Ask David Lawrence Way, Delaware '79, '80M, to describe a few of the "highlights" in his globe-trotting career with the U.S. State Department, and the 39-year-old communications specialist will immediately plunge into a hair-raising story about a 1989 coup attempt in Ethiopia.
"I remember feeling pretty nervous at the height of the tension," says the former University of Delaware history major. "There was a civil war in progress; the communists who ruled Ethiopia at the time were fighting among themselves; and we were all living from minute to minute at the U.S. Embassy.
"We were wondering if we'd wake up one morning and find ourselves with orders to evacuate. The city was crawling with secret police...but that got rather comical after a while, since they were all wearing blue berets and were easy to spot," he recalls.
"I remember walking around in Revolution Square, watching the secret police watch me, and then looking up at these gigantic posters of the Big Three in the communist pantheon: Marx, Engels and Lenin," he says. In the end, the coup attempt failed.
Way's current role at State's Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) has little to do with diplomacy, and everything to do with "making sure that our government's vitally important communications with other nuclear (and non-nuclear) nations keep on running smoothly, day after day," he explains.
"There's nothing dramatic or glamorous about my job," he says. "The NRRC is concerned with more than 15 arms control treaties and security agreements, including Strategic Arms Reduction, Intermediate Nuclear Forces, Conventional Forces in Europe and Open Skies. We maintain a direct government-to-government communications system with the republics of the former Soviet Union and more than 20 other countries in Europe. We transmit to and receive messages from these nations as part of the continuing implementation of these treaties. We also do a great deal of interagency coordination, especially with the on-site inspection agency and the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
"I can't get into specifics, for obvious reasons, but, I can tell you that the communications are all coded-or 'encrypted,' as we call it-and that the technology involved is enormously complex.
"Believe me, excitement is the last thing you want on this kind of job. I'm happiest when everything remains completely routine!"
How did Way end up standing watch in the NRRC (which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week)?
"I guess it all started with my love of history," he says. "You know, I wasn't much of an athlete as a kid. My idea of a really good time was to sit around the house all day, reading the World Book Encyclopedia and dreaming of visiting foreign countries."
The youngest of five children, he says he understood from the very beginning that he would be attending the University of Delaware one day. "Delaware has always been a part of my family. My father, Howard H. Way, took courses there in the mid-1930s. All four of my siblings graduated from Delaware, one after the next: Patricia Buck, Delaware '67, '71M, a high school counselor in Maryland; Joan Wilson, Delaware '69, a counselor at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Wilmington, Del.; Sarah Freed, Delaware '72, owner of a software company in Exton, Pa.; and my late brother, Howard H. Way Jr., Delaware '80, an English major who worked in elementary education.
"I remember going into the first grade at Silverside Elementary in Wilmington, Del., at the very same time that my oldest sister, Patricia, was starting at the University.
"As soon as I graduated from Mt. Pleasant High School, I knew I'd be making that 25-minute run down I-95 to campus every day! And I'm glad I did, because my fascination with history soon turned into an all-consuming passion."
As an undergraduate historian who specialized in 19th-century British and European history, Way was dazzled by some of the insights that his professors were developing in class: "I'll never forget my sense of amazement when I took Prof. Raymond Callahan's course on British history and heard him pointing out that, as early as 1870, Britain was already in a rapid decline.
"It was utterly fascinating, to realize that these invisible forces-the unification of Germany, and America's growing industrial power-were eroding an empire that the world still considered invincible. And, I soon saw a parallel with Vietnam. I mean, wasn't that the same lesson we had to learn in Vietnam-that there were limits on our power, and that we would suffer dearly if we ignored them?"
"Several years later, Callahan would be my adviser in graduate school-after I managed to win a Daniel Zerfoss study-grant and settled in to earn a master's degree in history. But, for me, it all began with the excitement of hearing history described in a new way."
After earning his master's degree, Way briefly attended law school and then worked in a series of Wilmington-area banks. Ultimately, he buckled down to take the U.S. Foreign Service exam and landed that first post in 1989 as a low-level communications worker at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia.
What followed was an "utterly fascinating" and sometimes frightening odyssey through the struggling Third World of Africa, as Way held down his first two embassy communications jobs.
His sojourn in Zaire was not destined to be a peaceful one either. "Soon after I arrived, in late 1990, the crisis with Iraq began in earnest. Zaire was a member of the United Nations Security Council, and as a result, Kinshasa was on heightened security.
"We didn't know if there were any Iraqi agents at large in the city, but it was certainly something to worry about. There was a great deal of tension, and by December, we were all taking bets in the Embassy as to just when the bombing of Iraq would start."
A month after the Gulf War began in January of 1991, Way was back in this country, where he would spend the next six years working in a variety of State Department communications posts. In April of 1995, he took on his current assignment at the NRRC, where his background as a communications specialist has been of great assistance.
"I really find communications technology fascinating," he says. "And, I also feel really good about doing my little bit to help reduce the dangers of nuclear and conventional weaponry.
"To make certain of that, we need the best communications between nations that we can possibly devise. And, it's my job to help provide them. So, you can see why I'm eager to jump in the car and head for the office every morning!"