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Julia Vadala Taft, 65; led US relief efforts in other nations

Julia V. Taft, escorting the Dalai Lama after meetings with members of the US State Department in Washington. Julia V. Taft, escorting the Dalai Lama after meetings with members of the US State Department in Washington. (Agence France-Presse/file 2000)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post / March 26, 2008

WASHINGTON - Julia Taft was a do-gooder in the best sense of the word. She started working on behalf of the country's most vulnerable citizens at the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the early 1970s.

Then, in 1975, when Mrs. Taft was 32, President Ford thrust her into the leadership of resettling refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos after the collapse of Saigon. "It was pretty heady stuff for her at that age," recalled her husband, William Howard Taft IV.

Coordinating the refugee resettlement program was a "daunting assignment," she once said, and she "learned a lot about humanitarian assistance - and the government." It was what propelled her into a career of public service that took her around the world, but never too far away from her family.

After helping 131,000 Indochinese refugees resettle in the United States, Mrs. Taft took time off to begin a family and work with her husband to fix up their farmhouse in Lorton, Va. In a few years, however, the necessary, mundane delights of domestic life had to make room for the calling that gave help and hope to so many.

Mrs. Taft, who died March 15 of colon cancer in Washington at 65, was a leading authority on refugee and humanitarian affairs. In the late 1980s, while directing the US foreign disaster assistance program for the Agency for International Development, she dealt with floods in Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic, earthquakes in El Salvador and Armenia, and a locust plague in Ethiopia.

Often finding herself in the thick of despair and devastation, she built a reputation as a creative organizer, a skill that could translate into lives saved.

In the mid-1990s, she was president of InterAction, a coalition of US-based private groups focusing on international development and humanitarian relief around the world.

At InterAction, she helped coordinate the response to the massive forced migration after the genocide in Rwanda. And as she sometimes did, she took her work home with her, giving her three children firsthand insight into current events.

She had been working long hours, said her son, William H. Taft V, and coming home screaming about the red tape on the part of the government. "She would get fed up with inaction," he added.

Mrs. Taft - who also served as assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration in the Clinton administration - was known for getting action.

Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, said she had the ability "to bring order out of chaos."

"Everyone," he wrote in a blog, "admired her commitment and courage."

Mark Malloch Brown, former administrator of the United Nations Development Program, once called her "a champion of well-coordinated responses to emergencies and conflict situations."

She dealt with issues of poverty, crisis prevention, disaster recovery, governance, and the HIV-AIDS epidemic for the UN agency from 2001 to 2004.

Mrs. Taft advocated the deeper value of the work she did. It was a way to help people and to influence policy. "Humanitarian assistance, periodically dismissed by some as a small arena for 'do-gooders,' has, in fact, long been used by the US government as an instrument of foreign policy," she told a group in 1998.

Her call to public service started with her family. She was born in New York, the daughter of Army surgeon Antony Vadala. After graduating from the University of Colorado, where she also received a master's degree in political science, she began working for Radio Free Europe.

While rearing a family and working through her most difficult assignments, she found encouragement in a group of friends who also were juggling work and home "at a time when it was not always easy for women to be in the workplace," said her husband, a former deputy secretary of defense and great-grandson of President William Howard Taft.

Family was a priority, her children recalled. No matter where she went on her missions, she always made it home for Christmas, her favorite holiday, said one of her daughters, Julia Harris Taft.

When they were younger, Mrs. Taft would ask her children to donate their toys to children caught in despair, said her eldest daughter, Maria Consetta Taft.

"She just felt this need to connect to everybody," her son said.

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