Raymond J. 'Ray' Potocki, veteran Foreign Service officer who witnessed the fall of Saigon, dies

Raymond Joseph “Ray” Potocki, a veteran Foreign Service officer who witnessed the fall of Saigon, died Aug. 4 from complications of an infection at his sister’s Fallston home. He was 86.

He was born and raised in Canton, the son of Leo Potocki, a Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard worker, and Clara Potocki, a seamstress.

He attended St. Casimir’s parochial school and graduated in 1949 from Patterson High School. After high school, he worked for Crown Cork & Seal until joining the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1951.

“Ray was very, very smart and everyone admired and adored him,” said his sister, Mary Lasek.

Trained as a block operator, Mr. Potocki was assigned to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Bay View tower. He later qualified to work in the towers, which controlled switches, signals and train movements from Odenton to the Delaware state line.

Drafted into the Army in 1952, he served as a military policeman in Korea and Japan. After being discharged in 1954, he returned to the Pennsylvania Railroad and worked there another three years.

While working for the railroad, he met and fell in love with the former Ethel Hannah, who also was a tower operator. They married in 1955.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1962 from Towson University, Mr. Potocki taught high school math in Harford County public schools for five years. At the same time, he worked to obtain a master’s degree from what is now Loyola University Maryland.

He left teaching in 1967 and worked at the Army Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal until 1971, when he joined the Agency for International Development in Washington.

In 1974, he went to work for the Foreign Service as a regional contracting officer. His first State Department assignment was in Saigon, Vietnam.

Mr. Potocki was evacuated along with other State Department employees the day before the city was overrun on April 30, 1975, by the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam.

“Ray was one of the last to be evacuated,” said his sister. “He didn’t talk about it and would only say while watching movies about the war, “I was there.’ That’s all he ever said about it.”

“This is when Ray’s life began to be one fascinating and adventurous journey,” she said.

After the fall of Saigon, Mr. Potocki’s next assignment was a posting in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a regional contracting officer covering Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He remained in Pakistan for three years before taking on other assignments in various countries.

“Ray lived in over 60 countries during his working career,” his sister said.

He retired in 1985, and after a few months was called back to duty and worked for another five years as a State Department consultant. He retired again in 1990.

For years, Mr. Potocki and his wife lived on 25 acres they owned in Fawn Grove, Pa. He later lived in Stewartstown and Glen Rock, both in Pennsylvania.

“They owned so many houses and every time Ray got an overseas assignment, the government sold their house and put their things in storage,” Mrs. Lasek said. “But they basically had lived all over southern Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Potocki held a private pilot’s license and enjoyed flying his Cessna around Maryland and surrounding states.

“He flew everywhere,” his sister said. “That was his biggest hobby.”

When he could no longer fly himself, he and his sister would go to Harford County Airport, rent a plane and pilot and spend the day flying.

The brother and sister were seldom apart. “Even though Ray is 12 years older than I am, he always took me everywhere.”

Other hobbies included collecting guns and judging shooting events at the Seitzland Rifle Club in Seitzland, Pa., where he was a member. Mr. Potocki was also a member and past commander of the American Legion Post at Fort Myer, Va.

“He was a really nice guy. You couldn’t get mad at Ray even if he had hit you in the mouth,” said Stan “Stosh” Protokowicz, a high school classmate and longtime friend who lives in Bel Air. “He was a little on the quiet side, but was a good guy and friend.”

Mr. Potocki had an unbreakable rule. He and his sister and brother-in-law, Chuck Lasek, always had Saturday night dinner with Mr. Protokowicz and his wife, Sally.

Bernie Zemanski, a Carney resident, was another high school classmate who recalled Mr. Potocki’s loyalty and compassion.

“Ray was always very friendly,” Mr. Zemanski said. “I didn’t see him for years after high school, but I came to appreciate him later in life. When my wife passed away, he made an effort to be there. He thought about people and made himself known.”

In December 2008, Mr. Potocki suffered a stroke.

“Our family was told that Ray had three days to live. Nine years later, Ray proved them wrong,” his sister said. “He only went down hill in the last two weeks before he died.”

He was a communicant of St. Mark Catholic Church in Fallston, and a member of the Holy Name Society and Knights of Columbus of Forest Hill.

At funeral Mass was conducted at his church Aug. 11.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by a brother, Edward Potocki of Zephyrhills, Fla.; and many nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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