FRANCIS J MEEHAN, US AMBASSADOR
Born: February 14, 1924, East Orange, New Jersey, USA of Scottish parents from Clydebank
Died: Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, May 14, 2022
Ambassador Frank Meehan.
By Bill Heaney
Updated June 1, 2022
An American Ambassador with strong ties to Clydeside, who served his country with distinction during the Cold War in Europe, has died, aged 98.
Francis J. Meehan, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday with family and friends at his home in Helensburgh, overlooking the Gareloch in Argyll and Bute, died peacefully at home.
Frank was born in East Orange, New Jersey, of Scottish parents from Clydebank, but his mother was homesick in the States and they returned home to Dalmuir, where he was brought up.
His career in the US diplomatic service in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw, which was his most important post, saw him eventually appointed as Ambassador to Communist East Germany in the 1980s.
Many years before that Frank played a key role in the swapping of a Soviet spy for the pilot of a US spy plane, Gary Powers, which was the basis for the Hollywood blockbuster film, ‘Bridge of Spies’ starring Tom Hanks.
Frank described himself as ‘a regular Cold Warrior of the Old School’, and he told the BBC: “Yes, I was involved in the prisoner exchange. It all had to be handled carefully and sensitively.”
Frank was always very professional, even in retirement, and may have been happy to call himself a “regular Cold Warrior of the old school.”
In isolation, however, the phrase does not get across that “regular Cold Warriors” such as George Kennan were quite idealistic and wanted détente and international institutions.
Frank was based in Moscow when Soviet forces shot down a top secret US spy plane and captured its pilot Gary Powers.
The existence of the U2 spy programme had never been acknowledged by the US, so the Soviets put the wreckage on public display and the pilot through a show trial.
Frank, who admitted to having little or no knowledge of aircraft of any kind, was sent to take a look at the wrecked plane.
“I was pretty tense,” he said. “I thought there might be some kind of manufactured propaganda incident.
“But I went to the head of the long line of people waiting to view it and the Russian guard looked at my pass and grinned and said, in Russian: ‘Be my guest! It’s your plane after all’!”
The imprisonment of Gary Powers led to perhaps the most dramatic and well-known incident in Frank’s career.
Moscow offered to swap Gary Powers for a Soviet agent called Rudolf Abel, who’d been caught spying in Brooklyn.
The Americans also asked for the release of a young American student called Frederic Pryor as part of the deal.
Pryor had been studying in East Germany and had been arrested by the Communist regime there and accused of espionage.
An American citizen by birth, Frank went to St Stephen’s Primary School in Dalmuir and St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton.
He won the Dux Medal, which he was presented with it at a prize-giving in Dumbarton Burgh Hall by Monsignor Hugh Canon Kelly, legendary parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton.
He then graduated with an honours MA in history from the University of Glasgow.
Frank took up a sub-editing post with the then Glasgow Herald. Later he was awarded an LLD (Hon) from Glasgow.
“I went up to Glasgow University to do Modern Languages, which was French and German, and then I switched for my honours course to history,” he said.
He was then called up by both the UK and the US – “It was a conscious decision to take the American option, which I did. I registered for the draft as American citizens had to.
“Eventually I got my draft papers and took my medical examination in an American army hospital in Glasgow.”
He was sent to Fontainebleau in France to complete his infantry training, then served in Germany.
“That’s where the diplomatic bit started. It started in a very odd way, a funny way really,” he said.
“I was going back to my unit which was stationed north of Frankfurt, and I was in the American Army Red Cross Club, where you could have coffee and doughnuts, waiting for my train.
“I picked up a paper and read an article about a search for applicants for entry to the Foreign Service.
“It said that if you took the story to your commanding officer he would give you a three-day pass to take the exam, and I thought a three-day pass is not a bad idea!
“So I took the exam, which was written and was my first encounter with multiple choice answers. I passed it — not very well. I just sort of scraped through.
“That made me eligible to take the oral examination, which I did some time later in Berlin. I passed that quite well, and that made me eligible for appointment as a Foreign Service officer.”
However, he was not appointed to the post as he had not lived in the States for long enough, so he accepted an offer from a member of the interviewing panel to find him a job if he went to the States to work.
Frank took up that offer, and worked in Washington for two years before taking and passing the oral exam again.
He was a brilliant scholar who spoke at least six languages and latterly enjoyed translating books from Russian to Spanish. Tolstoy was one of his favourite authors, but he was keen too on reading about theology and religious affairs.
Frank became an expert in this, as was his wont, and accompanied members of the Scottish hierarchy of bishops, including the late Cardinal Tom Winning, to Rome for sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
In 1949 he married Yoker-born Margaret Kearns in Manhattan, New York.
