The State Department brought John Matel out of retirement to manage public diplomacy activities in São Paulo for 42 days in August and September, 2018, as “while actually employed.” Before his retirement from the Foreign Service he was Country Public Affairs Officer for Brazil from 2011 to 2014.
Paulo Agustoni had been working for the USG for more forty years by the time I started in the FS and he was waiting from me when I took up my post in Porto Alegre. All counted, Paulo would spend more than fifty (50) years in the service of the United States of America. He showed me his service pins from ten, twenty, thirty and forty years of service. They evidently do not have one for fifty. It so rarely comes up.
I went to visit Paulo during my visit to Porto Alegre. He is now ninety-one years old. People often say that old people still “sharp.” In Paulo’s case, they are telling the truth.
Paulo has a big book of pictures, letters and personnel actions. I was happy that I wrote his EER competently back in 1987, because he still has it.
He was a typical Gaucho when he was born in Passo Fundo, RS back ninety-one years ago, i.e. he was the son of immigrants. His father came from nearby Uruguay. His mother came from farther away in Naples, Italy.
Paulo’s daughter pointed out that her grandmother immigrated directly to Porto Alegre. I learned that this was unusual for the time. Most Italian immigrants headed for “the colony,” which was the land of the Italians in the RGS mountains where they came to predominate in cities like Caixias do Sul or Bento Gonçalves, and in the countryside around where they established vineyards and small farms. There is town called Antonio Prato much loved by Romance language linguists since that is where they go to study Italian dialects no longer extant in the old country.
This area of Rio Grande do Sul and neighboring state of Santa Catarina is one of the most pleasant landscapes on earth. The climate is moderate, since it has higher altitudes and lower latitudes. It gets enough rain to keep it green all year around and immigrants from Italy and Germany constructed neat communities among the majestic araucaria trees (sometimes called Parana pine).
In 1944, Paulo started to work for the USG at a predecessor of the USIA. His job was to show films in the interior of the state. From there he worked his way up and made a good life for himself and his family.
Paulo helped me when I was a green young officer and it was great to see him again. Paulo demonstrated great loyalty to the United States. Beyond wanting to see an old friend, I was glad that I, as a representative of the United States, could show some loyalty to him. The visit had an unexpected public affairs outcome, albeit on small scale but intensely felt. I got personal notes from Paulo’s daughter and a couple of his grandchildren thanking me for visiting. It was evidently a big deal for him and them that we remembered his service more than two decades after he was finished.
John Matel is president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. Previously he was president of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, senior International advisor at Smithsonian Institution, and a State Department fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. With over 16 years of experience at the State Department, Matel has worked to understand societies, information and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics.