KEYSTONE - Gary Grappo actually wishes his commute were just a little bit longer. The new president and chief executive officer of The Keystone Center has retired from a 26-year career with the U.S. State Department and now enjoys his morning drive from north Silverthorne to Keystone - a welcome change from the desert sands and ongoing turmoil of his most recent posts in the Middle East.
As a United States Ambassador with the Senior Foreign Service, Grappo most recently served in Jerusalem as the head of mission under former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Before that, he served as Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as well as previous postings in Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C., Jordan, Portugal and Nicaragua.
Big jobs in complex places, yes, and while his new position at The Keystone Center may seem a bit tame by comparison, Grappo believes his experiences as an ambassador lend themselves well to the job of running an organization dedicated to getting diverse groups of people around the table to hash out differences.
"I've always been interested in public policy," Grappo said, sitting in his office at The Keystone Center recently. "I was intrigued by this position at The Keystone Center and see it as an exciting challenge."
Grappo said he's used to handling large staffs of well-educated and motivated people, like that at The Keystone Center.
"What attracted me was the remarkable reputation The Keystone Center enjoys, especially in mediation and facilitation as well as the Keystone Science School."
Grappo said it's a strong organization, and the fact that The Keystone Center staff has the day-to-day operations so well in hand frees him up to focus on more big-picture challenges. One of those is a growing plan to raise funds and expand the science school, which is in need of some new and updated buildings, for starters. Grappo said he's also working on a comprehensive strategic plan for the school and the center while he's getting to know the organization's far-flung board of directors and assessing its priorities.
Originally from Florida, Grappo got his bachelor's of science degree at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. That was followed by a master's in geodetic science and survey engineering from Purdue and an MBA from Stanford. It was his time in Colorado Springs that led him and his family to vacation often in the West, making The Keystone Center post all that more appealing. With three grown children, Grappo lives with his wife, Rebecca, an international educator.
Thinking back on his long career with the State Department, Grappo speaks with the air of a man who's seen a great deal and isn't easy to surprise. Fluent in Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, Grappo said he's used to the simple things in life being tough to obtain in some places. Just getting his car registered in Jerusalem, he said, took nine stops over the course of two days.
Things are a little easier in Summit County, he noted, although he said he's still very grateful for the opportunity to live in other countries.
"It was a great experience for me, personally and professionally," he said, adding that he was able to take his family with him to all of his postings except for the ones in Iraq and Saudi Arabia due to security concerns. Being away from his family those times was tough, he said, while adding that there are more "glamour posts" available than all those tough ones in the Middle East.
"But those aren't always where you get to go," he said.
Learning Arabic was a key experience for him. It enabled Grappo to more easily gain trust with locals, he said, while also allowing him to speak to people without an interpreter.
"In most Arabic countries, the educated people speak English, but if you travel outside the capital, that's not the case," he said.
There are a lot of different dialects as well, he added, saying that in those cases he'd have a local along to help with interpretation.
So with all that time in the Middle East, does Grappo think there's hope for a region that seems perpetually aflame?
"That it's a very complicated region is an understatement," Grappo said. "But hope to a diplomat is as courage to a soldier. And I was always hopeful."
One major thing that's fueled change in the region, Grappo said, is the access to information afforded by technology.
"It's extraordinary, and it's one reason the Arab Spring is flourishing, because of information and access to media," he said. "Authoritative governments can't control it like they used to."
Grappo said in the desert he's seen Bedouins pull a battery out of a pickup truck and hook it up to a satellite TV or laptop to get the news.
"Governments are having to adapt to that," he said. "So there is hope, but don't underestimate the challenges. Still, I think it's safe to say 50 years from now historians will look back on this period in the Middle East and see it as transformational."
As for the role of the U.S., Grappo said our country has always supported a free and open media, which in turn has put pressure on those authoritative leaders and helped promote change.
"I'm proud of that," he said.
With its expertise in mediation and facilitation, The Keystone Center has a long history of bringing diverse groups together - think oil executives at the same table as Sierra Club leaders - to work out compromise solutions. Pointing to the political and intellectual deadlocks existing in the U.S. and around the world, Grappo sees the center in a key position to help in a variety of arenas.
"People are clamoring to advance their agendas, but you only solve problems when you agree to reach a consensus," Grappo said. "Pick an issue and Americans are saying we're not moving. We need to work out solutions to problems, and that's what we do."
Grappo said it's important to remember The Keystone Center is not an advocacy organization, except when it comes to promoting consensus building.
On the science school side, he said he sees "tremendous potential" for outreach beyond what the school has traditionally been doing. They're also looking at how to conduct more teacher education programs as the call for STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) increases in the U.S.
Grappo said another goal is to reach out more to let people know what The Keystone Center and the science school are doing.
"As we move forward, I hope to build a strong support base for all the work we do," he said.