She was part of a large family who were evacuated from their badly damaged home to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed The Hill House in Helensburgh after the Clydebank Blitz in March 1941.
Frank was similarly evacuated from his family’s council house home in Dalmuir, which had been destroyed in the Clydebank Blitz, to Dumbarton, where he stayed with the Ward family in Firthview Terrace, Brucehill.
His classmate at school, David Ward, became a world famous opera singer at Covent Garden and later played Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His brother, Bishop James Ward, later became Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and Bishop of Sita. The rest of the Ward family were well known school teachers.
While he was a student, Frank was an excellent footballer, who was chosen to play for the Glasgow Schools select.
On a visit to Celtic Park about ten years ago, he was introduced to the legendary Celtic captain Billy McNeill, who asked him if he had ever played there.
Frank said he had in a schools cup final, which St Patrick’s High had won of course, but to Billy McNeill’s astonishment that had been at least 75 years prior to them meeting that day.
As a young man, Frank was a regular visitor to the Kearns household before Margaret went to the United States in 1948 and worked as a nanny.
He entered the US Foreign Service in 1951 and was appointed to be a clerk in the American Consulate in Bremen and a junior officer in the Marshall Plan Administration.
He graduated Master in Public Administration from Harvard University in 1957 and rose through the ranks of the US Foreign Service, specialising in Eastern European and Communist affairs.
His diplomatic postings included Prague and Budapest, where the Meehans were friends of Cardinal József Mindszenty, who for five decades personified uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary, and spent eight years in prison before being freed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
The cardinal was granted political asylum by the United States and took up residence in the embassy in Budapest, where he lived for the next 15 years.
Frank served in Moscow in the aftermath of the U2 spy plane incident in 1960; East Germany when spies were being swapped prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall; and Warsaw, when the Solidarity trade union emerged under Lech Walesa and General Jaruzelski declared martial law.
He only mentioned to me once that he had been present in the Moscow embassy when Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John F Kennedy turned up there to make inquiries about a visa.
A modest and unassuming man, his brilliant career in the US foreign service spanned almost the entire length of the east-west stand-off which so defined the 20th Century.
The family returned home to the Clyde when he was a young boy and the Second World War was a constant presence in his teenage years.
He survived the Clydebank Blitz, an aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, which killed 500 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
“There was a bad attack on the shipyards in March 1941,” he told a BBC documentary.
“I was 17. We were in a shelter and the bombing started quite far away but you could hear them getting closer. The house next door was incendiary-bombed and was destroyed.
“I worked clearing the rubble of houses that had been burned. I carried a bricklayer’s hod. I was not much good at that. Maybe that’s what made me think of the Foreign Service.”
In fact, Frank attended the University of Glasgow and was embarking on a career in journalism when that US citizenship changed his life.
He was drafted in 1945 and spent two years in the US army, travelling across Germany and helping re-build the shattered country.
One of his duties was to look after the financing of the German media and the many millions of pounds allocated to that by the Allies was used for the purchase of new offices and printing presses for the country’s national newspapers.
Margaret was a great support to him as he rose through the ranks to become the US ambassador in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland, using her considerable skills as an organiser and hostess at receptions and dinners becoming legendary.
Frank said: “She was a terrific organiser and cook. They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things a person can do, but Margaret took it all in her stride as we moved from house to house a remarkable 23 times.”
The couple met a number of world leaders and plenipotentiaries and travelled to many official engagements, including a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City.
Mrs Meehan was renowned for her sense of humour and left a lasting impression on the many American and foreign diplomats and dignitaries whom she met in the embassies in Prague, Warsaw and Berlin between 1979 and 1989.
She loved ballet, music, reading, flowers and sewing, and became actively engaged with the interior design of some of the embassies in which her family lived.
The couple had four children, three girls and a boy – Jim, Catherine, Frances and Anne, who survive them. Three of them live in America and Catherine is resident in Mexico City.
It was when they were returning from an important reception in Moscow that the couple had a minor fall-out over the fact that she felt he hadn’t spent as much time with her as he should have done, but instead on doing his job conversing with Russians and others picking up valuable intelligence.
He told me: “She was not pleased with me and asked me to stop the car, saying she would walk back to our embassy.
“But that didn’t happen. I stopped and she got out. Very quickly a taxi pulled up and offered her a lift. Margaret accepted and started to tell the driver she wanted to get back to the US embassy and give him directions where it was.
“The driver said there was no need for that. He knew exactly where the US embassy was and he refused to charge her for taking her there.”
Mrs Meehan was involved with her husband in bringing up and overseeing the education of their children who in turn along with Frank helped look after her at home when she suffered ill health in later years.
