott Smith T-shirt. He knocked on Davis’ door. She was dressed in slacks and a leopard-print top. Her assistant ushered him into a house that was a bit like a museum of artifacts from a world traveler.
“It had a lot of assorted knick-knacks and stuff, from the places she’d been to, and worked,” said Patella. “It reminded me of a grandmother house. She was extremely friendly and very proud of what she had accomplished. She was a really good listener, which is refreshing. She paid attention to what you were saying.”
Davis gave Patella his own souvenir, a scarf with a design that had been commissioned by a friend for Davis’ 80th birthday. It bears the flags of all the countries where Davis has served, surrounding an image of the Phoenix, the symbol of Atlanta.
Of her photo from President Clinton, she says, “I take a look at it every once in a while and give it a smile. I tell it ‘you knew you had to come home’.”