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A Remembrance To Robert “Bud” C. McFarlane – A Friend And Mentor –  A Man Of God, Duty, Honor, Country And Family

Former Reagan National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane in his Washington Office

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During these turbulent times in America, it would do us grace to reflect upon what is most important in life – friendships and relationships – professional and personal – old and new. 

Often in life, we lose someone special in our lives who has blessed us because they so believed in us and our body of work who guided us to crystalize a vision with loyalty, grace, devotion, and “kindness, kindness, kindness,” as Bud and Jonda McFarlane’s oldest grandchild reminded a congregation who showed up this week for Bud’s Celebration of Life at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. 

As a journalist, I covered Bud’s career as National Security Adviser during the Ronald Reagan administration. Before that, he had risen to a Marine lieutenant colonel and Vietnam combat veteran, and served as national security special assistant in the Nixon and Ford administrations. 

Nearly two decades later, I gave a lecture on human trafficking, and his devoted wife, Jonda, immediately came up to me, and asked, “How can we help?” and our relationship changed from distant journalist to a friendship of warmth and support that has continued from 2005 to the present day. 

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The mood in the Chapel was one of awe as Bud’s family and friends shared how Bud touched the lives that span generations.  We listened to those who shared his life and took joy in his relationship with Jonda who formed a partnership for mentoring not only their three children, eight grandchildren, but other mentees over generations.

His journey with his future wife for “God and country” started as “unpolished teenagers” at a high school prom decades ago.  Jonda went off to Penn State and Bud, following in family tradition, attended the Naval Academy, culminating in a long-distance relationship, and then in a devoted 63 years of marriage. 

Bud’s attendance at the Naval Academy was a “family” tradition, which continues today. Five family members in all have attended the Naval Academy. 

Bill Wade, another mentee, shared with me that Bud was so looking forward to attending his grandson’s Naval Academy graduation in late May 2022.

“He was so proud of his grandson,” said Wade, whom Bud introduced me to years ago, and we became friends. We never questioned the introduction. Bud would gently say, “You need to meet…” and the rest was history of a solid friendship. 

Unfortunately, God had another plan on May 12th.

“One of the latest messages we got from him was that he was on his way to Annapolis to participate in an event, a Naval Academy foreign affairs conference, where his grandson was an organizer. A very proud granddad, indeed,” stated the remembrance booklet.

Years earlier, Bud had driven through the same storm snow from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore that his only son, Scott, had driven over his mother’s objection. Scott was determined not to miss his Naval Academy meeting he so wanted to get into the Academy shared Scott during this celebration service. 

Jonda told Scott to cancel that appointment because the storm was so bad. Tenacious like his father, Scott took off for Baltimore. In turn, Jonda “called the White House.” The congregation laughed. I thought, “That our Jonda.” 

So concerned about Scott’s safety, Bud left the White House and drove in the storm to Baltimore.

“I was so afraid of losing you,” Bud said, Scott shared at the chapel. 

Yes, a devoted family man – a concerned and loving father – a husband in-step with his wife. A great match. 

Comparing that to what we as journalists cover, it hit me yesterday how we as journalists so clearly miss the lead of the story about the person we cover – the face of those who believe in God, family and country, and how many of us not just in the media, but across this country, have lost our way. 

Bud was a quiet man with a gentle and humble touch who possessed a sense of humor and compassion.  Only yesterday as the family and friends shared their father and friend did we hear the song that his daughter, Melissa, sang to the congregation that his children heard their father sing to them when he woke them up as children. 

A first for a celebration of life that also made the congregation laugh. Who would have thought the composed man of diplomatic stature sang such playful songs to his children. What a great memory. 

He loved his heritage. In their home are pictures of his family dressed up in their tartans, and I chuckled when I read one entry in the remembrance book. 

“I shall always remember his grin when decked out in his clan regalia…And I saw him standing on the table, leading the singing at his promotion party…And, I’ll remember his hooting with joy when his baseball team won. What a guy!”

Little did the world know during this public servant’s life that when he had to be at work at 6am decades ago, all of his family adjusted. The children rose at 5am for breakfast with their parents, and then turned to their homework before school started. 

They shared their lives as they travelled together for Bud’s appointments overseas from Europe to Japan, skiing the Alps to owning a home for skiing out west for twenty years to celebrate Christmases. 

It was the first time in my life I witnessed, and must say, was most moved, of a spouse sharing her journey with the love of her life through the 63 years of adventure that her husband promised her. 

What a window into the life of man who has been written up in the media for decades, booked on television shows, and even damned by some of his critics at times. 

But, for those of us who followed his career, his insight on foreign affairs was valuable. Over the last almost two decades, Bud gave me some great insight historically to foreign affairs, and in the last months, when I asked him to come on for an interview, he felt his time had passed. 

“Never. Please rethink that,” I told Bud. 

That was one of the last times we spoke. 

“Bud was a highly learned and experienced advocate of statecraft and security policy, mastering the many intricacies of arms control during the height of the Cold War. His attention to detail and patience were legendary, and he did, in fact, suffer fools if necessary, to arrive at consensus and progress. From sessions with Presidents, and Prime Ministers, and senior leaders of Congress, to briefing the Pope on Cold War issues, Bud was always full informed and responsive to every concern. He meticulously explained complex strategies to the media and decision makers, tirelessly expounding on the subtleties of dealing with the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and every other issue on the margins of the Cold War. He was likewise sincere and engaging when talking to local Boys Scouts, a Rotary District Conference in Texas, or the International School in Geneva he so loved,” was an entry in the remembrance booklet.