She died on March 15, 2015, at the age of 92, and the Requiem Mass at St Joseph’s Church, Helensburgh, was followed by committal at Cardross Cemetery, where her husband of 66 years was interred in a grave beside her after his funeral Mass on Thursday, May 19, 2022.
The following eulogy was delivered by Professor Philip McDonagh, pictured right, a distinguished scholar, Irish diplomat and one-time President of the Oxford Union, who played a part in the Northern Ireland peace process in the build-up to the Belfast Agreement. He has served as Ambassador to India, the Holy See, Finland, Russia and the OSCE.
After retirement from the diplomatic service, Professor McDonagh was appointed Senior Fellow at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, at Maynooth University and, in a parallel appointment, Distinguished Global Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton University.
In May 2020 he was appointed Director of the newly-founded Centre for Religion, Human Values and International Relations at Dublin City University. He is a member of the Advisory Council of the Institute for Economics and Peace (Sydney), the Advisory Council of the Institute for Integrated Transitions (Barcelona) and a member of the Steering Committee of the OSCE Academic Network (Hamburg).
Professor McDonagh’s first poetry collection, Carraroe in Saxony, was published in 2003. The following year an expanded volume was published in India, Memories of an Ionian Diplomat. In 2010 The Song the Oriole Sang was published. He published an English language translation in 2016 of the verse drama, Gondla, by Nikolai Gumilev. It was staged in several theatres in Ireland that year. In 2017, he published a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It toured in Ireland that year and was also staged in England.
Professor McDonagh told the large congregation in St Joseph’s Church: “Frank Meehan was a close and dear friend. Frank was also the friend of my brother Feichín, who is here this morning with his daughter Sunny. And Frank and Margaret were great friends of our parents. Through Frank and Margaret we came to know Frank and Anne Walker and other friends in Glasgow.
“It began in the early 1970s, in Bonn, at the American church – the Stimson Memorial Chapel. The Meehans and the McDonaghs would go there for Mass. Feichín reminded me this morning that Margaret, our mother Róisín, and Judith, another Irish friend, would meet up for Mass in the side-chapel on weekday mornings.
“With so much to remember, it’s hard to know where to begin. The most important thing about Frank was that he was always himself – unassuming, wonderful to talk to, attentive to others, and above all, fun to be with.
“The Russian Orthodox writer Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes about love as follows (Metropolitan Anthony, School for Prayer):
So often when we say ‘I love you’ we say it with a huge ‘I’ and a small ‘you’.
“With Frank there was never a huge ‘I’ and a small ‘you’. Frank always had time for other people’s concerns. For example, he always knew what his grandchildren and great nephews were up to.
“One year, Frank and Margaret visited our parents at the Irish Embassy in Rome. At the outset, Frank said they would visit only one site each day, in the morning. Our celebrant Monsignor John [Hughes] will know what it means when your Roman visitors have completed their main schedule by lunchtime. A relaxed attitude helps everyone else to relax. There were some other friends visiting at the time, all of them
students. Frank, though he was the American ambassador, acted as just one house guest among others.
“Now I ask you to picture Feichín and me in Frank and Margaret’s personal car – a big white Plymouth, as I remember – speeding along the road from Warsaw to Krakow in August 1981. Frank had devoted a lot of thought to giving us a great holiday in Poland, even though at that time, he was the US ambassador in the
middle of the struggle between the Solidarity trade union movement and the then Polish government.
One Saturday afternoon at the American residence in Warsaw, as lunch continued, Frank went next door to take a phone call from his colleague and great friend Alan Thompson. Alan was reporting on votes cast in the election of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. We overheard Frank’s end of the conversation:
Jaruzelsky, Rakowsky, Kania, Jagielsky … … sounds like the Notre Dame backline.
“You can only appreciate this story if you hear it in Frank’s voice – warm and understated. Frank brought a gentle sense of the absurd to all kinds of situations.
“Frank’s father, like our grandfather, was from Derry. His Dad served in the army, was wounded in World War I, and was living in New Jersey when Frank was born in 1924. Frank, as an American citizen, was called up in World War II. Frank was a proud American. His email address up to the end included his US army serial number. But of course Frank was brought up in Scotland, was educated at St. Patrick’s High School, Dumbarton, lived through the Clydebank Blitz, and went to the University of Glasgow before his military service.
“It’s very moving to see the representatives of St. Patrick’s High School, now Our Lady and St Patrick’s HS, here today.
“In later years, Frank acquired an Irish passport, as did other members of his family. Frank was American, Scottish, and Irish. Perhaps above all, Frank was a citizen of the world. In terms of travel, Frank was certainly a citizen of the world. When Margaret passed away, we learned in that fine article by Bill Heaney that they moved home 23 times during their married life. Today is Frank’s 24th move.
