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Lawrence A. Pezzullo, career diplomat who later became the first layman to head Catholic Relief Services

Lawrence A. Pezzullo, career diplomat who later became the first layman to head Catholic Relief Services
Lawrence A. Pezzullo, a career diplomat who went on to head Catholic Relief Services, died July 26. (HANDOUT)

Lawrence A. Pezzullo, a career diplomat who later became the first layman to serve as executive director of Catholic Relief Services, died July 26 of heart failure at his Pikesville home.

He was 91.

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"He was a very kind person but could be a slave driver. He could drive you hard, but it was worth it," said Mwangi Wachira, who was director of policy and planning at CRS from 1989 to 1992. "He was a man who was driven by his work and a really good human being."

Donna McMahon, a senior adviser who works in CRS' global knowledge & information management section, joined the relief agency in 1985.

"I'm from Brooklyn, and Larry was from the Bronx, which gave him a little bit of an edge, and I don't mean that in a negative way. He was very smart," said Ms. McMahon."He had a great sense of humor, was down to earth, and even though he was an ex-ambassador, was a regular guy, and I thoroughly enjoyed him."

The son of Italian immigrants Lorenzo Pezzullo, a butcher, and Josephine Sasso, a homemaker, Lawrence Anthony Pezzullo was born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y.

After graduating in 1944 from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he enlisted in the Army and served with the infantry in the Italian campaign.

Discharged in 1946, Mr. Pezzullo attended Columbia University on the GI Bill of Rights, earning a bachelor's degree in history in 1951.

He taught high school for six years in Levittown, N.Y., before joining the Foreign Service in 1957. From 1958 to 1960, he served as a consular office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and then worked as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department from 1960 to 1962.

From 1962 to 1965, he was general services officer in Saigon, and served as a political officer in La Paz, Bolivia, from 1965 to 1967.

He held a similar position in Bogota, Colombia, from 1967 to 1969, and then in Guatemala from 1969 to 1971. From 1971 to 1972, he attended the National War College in Washington.

Mr. Pezzullo was assigned in 1972 as an international relations officer to the Office of Central American Affairs at the State Department, a position he held until 1974, when he was named its deputy director. In 1974 and 1975, he was also special assistant to the ambassador-at-large.

He was deputy assistant secretary of state for congressional relations from 1975 to 1977, when he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Uruguay by President Jimmy Carter. He served there for two years before being appointed by the president in 1979 as ambassador to Nicaragua.

His two years there became the cornerstone of his diplomatic career.

When Mr. Pezzullo arrived in Nicaragua in 1979, the country was in the middle of a civil war, and he had instructions from the Carter administration to pressure President Anastasio Somoza Debayle to step down and surrender power to the Sandinista rebels.

"I told him we thought he had to leave," Mr. Pezzullo told The New York Times in a 1981 interview. "I said that the only way we could begin the process of putting the house together again was for him to go. He then played the role of the injured party, that history had played him a bad turn. But eventually he went."

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Less than a month after their first meeting was held on June 29, 1979, Somoza turned over power on July 17 to the Sandinistas and flew to Miami.

Denied entry into the U.S. by President Carter, he went into exile in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in 1980 by a Sandinista commando team.

Even though Mr. Pezzullo was retained by the Reagan administration, which came into office in 1981, ideological differences over its foreign policy toward Central America moved him toward retirement in 1981.

"I mean, it was an exhausting job. It was really a grind, you know, putting up with the propaganda, and then trying to get these people to behave rationally," Mr. Pezzullo said in a 1989 State Department oral history.

"The fighting in Congress for money, and have them traipse out all the stupid statements these people were making all the time. You were fighting on all sides all the time. So I figured 2½ years was enough. And I had asked to be relieved in the summertime, and they said fine."

Mr. Pezzullo and his son, Ralph M. Pezzullo, a Los Angeles writer and screenwriter, wrote "At the Fall of Somoza," which was published in 1994, an account of the collapse of the Somoza regime.

After leaving the State Department, Mr. Pezzullo was named diplomat-in-residence at the University of Georgia in Athens.

In 1983, he was named executive director of Catholic Relief Services, the first layman to head the international relief agency founded by U.S. bishops in 1943.

In a 1983 interview with The New York Times, after he accepted the CRS position, Mr. Pezzullo said the problems of poor Third World countries would pose the greatest threat to world stability.

"What I see, on the one hand, is a burgeoning population and increasing expectations, but also finite resources that have not kept pace with demands — and also a leadership throughout the world that has great difficulty in dealing with these problems," he said.

When Mr. Pezzullo took over the reins of CRS, he initiated a number of programs.

"He introduced many innovations reflecting his vision of CRS as an agency that uses the latest managerial and technological tools to reach and serve the least fortunate around the world, as mandated by the US. Conference of Catholic Bishops," Dr. Wachira wrote in an email.

"To give CRS the capacity to plan, Ambassador Pezzullo promoted the introduction of a project tracking system to enable managers at the country level and headquarters to track CRS' work in improving the lives of the poor," wrote Dr. Wachira, a retired World Bank economist.

"Taken together, all the innovations — an agency-wide project tracking system, an open and transparent review of project proposals, annual and multi-year country strategic plans, country program evaluations, explicit linking of interventions to the mission of CRS, and ensuring that funds were spent in keeping with the wishes of the donors — show that Ambassador Pezzullo endeavored to make the agency less opportunistic and more consciously faithful to its mission," he wrote.

"None of these functions existed at CRS before Larry," said Ms. McMahon."When there was movement among field offices to decentralize many of these functions to the field, Larry oversaw that process, which began in 1989."

"He hired me in 1990, and took a chance on me starting the training department, which was not a part of the CRS culture," said Joseph Chamberlin, a Baltimore writer, former CRS manager and a longtime friend.

"He was a supporter of my work and would come to training sessions. He was a very action-oriented person. He was a very good man," Mr. Chamberlin said.

Mr. Pezzullo also relocated CRS from its New York headquarters in 1989 to a renovated building at 209 W. Fayette St.

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After leaving CRS in 1992, he was named U.S. special envoy to Haiti by President Bill Clinton in 1993, a position he held until he resigned a year later.

Mr. Pezzullo, who had lived in Potomac and Roland Park, later became an adjunct professor at Goucher College and lectured widely. In recent years, he had lived in Pikesville.

He enjoyed playing golf and reading books on history and politics, his son said.

Funeral services were held Saturday.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Josephine Demattia; another son, David Pezzullo of Naples, Fla.; a daughter, Susan Pezzullo-Johnston, also of Naples; and seven grandchildren.

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