Salzburg Global Mourns the Loss of Ron Clifton

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Feb 25, 2021
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Salzburg Global Mourns the Loss of Ron Clifton

Beloved friend of Salzburg Global Seminar and former US diplomat died aged 84 Ron Clifton at Salzburg Global Seminar

Ron Clifton, founding resident director of the American Studies Center at Salzburg Global Seminar, and a beloved friend and supporter of the organization for over 40 years, has died aged 84.

The former US career diplomat passed away on February 13, 2021 from natural causes. 

Ron played a significant role in Salzburg Global's history and was a much-loved leader among staff and Fellows alike. As a young diplomat, his first involvement with the organization commenced in the late 1960s. Realizing Salzburg Global's significance and with a sense of its historical importance, Ron helped guide numerous Fellows to experience and participate in the organization's programs.

In 1992, Ron was instrumental in securing a significant grant for Salzburg Global from the United States Information Agency, which created the American Studies Center in Salzburg. The Center, which Ron served as resident director for between 1994 and 1996, became renowned throughout Europe and beyond. Until 2003, Ron helped organize more than 30 highly successful American Studies programs at Schloss Leopoldskron.

In 2004, Ron built upon the American Studies Center's work and co-founded the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA), which hosted an annual program. He continued to play an instrumental role in planning and executing each of the American Studies programs that took place in Salzburg up until 2019. Ron served on the Faculty, or as Chair, of more than 20 American Studies programs. He also sat on the SSASA Advisory Board. In 2017, Ron and his wife, Gwili, created the Clifton Scholarship in American Studies to support an annual scholarship for participants to attend American Studies programs.

During Ron's visit to Schloss Leopoldskron in 2017 and as Chair of that program, he said, "Over many years the Salzburg Seminar has provided a forum - a neutral venue - for people to come and discuss openly ideas related to their country [and] the effect of America on them. They've been able to do this even throughout the Cold War. You can put together a mix of Russians and Georgians, and you can put Palestinians with Israelis, and there is open, free discussion with no animosities.

"What happens is people develop an alternative view to whatever they come with. They invariably are able to leave their politics at the gate and pick it up when they leave, but when they pick it up, it's different than when they dropped it off. You build just a fundamental basis of understanding between people cross-culturally. From my experience in the foreign service, that kind of public diplomacy [and] soft power [in the] long term is extraordinarily effective…. It's worth all the efforts to keep it going."

In 2018, Salzburg Global honored Ron by inaugurating the Ron Clifton Lectureship in American Studies to recognize his long service to the field of American Studies. While Ron was unable to attend in person, he did appear via video to receive the honor. Ron did attend the SSASA symposium in 2019, however, where staff celebrated him for his many accomplishments. In 2020, the COVID pandemic interrupted physical attendance, but Ron attended virtually with all of the other participants.

Ron's diplomatic assignments took him all over the world. His 25-year career in the diplomatic service included tours of duty in Calcutta, New Delhi, Tunis, Dublin, Brussels, London, and Washington, DC. In his public affairs and cultural positions in Europe and North Africa, among other duties, he promoted American studies working with professors, teachers, students, government, and community leaders. He always had time for inquiring minds, no matter the person's status.

Ron was Resident Scholar in India, lecturing and presenting throughout the sub-continent, making contacts and connections with students, professionals, and academic colleagues. At the many cultural events held at the American embassy or cultural centers of host countries, Ron hosted or co-hosted hundreds of programs and venues for visiting Americans.  

Host country audiences attended those events and met dignitaries, leaders, and professionals from many fields. Among those were: Arthur Miller, Inge Morath, Memphis Slim, Alexandre Haig, Randy Travis, Kirk Douglas, George H. W. Bush, Barbara Bush, John E. Blaha, Elias Friedenshon, Sally Ride, and many others.   

He served as Fulbright Chair in several countries. Ron was the founding director of the American Studies Division, USIA. Ron achieved the rank of Counsellor, Senior Foreign Service, and he received numerous Meritorious Honor Awards. Ron also was awarded several presidential citations honoring his distinguished career. Especially touching, both professionally and personally, were his presidential citations from several presidents, including Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.

In 1996, after leaving the diplomatic service, Ron was appointed Associate Vice-President at Stetson University, Celebration Campus where he served as the founding director of the new campus center. He was appointed adjunct professor in the American Studies Department of Stetson University, teaching courses relating to American culture, foreign policy, comparative studies, and America's impact abroad.

At the new campus in Celebration, Florida, Ron was responsible for professional development and promoting educators' use of best practices and technology in the classroom. In 2017, Ron received Stetson's Distinguished Service Award at Stetson's Homecoming Awards Ceremony to honor his academic and professional contributions and achievements.

Returning to Florida placed him in familiar surroundings as he had previously studied at Stetson University before entering the US Foreign Service. There, he had received a bachelor's degree in history, economics, political science, and a master's degree in American studies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in American civilization with a focus on qualitative methodology for comparative culture study.

Before his undergraduate university enrollment, Ron spent seven years in the United States Marine Corps, achieving the rank of sergeant. Ron served in Korea and was a Marine Security Guard in New Zealand. Ron received the National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal in the service in his country.

Paying tribute to Ron, Marty Gecek, Chair, American Studies Program Advisory Committee, said, "The world has lost a giant of a man – a US diplomat, philanthropist, educator, and a scholar who was my cherished mentor and colleague for 26 years."

Stephen Salyer, President and CEO of Salzburg Global Seminar, said, "Ron was a true friend of Salzburg Global Seminar, a program pioneer and a generous supporter. We will all miss his conviction, creativity, and connection to this founding program he did so much to shape and nurture."

Staff at Salzburg Global wish to extend their thoughts and condolences to Ron's family and friends.