World traveler relishes return to region
Ron Elkins was reading The Economist at work in Budapest, Hungary, when he ran across an article, “Youngstown, Ohio: A Youngstown town again.”
He said that was the final sign that he should return to the Valley, “where there’s so much going on now.”
Ron, his wife, Natalie, and their son, Caleb, have traveled around the world during Ron’s 23-year career in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. Now, they’ve come home, and in June, Caleb will graduate from Poland Seminary High School, his father’s alma mater.
Ron’s last assignment at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest was set to end in 2010, the same year Caleb would begin his senior year of high school. Not wanting to uproot Caleb right before graduation, Natalie and Caleb returned to Poland in 2009, so that he could complete his junior and senior years of study in one place.
Ron debated retirement or taking a job in Washington, D.C., and decided to retire at the end of last year because he wanted to be with his family, and “Youngstown seemed like the place to be.”
“In the foreign service, you travel every two to three years, but we always came back here. Natalie’s folks still live in Liberty and my folks in Poland,” Ron said.
Ron’s work has taken the family to Frankfurt, Germany; Warsaw, Poland; Lilongwe, Malawi; and Budapest.
“It was weird for me coming home here. Now I have a set place that I can always have to come back to,” Caleb said.
After graduation this year, Caleb plans to attend YSU, study law enforcement, travel overseas and, possibly, join the foreign service.
Ron and Natalie grew up in the same church, Hillman Street Christian Church, on the city’s South Side. They were married in 1984 at Fellows Riverside Gardens. Both attended Youngstown State University; Ron studied law enforcement and Natalie became a teacher.
Ron said he didn’t know much about the foreign service before he applied. He joined as a special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service in 1987. The Diplomatic Security Service provides security for embassies and advises ambassadors about law- enforcement policy in specific counties.
“The foreign service, it’s a wonderful career,” Ron said. “Folks have to like responsibility, have to like change, be inquisitive enough to not just explore, but appreciate other cultures.”
As a teacher, Natalie was able to find work at just about every post. She now teaches at McGuffey Elementary School in Youngstown.
One of their most vivid memories from abroad is the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Ron worked in Frankfurt from 1989 to 1991.
“The wall was there, and you couldn’t cross, and if people did they got shot. And then all of a sudden the wall came down,” Natalie said.
Two weeks later, the couple drove to Wittenberg in East Germany to visit the church where Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door.
“It was so odd,” Natalie said. “We were driving past checkpoints, and two weeks ago people were there with guns. ...It was as if it never even happened.”
In Malawi, Natalie said, “every day you felt like you made a difference in someone’s life.”
Ron added that “we learned how little we need.”
“Any one of us can say we’re living in a nice home here [in Youngstown] ... In Malawi, we learned so much, like where happiness comes from and how little we need to live,” Ron said.