Lessons learned in South Kingstown High School are finding their ways into U.S. Embassies around the world.
Several SKHS graduates are now U.S. foreign service diplomats and another is a high-ranking military commander in Iraq. The career choices were not accidental, they say, but from experiences in their high school classrooms.
“I think South Kingstown High School is still great, but back in the ‘90s it was also a great academic institution,” said 1993 SKHS grad Col. David Williams, chief of the Coalition’s Military Advisor Group in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
He and Ehren Schimmel, class of 1996 and with the U.S. State Department diplomatic corps, are based in the Erbil region of Iraq. Others from the school also became diplomats and are based Australia, Ghana, United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.
Some assignments, such as those in Iraq, can be dangerous. As if cued to show it, explosives dropped on the base where Williams serves and just an hour or so after a Zoom interview with The Independent.
“A big one-way drone flew over my lodging area. Luckily nobody got hurt,” Williams told The Independent Monday morning by email.
Schimmel, who has returned to the United States this week for a short break before completing in August a one-year assignment, said the bombing was a “reminder of the environment we’re working in.”
A drone last week dropped explosives near where Williams and other U.S. forces are stationed at Erbil airport in northern Iraq. A separate rocket attack killed a Turkish soldier at a military base nearby.
It was the first known attack carried out by an unmanned aerial drone against U.S. forces in Erbil. This kind of environment can come with the job, said Williams.
Whether in a war zone or an embassy simply tending to foreign relations, all say that SKHS encouraged them during their years there long ago to explore the lifestyles, culture and politics of other nations.
Five South Kingstown High School graduates – Williams in the military and four others in the U.S. diplomatic corps – all said that embracing these lessons taught also prepared them for their foreign service careers.
Besides Williams, the other SKHS grads in the foreign service include Benjamin Chapman and Doreen Vaillancourt Maroney, both class of 1995, and Meghan Higgins and Schimmel, both class of 1996.
They all have assignments in different foreign countries and for limited-duration tours. They looked back on their careers and credited and time at SKHS during interviews recently with The Independent.
“I think in South Kingstown High School that encouragement to have global perspective or at least a perspective on your own country, engenders a desire for service,” said 43-year-old Schimmel.
Williams, 46, also recalled a particularly influential teacher, Kenneth Plymesser, who taught him Spanish.
“He was a Vietnam veteran and said, ‘Go out and see the world. Make a difference. Come back to South Kingstown and give back to your community.’ That really shaped my thinking,” Williams said.
Higgins, 43, and stationed in Perth, Australia, accented a point about her teachers. “My interest in the field was then solidified in Mr. (James) Buxton’s classes and his Model United Nation programs,” she said.
Schimmel also credits the same program as well as the academic decathlon — competition to score high points on exams in different subjects — to deepen his interests in government and other parts of the world.
Benjamin Chapman, 43, is working in the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
He picked up on the same experiences with the same teacher as Schimmel and Higgins, especially the Model United Nations program and overall SKHS high school experience that inspired his career in international relations.
“Jim Buxton’s social studies class at SKHS had a considerable influence on shaping my career path…I was fortunate enough to be accepted to American University’s School of International Service after graduation from SKHS,” he said.
For Doreen Maroney, 43, an embassy official in Ghana, SKHS tasked her to be open-minded and think critically.
Themes of art and literature, as well as how cultures influence and borrow from one another were among the lessons. “These experiences laid the foundation for my college education, where I studied art history and globalization – the big buzz-word at the time,” she said.
“As a kid I was fascinated by foreign cultures, fueled mainly by my interest in art, music and literature. Luckily, I had several teachers who fostered these interests in classes like French, humanities and even band and jazz band,” she added.
Buxton, now retired for 12 years and reached by The Independent, said he wasn’t surprised about these former students’ accomplishments.
“They were so impressive during their high school years. They challenged each other, wanted to be best around others, wanted to learn because they were fascinated by the wider world outside of R.I. and outside the United States,” said the former educator who taught global studies and international relations courses.
Chip McGair, principal of South Kingstown High School, noted that giving students an expansive perspective and understanding of helping communities is an important part of learning at the school.
“It is a place where we work together to make a difference in our community, and our hope is that our graduates then carry that mentality with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
“Our entire school community, which includes our students, teachers, support staff, administration and families, are focused on more than just ourselves. It is one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy being the principal of South Kingstown High School,” he said.
Schimmel, who also owns a house in the town’s Green Hill section, said, “Maybe it’s (South Kingstown) just small enough that you want to get out and do something else, but amazing and remarkable enough to make you want to come back.”
Ties to South Kingstown
Many of these graduates serving thousands of miles from South Kingstown’s the Atlantic Ocean shoreline of South Kingstown have deep ties to a community they revere and personal connections that they treasure.
Williams said his mother, Terry, still lives in South Kingstown as do his sisters, Jennifer Dunphy and Michaela Barden. His father, David, lives in Providence. His wife, Stacey, and three children live in South Carolina. He said he still comes to South County to visit his mother.
Schimmel is the son of Theresa and Steven Schimmel of South Kingstown. He married 1996 SKHS classmate Kate Maynard and they have a seven-month-old son.
Higgins pointed out that her late father, Ted, was a North Kingstown history teacher and military officer. Her mother, Sheila, and father lived in South Kingstown for more than 30 years.
For Chapman, his entire family still lives in Wakefield, he said. They include his mother and stepfather, Barbara and Eric Gustavson, father and stepmother Gary and Kristine Chapman, and sister Emily Iredale, SKHS class of 1996.
The community is also drawing back Maroney and her family when her tour of duty ends in a few months.
“Funny thing is my husband (also a foreign service officer) and I are actually relocating to South Kingstown this summer! Just for one year while my husband attends the Naval War College, but still, we’re all very excited about it!” she said.
Her late mother, Beverley Rucker-Lee, lived in Charlestown until she died four years ago, she added.
Love of Jobs
The foreign travel and engagement with other cultures – as well as serving the interests of the United States government – are the foundation, these grads say, for staying with their careers.
“As a speaker of fluent Russian, German, and Farsi, I can say that the best thing about this career is the ability to learn and speak foreign languages and represent not only the foreign policy objectives of the United States but also our values and our culture in those various languages,” said Chapman.
Maroney noted that her job involves sifting through immigration issues as well as looking for fraud or misrepresentation. She also assists the host country’s nationals working in U.S. embassies.
Both leave her feeling good about the work she does every day. The feeling also stems from developing trusted relationships with those citizens of the country in which she is stationed, she said.
“They are truly a precious resource, often serving as a diplomat’s tutor, explaining their host country’s cultural and societal norms and thereby making us a million times more effective in our jobs,” she said.
Higgins has a similar appreciation. “The people. I have been exceptionally lucky to meet and befriend incredible, creative, passionate, brave individuals everywhere I have served.”
Williams offered that his job has been about “making a difference and collaboration. I’ve been part of history while seeing the world.”
Schimmel added, “I’m enormously proud of the work we do with our Kurdish partners, particularly on issues of human rights.”
In addition, Schimmel said, “You’ll have an opportunity to learn every day, to grow every day, to gain a perspective, not on just different cultures, and different people, but your own country and your own people.”
He paused for a moment, and said, “I don’t think you’d get that without a career like the ones we have had. I think it’s unique.”