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Leonard Meeker, 1916 – 2014: an extraordinary life

Leonard Meeker photo UN

Leonard Meeker Photo from the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library

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December 4, 2014
By Peter Vankevich

Leonard Carpenter Meeker, after a long period of declining health, died peacefully on Saturday, Nov. 29, in his home on Ocracoke Island, attended by his wife Beverly and son James.  He was 98. There will be no funeral.  A celebration of his life will be held next spring on what would have been his 99th birthday.

Leonard had a long, distinguished career in public service, diplomacy and social justice law. He served as the Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department under President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965 to 1969 and as Ambassador to Romania 1969 to 1973. 

After leaving government service, for many years he was both a lawyer and the director of the International Project at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. In his work there, he traveled to countries in Africa and Latin America to assist local lawyers in promoting and protecting human rights. He also served as a board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization.

His love of Ocracoke began in 1952, when he and his childhood friend, Charles Runyon, who also worked at the State Department, first visited. Their passion for the island was due in large part to its outstanding opportunities for swimming and sailing and its unspoiled natural beauty.  Both of them ended up buying property and on the island. 

In 2002, Leonard moved full-time to living here on Windmill Point, in the last house that is seen as one leaves Silver Lake harbor by ferry.  He was active in the community, including having chaired the Ocracoke Planning Advisory Board for many years.

A disciplined man, Leonard believed in physical fitness and as long as his health allowed, Leonard swam in the ocean every day he could. 

“Sometimes three times a day,” Beverly says. “He would jog to the beach.”  He would surprise onlookers and lifeguards alike by swimming laps for a half hour or more outside the breakers, she says.  He got to know the lifeguards at the public beach through the years and became and remained close friends with many of them.

Born in 1916, he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey.  Leonard was a graduate of Deerfield Academy (1933), Amherst College (1937) and Harvard School of Law (1940).  He began his legal career in the General Counsel’s Office of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and in the Office of the Solicitor General, which handles the federal government’s litigation at the Supreme Court.

In 1942 he entered the U.S. Army as a private, and was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1946.  During his period in the Army Leonard was selected for service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency. One of his assignments was traveling throughout China to assess the impact should the communists assume power. After the Army, he joined the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser. He was named assistant legal adviser for United Nations Affairs in 1951, deputy legal adviser in 1961, and legal adviser of the State Department in 1965.

One of the highlights of his career includes his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba.  Leonard drafted a top secret memo (now declassified) titled “On Legal Aspects of Declaring a Blockade of Cuba.” He presented his views in what he characterized as a “tense meeting” on Oct. 19, 1962, attended by the Kennedy administration’s top officials — including Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, C. Douglas Dillon, Paul Nitze, Theodore Sorensen and Dean Acheson.  

In his analysis, Leonard was not convinced of the legality of a blockade and was certain that the United Nations Security Council would not approve it. He held hope that the Organization of American States (OAS) could bring forth a chance of legitimacy, but in his view, it would be very difficult to get the requisite two-thirds vote to pass such a resolution.  Instead, Leonard suggested the United States describe its actions blocking the shipment of missiles to Cuba as a “quarantine.”  Whereas a “blockade” would have been perceived as an act of war, a “quarantine” was not.  This helped defuse one of the most serious international crises of the modern era.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 2012, Leonard gave a standing-room only presentation titled “President Kennedy and Cuba” at the Ocracoke School and Public Library.  By way of introduction, it was pointed out that the nation could watch a special that evening on the Cuban Missile Crisis broadcast on PBS, or go to the home page of the Kennedy School of Government website to see it as the lead topic. Instead, many Ocracokers that evening heard a first-hand account of what went on in one of the most important meetings in American history.  The lecture can be heard here.

While Leonard was fond of telling amusing anecdotes about his career as the ambassador to a communist country “behind the Iron Curtain,”—especially his interactions with its head of state, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena–he did not consider this tenure as an ambassador as the most significant work of his long and distinguished career. 

The historical importance of his legal/political analyses has been sustained. As recently as October, he was cited in an article written by Armin Rosen and published by Business Insider on how the United States reacted to China’s first nuclear test 50 years ago. 

An interview with Leonard Meeker is included in the United Nations Oral History collections of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and can be heard here

Leonard’s wide interests also involved art of which the French Impressionists were a favorite genre. An accomplished painter, a collection of his oil paintings is hung in his house in Ocracoke and scattered among family members and friends.  His radio was always tuned to classical music, Beverly says, and among his favorite classical genres were Baroque and 20th-century music, especially Charles Ives.

In 2007, Leonard published a reflective, in-depth, three-volume set of his views on life, “Philosophy and Politics,” “Experiences” and “Stories.” 

A man of great personal skills, Leonard loved to receive visitors and was both an entertaining conversationalist and skillful listener. He enjoyed answering the many questions posed by the curious. Eschewing the formalities of title, he was simply called “Leonard” or “Len” by his many friends on Ocracoke Island.

In 1947, he married Christine Halliday, who died in 1958. In 1969 he married Beverly Joan Meeker. In addition to Beverly, he is survived by his six children. From his first wife, Christine, they are Richard Halliday Meeker, of Portland, Oregon; Charles Carpenter Meeker, of Raleigh, North Carolina; and Sarah Louise Meeker Jensen, of Los Angeles, California. His three children with Beverly are Eliza Ann Hunt Meeker, of Paris, France; Dr. James Edward Weeks Meeker, of Portland, Oregon; and Benjamin Chester Gilman Meeker, of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Portrait of Leonard Meeker. 2005. Photo by Oliver White.

Portrait of Leonard Meeker. 2005. Photo by Oliver White.

Leonard’s final years on Ocracoke were made more enjoyable by the loving care and attention provided him by his wife, Beverly. During this time, he continued to enjoy cocktail hour, entertaining his many friends on an upstairs screened in porch, where there were splendid views of Silver Lake harbor, the Ocracoke Light, Pamlico Sound and the daily show of an Ocracoke sunset. 

This year, his life was enhanced by an incredible cast of helpers. Amanda Cochran and Megan Aldridge provided remarkable nursing care pretty much around the clock. They were joined by Janet Anthony during Leonard’s last weeks. Calvin Hanrahan provided “range of motion” physical therapy three times each week. Under the care of hospice, Dr. Erin Baker was his guiding physician; Carrie Jones, RN, his nurse; and Linda Fulford and Deborah Williams, his aides. Ann Ehringhaus greatly helped his comfort with Reiki. In short, Ocracokers contributed mightily to Leonard’s final months.

“One of the great surprises of my life,” says Leonard’s oldest son, Richard, “was arriving on Ocracoke on a Sunday afternoon to find my father, well into his 90s, Skyping with my sister Sarah — in French! He was tremendously supportive — and proud — of all of us children. He especially appreciated Charles’ nearly three decades of elected public service in Raleigh, the last decade as mayor.”

The family suggests donations in Leonard Meeker’s memory be made to the Ocracoke Preservation Society.