The outgoing Ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Armenia gets what it’s like to be a volunteer. After treating four of us to breakfast in Goris in April, Richard Mills and his wife Leigh Carter had to hurry back to Yerevan. “Stay and finish everything on the table” he instructed. We did, and anything we couldn’t manage to eat, we put in our pockets: those hard-boiled eggs and raisin rolls would be welcome later.
Ambassador Richard M. Mills Jr. had to return at speed to Armenia’s capital city because the Velvet Revolution was underway. The revolution has been popular here for many reasons, and an unexpected side effect was that it gave all of us here–Americans and Armenians–a few more months to enjoy the thoughtful generosity and support of His Excellency and his equally excellent wife. The US State Department like their plenipotentiaries to stay put in times of volatility and change. But now the Mills’ three and a half years are up, and they leave Armenia this week.
During their time in Armenia, Leigh and the Ambassador have been very good friends to many people and causes, including National Poetry Recitation Contest. Leigh has been a judge at the finals for years, and the Ambassador typically comes with her to cheer on the contestants. In 2018, the date of the finals had to be moved, because of the revolution, and the new date clashed with a family visit Leigh had planned. ” Would my husband do?” Leigh asked, and so the Ambassador gave up a Saturday to listen to 60 school kids reciting poems in English. Even last night, just hours before they will leave Armenia, the Mills’ were still doing their best to create opportunity for people here. At their farewell party, they were sure to introduce potential employers to likely employees–“here’s someone you should know”. They showcased an up and coming musical trio–other smart party bookings for the Tiezerk band will surely follow. There were lots of artists there, mingling with Ambassadors from all over the world, with big, empty residences to fill. Leigh and the Ambassador use their standing in service of others. I didn’t see either one of them eat or drink anything at the party–they needed their hands free, so they could keep on giving.
Ambassador Mills, with Anahit at our Creative English Camp, July 2018. And with Peace Corps Armenia Country Director Sonny Luu and Irish Poet-in-Residence Damian Gorman at the same event.
Leigh is a former US State Department Foreign Officer herself, but she has no formal responsibilities in Armenia, nor will she in Canada, where the Ambassador is posted next. Unbidden, unpaid, and deliberately unobtrusive, Leigh chooses to join her husband only when a project particularly interests her. She is often to be found at the opening of a playground or reading to children in English. Think of this and their roles in the recitation contest: the Mills do things many parents would pay to be excused from, and they don’t even have a kid in the class…
When we were working on the program for our contest finals, I asked for a picture of Leigh to add to the agenda. But Leigh no longer bothers with such niceties as headshots. She doesn’t have a smartphone. When she travels with her husband, they must have a driver and a bodyguard. Alone, she drives herself everywhere. At cafes all over Yerevan, waitstaff know how Leigh likes her coffee and she knows their names. These people don’t need a photo–they can see who Leigh is, inside and out.
When dressed in a suit, Ambassador Mills brings to mind a tarpaulin-covered charcoal grill. The garb is well-fitting and entirely appropriate, but it masks his true value and purpose–his power to sustain, and his spark and warmth. The first time I met the Ambassador he was giving a geo-political briefing ,and of course he wore a collar and tie. He administered the oath we swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution the day we became fully-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers. Then too, the suit was an essential. On other occasions though, he has looked much more comfortable in a small-check shirts and cosy sweaters. When he spoke at Hanna’s memorial service here–serving not only as a representative of the American government, but also as a stand-in family member for the Huntleys, and very much a close relative for the rest of us—we were pleased to see he stuck to the sweater. It made him much more at one with us and with Hanna than the suit would have done.
By nature, the Mills are both introverts, most happy with a good book and their own thoughts.Their cat is the most company they need. It is a testament to them both how hard they work on connection, and how much energy they put into making other people feel and look good. Armenia misses them already. Canada will be lucky to have them.