“Frank was also a citizen of the world in terms of his fair-minded and merciful judgments. I remember a discussion at dinner in the Walkers with our concelebrant Archbishop Mario [Conti pictured left], the meaning of the Latin phrase securus iudicat orbis terrarum – which I suppose could be translated, ‘we judge right when we judge together’. The jury to which Frank turned was the jury of humanity. We were discussing aspects of US policy on that occasion. The name of Joe Biden – President Biden – came up. “Biden, that young guy” is how Frank referred to the President.
“Frank learned German during the war and Russian during the Cold War and then many other languages. Of course, he had an extraordinary gift for languages, but another consideration was his deep desire to understand other people’s point of view. At one of our last meetings, Frank told me that if he was starting again he would study Chinese. Frank’s empathy enabled him to build trust across lines of division. With him, diplomacy was personal in the best sense. He brought part of himself to the table.
“Perhaps some of you remember the story Frank used to tell about how he found out that someone was intercepting his phone conversations. I think it was during the time in Frank’s life that we see in the movie Bridge of Spies. Anyway, on the phone to a colleague Frank had been joking about the name “Meehan’: “it’s an old Armenian name.” A short time later, Frank was introduced to his opposite number in the negotiations, who smiled and said, “Ah, Mr. Meehan. You don’t look Armenian.” Which was a hint!
“In the negotiations on prisoner exchanges, Frank became friends with Wolfgang Vogel, a lawyer from the German Democratic Republic. Vogel turned out to be a Catholic. Frank was invited to be godfather to Vogel’s son. During the ceremony of baptism, the priest in East Berlin asked the godparents for some personal details. He could hardly believe it when Frank gave his profession as ‘American diplomat’.
“Frank’s empathy included a very keen sense of historical change. When he gave Ana and me a copy of his book “Polish Reflections,” he wrote on the flyleaf, “I hope you will, of your charity, look tolerantly on these musings on a world that was.” Even the word “reflections” in the book’s title was meant to suggest elusiveness.
“When Frank looked back on a “world that was,” on the imperfection of things, it was never with bitterness or in a tragic spirit. Frank kept a journal and was very good at remembering. His niece Anne Walker would visit regularly and talk over past happenings. This was one of the joys of Frank’s life. Frank also had an extraordinary ability to reflect on historical events in order to find illumination for the future. I started re-reading his book Polish Reflections the other day. The final chapter is like a mirror in which we see the underlying currents in European history. It should be read by anyone interested in the current situation in Eastern Europe.
“Both on personal and political questions, Frank combined his wisdom and his well-thought-out judgments with a sense that the outcome is not in our own hands. This humility was accompanied by trust in life. Even the last time I met Frank at his home in Kidston Drive, he reminded me not to worry too much about anything. “There’s only so much you can do.”
“As our Dad Bob used to say, there’s no abiding city. Frank loved life and brought to it his very special gentle humour. He had an ability to live within a situation and appreciate it and do the right thing without it needing to be part of a great struggle. Though he was close to great events, that was not the meaning of his life. When I visited him towards the end, that time in Kidston Drive, Frank was happy, wonderfully cared for by his family. Though he did speak of death, the focus of our conversation was on other things. The good times, family members, theology.
“Frank always remembered other people’s needs. Partly, this was his way of praying for us all. Frank also wanted to talk about Russia and Ukraine and the history of the Orthodox Church and the military balance.
“On that last occasion I had intended to read for Frank a poem by Patrick Kavanagh. It’s the poem in which Kavanagh imagines his mother waiting for him in heaven. I didn’t read it then because Frank was so involved in the present moment.
Ambassador Frank Meehan is pictured here with his family, including his wife Margaret, his parents children and just some of people he met during his long, eventful life, including Pope Paul II, Celtic FC ambassador Billy McNeill and film star Elizabeth Taylor. In one photograph Frank is at a reception in Glasgow University to mark its association with the Dumbarton author AJ Cronin. Top of the page: Ambassador Meehan presenting a copy of his book Polish Reflections to Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie. Photographs by Bill Heaney
Let me read it now, imagining that the ‘you’ of the poem is Margaret:
You will know I am coming though I send no word …
I see St. Peter opening the gate for Frank: Meehan. I understand it’s an Armenian name …
“From St. Matthew’s gospel, we know that the conversation will continue:
From now on, I shall not drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you
in the kingdom of my Father …
In that kingdom, there are many mansions. In one of them, Frank and Margaret will
be waiting for all of us to renew their hospitality.
“I will end with an Irish prayer. I will give the translation first. The prayer means, “may
Frank stand in the close company of God.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis”
Clan Meehan pictured on Loch Lomondside (left to right) are Catherine, Jim, Ambassador Meehan, Margaret, Frances and Anne.