Canton Repository

June 16, 2001

Massillon native nominated to be ambassador to Eritrea 

Copley Washington correspondent 

WASHINGTON — Situation wanted: Ambassador and peacemaker in hot, dusty, impoverished East African nation ravaged by drought and war.

That’s the job that Massillon native Donald J. McConnell is looking for, and it’s the job he’ll get if everything works out.

President Bush has nominated the career foreign service officer to be ambassador to Eritrea, a nation about the size of Ohio, sandwiched between Sudan and Ethiopia on the Red Sea. The nomination requires Senate approval, which is not expected to be a problem.

“I asked for this particular assignment,” said McConnell, 61, who put the position at the top of his wish list after more than three decades in the foreign service.

Currently deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau for political-military affairs, he previously served as ambassador to Burkina Faso, another small country in west Africa, from 1993 to 1996.

Eritrea would not be every diplomat’s first choice. Search the Web for information on Africa’s youngest nation and you come up with tips such as this one from Lonely Planet: “Unless you’re a kamikaze war correspondent or a person just looking for trouble, Eritrea is not a place you want to visit.”

But McConnell is eager for the move to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, where he and his wife, Frances, and his mother-in-law would live.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said McConnell, who was posted in Asmara, then part of Ethiopia, as a young foreign service officer 30 years ago. “It’s kind of interesting to go back to a place and see it much later.”

The challenge of promoting peace and regional stability in the troubled land also motivates him. Eritrea declared itself independent in 1993 after a 30-year struggle with Ethiopia. The two nations fell into conflict again in 1998 over a border dispute. The fighting cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced much of the population before a cease-fire last June.

Border negotiations continue while United Nations troops patrol a buffer zone between the two countries.

“I think it’s exciting. It’s what he wants to do,” said McConnell’s sister, Natalie Gravo, who lives in Massillon. “He’s loved Africa. All of his appointments in Africa he’s really loved.”

Currently residing in Reston, Va., McConnell considers Massillon home. Until the last election, he voted by absentee ballot as an Ohio resident.

After attending St. Mary’s School in Massillon, where he played football, he went to Central Catholic High School in Perry Township, graduating near the top of his class.

“I wasn’t big enough to be on the high school football team,” he said.

He always was very bright, his sister recalls, and more interested in board games than sports.

“He read the newspaper when he was 4 years old,” she said. 

Two of McConnell’s brothers live in Massillon, a third is in Cleveland and a sister lives in Parma Heights.

A graduate of John Carroll University in Cleveland, McConnell was a Fulbright scholar and earned master’s degrees from Stanford and Harvard. He speaks French and German.