I remember the day that Bud resigned from the White House in December 1985. Standing with President Ronald Reagan, his words were prophetic even before the walls of communism fell. 

“Based upon the strength of your leadership, Mr. President, and the support you’ve engendered from industrial democracies and developing countries in these past 5 years, there’s no question in my mind but that your stewardship will include as its legacy continued peace, stability, arms reduction, and an evermore inspiring model for developing countries throughout the world,” said Bud.

Year later, after weathering a professional and personal storm, I read his book in 1994. 

Bud and Jonda were exiting a favorite Georgetown restaurant. I had just finished reading “Special Trust,” and stopped him on the sidewalk, not knowing if he even really knew who I was. I thanked him for writing his book, and how much I enjoyed reading it. 

I will never forget the last line in his book. 

“It was time to put down the rock, and move on.” 

Many friends shared their remembrances.

“Your dad was my grandfather’s favorite person. He never missed an opportunity to listen to him and the whole house had to be quiet when your dad was on TV. He spoke about your dad to me every chance he had,” wrote one friend of the family.

“Although we were separated by decades, and came from opposite American backgrounds, life brought us together through the White House Fellowship. We both shared much in common. But, most importantly, we shared a deep love for America,” read an entry. 

“I had grown up seeing him on television in the 1980’s, never imaging that I would one day meet him, let alone call him friend. His genuine candor, authenticity, and humility in transferring valuable knowledge in how to help America was truly remarkable. He understood the value in his experiences throughout three presidential administration, and a life time service to our nation. He was eager to find those younger than he, to shape and mold them, all for one purpose: America,” continued that entry. 

Bud had been a White House Fellows when I was still in high school and throughout his life he always looked forward to mentoring those in the program even up to the current time. 

His reach was well beyond the Fellows’ program though. 

“Bud became like a father. I came to love and admire the man and he embraced me like a son. I will never forget,” read another moving tribute. “Terribly devastated when I read the news. I am just speechless and not sure of what the future will be without his counseling and mentorship.” 

“May his gifts of leadership, courage, and extraordinary loyalty be an inspiration for all who follow him,” read another entry. 

“He never missed a chance to drop a word or two about how his family was doing and how much they meant to him. We also often talked about his relationship to God, which for most people is a personal issue but regardless he shared it with us, and thereby strengthened our relationship even further,” read another. 

“I recall Bud’s participation [in faith-based international conflict resolution]. He explained the unique attribute of our approach to peace-keeping – that the involved protagonists are led to feel an accountability to God, rather than to some ideology or political movement. “And when that happens,” Bud said, “better behavior results.” 

Never giving up, his friend and colleague, Michael Hewitt, USN (Ret.) reminded us from the pulpit this week how going into his eighth decade, our friend began another career founding a company engaged in peace, energy and prosperity. 

One public servant of prominence remembered how he owned a shop in Kansas, and was thinking of running for Congress and Bud and Jonda hosted an event for them in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

“People showed up just because Bud and Jonda asked them,” said his friend from the pulpit. They contributed “significantly” to this man and his wife, Susan, for the last twelve years as he rose from a congressional seat to Secretary of State shared Mike Pompeo. 

And, yes, I remember that experience too although not running for anything. They invited their family and friends to human trafficking conferences they volunteered to help me organize, and contributed to the planning, executing and follow-through with as much devotion and loyalty that continued for over the 17 years. Always there. Always willing to help, but most importantly, showing up. 

Three years ago, when Jonda was knocked over at an airport returning home, and had a serious fall, Bud called me near dawn. They had to cancel the reception for me and my anti-human trafficking colleagues that night at their home. 

As Bud shared with me what happened, this man of quiet strength broke down in tears sobbing. 

“I don’t know what I would do if I ever lost Jonda.” 

We prayed. 

After we hung up, I called some men in Bud’s prayer group and share with them.

“He needs all of us, but he needs you men. You need to carry him and his family through this passage,” I told them. 

Bud was giant gentle who loved God, family, America, and his friends, and encouraged generations of men and women to stand up and be strong even during difficult passages. 

It had nothing to do with politics. It had nothing to do with agreeing with him over policy. 

Bud taught us a lesson in life to live life to the fullest.  He knew from experience and lean into God. 

His pastor, Rev. Dr. Camille Cook Howe of Georgetown Presbyterian Church shared how one congregant was caught by surprise observing a man in church straightening bulletins and the table in the church one day.

“Is that Bud McFarlane? What’s he doing?” asked the congregant. 

Rev. Dr. Cook Howe shared with us, which we all knew. Bud was “a humble servant,” and Jonda and he always were devoted not just to others, but to their community. 

For those this kind and humble man touched, we will forever value and miss Robert Carl McFarlane.

As Jonda reminded us, Bud will always be with us. 

Bud was laid to rest this week on a hill at the Naval Academy he loved in the country he blessed as a bagpiper played. 

Bud was with us. 

We have all been blessed to have shared Jonda and Bud’s journey together, and gifted by their time and support with so many of us.  

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2 comments

Michael Daugherty August 3, 2022 at 8:43 pm

Christine, what a beautiful tribute.

Reply
Lee Corder August 4, 2022 at 8:00 am

A beautiful and personally moving tribute to a man who served his nation with courage, character and deep faith.

Reply

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