Louis Pruitt – A Half Century of Government Service
Rebooting for some people is a one-time change that significantly redirects, or adds dimensions to, a person’s life. For others, it is multiple events, often prompted by pursuit of a career. Louis Pruitt is in the latter category.
When you review his lifetime career with the federal government, the image of someone engaged in rock climbing comes to mind. It’s a sport in which you climb up, down or across a natural or man-made rock formation with the goal of reaching the summit – or at least a higher point than where you started – without falling. Louis deftly navigated the government “rock face” for 50 years, moving one handhold or foothold at a time, every move a reboot of sorts. Below is Louis’ step by step description of what he says was a mostly challenging but sometimes exhilarating climb. — LC
Following graduation from Auburn University and completion of my military obligation, I grabbed the first job offer, which was an insurance adjuster position. That lasted only about six months before I began my long career in government service. I bounced from IRS (one year) to FDIC (eighteen months) to General Services Administration (GSA), where I settled into a job that I liked in the GSA Regional Office in Atlanta. The position involved studies to determine the best alternative for satisfying federal office space requirements in various localities throughout seven southeastern states. I received several promotions through a training program until I reached a grade level where the opportunity for future promotions was quite limited. A coworker, who had been somewhat of a mentor, suggested that I consider a move to the GSA Central Office to enhance my career opportunities. I took that advice and the move to DC in 1966 turned out to be extremely significant for my personal life as well as my career.
Shortly after settling in northern Virginia, I met a special lady from Venezuela, Elcira Hurtado, who would become my wife in March 1968. Our only child, Monica, was born in December 1971. We bought our first house in 1970 in Potomac, Maryland, and over the years had a very active social life, primarily with Latin friends. I took to the Latin culture like a fish to water. Elcira and I visited Caracas numerous times when Monica was small. I was warmly embraced by Elcira’s large family in Caracas, a wealthy, bustling metropolis back in those days.
On the career front, I received a promotion a year or so after transferring to the Central Office. A few years later, hoping for another promotion, I took a big gamble by joining a new office operation established at GSA. That organization was later dismantled but I did succeed in getting another promotion. After that, I was relocated to my prior office and worked for an extremely difficult supervisor for over a year before I could escape.
From laid back to assertive
I was desperate to leave GSA and a good friend convinced me that my best and probably only chance to find a job at my grade level in another agency was through Capitol Hill politics. Because of my predicament, I put aside previous reservations about political influence and accepted my friend’s counsel – “you are in the big leagues now and you have to act like it”.
Through persistent networking and some VERY good luck, I was able to land a job with the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) in the Department of State under what was known as a Foreign Service Reserve Limited Contract for five years. After three years, I would be able to apply for permanent Foreign Service status. FBO is a support arm of the Department of State located in Rosslyn, Virginia and it seemed like a separate fiefdom headed by a political appointee on the banks of the Potomac River. Internal and external politics was rife in FBO; consequently, I was on “pins and needles” during the period that I had no permanent status. The work was far more exciting than anything I had done before so I sure wanted to hold on at State Department. As a survival technique, I abandoned my “laid back” personality and became more aggressive, which was not an easy transformation.
Encountering the Russians
My position in FBO was Assistant Area Manager for all diplomatic facilities in Europe. In addition, I was designated as the stateside coordinator for the planned construction of a new US Embassy in Moscow. A couple of months into the job, I went to Moscow for a week as a member of a four-man team from FBO along with two architects from the private firm that was designing the new Embassy. This was a fascinating and memorable trip offering me the opportunity to see life behind the Iron Curtain in 1975. Our team dined together each evening in different restaurants and invariably encountered two things – cabbage and groups of young men very inebriated from too much vodka. I was approached on two different occasions by Russians that I feel sure were affiliated with the KGB in an attempt to befriend me. There were two female Russian interpreters for the entire week of our meetings with the Russian officials. One day during a coffee break, one of the interpreters engaged me in a conversation that convinced me she was trying to ensnare me in a trap. The other encounter happened on Saturday while we awaited the once per week Sunday Pan Am flight to New York. I decided to visit Red Square alone and was approached by a handsome, personable young man who offered to help me find my bus for my return to the hotel. He was such a good actor that he almost had me fooled until he said something that set off my alarm bells. It was interesting to see MANY newlyweds flocking into Red Square to have their pictures made in front of Lenin’s Tomb – obviously a tradition.
The most interesting thing of all that I learned from the meetings in Moscow was that the Russians would have considerable control over the construction. I would later learn that this was in accordance with diplomatic agreements concerning concurrent construction of new Embassies in Moscow and DC. FBO was not happy about that but these security concerns had been overridden by higher authorities because of larger, more important international political issues. I was not happy either because of the obvious potential for bugging devices to be implanted in the building. (About a dozen years later, it would be discovered that the new Embassy was indeed full of listening devices. After much heated debate in Congress, the issue was resolved by constructing two additional floors on top for classified conversations.)
I decided that although being so involved with the Moscow project carried some prestige, I did not want to be associated it. I managed to have myself transferred to the position of Assistant Area Manager for the diplomatic properties in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Not long after that move, the Area Manager took an assignment in Germany and I moved up into his position (another of my good breaks). The following four years were the most exciting of my career with a heavy travel schedule from Mexico to the tip of South America. There was also considerable stress because of office politics and my not having permanent career status. I breathed a sigh of relief when, after three and one-half years, I was accepted into the Foreign Service on a permanent status. I reverted to my natural rather laid-back personality and began pursuing an overseas assignment.
Taking a hardship post
Breaking into the true, somewhat cliquish Foreign Service from FBO, a support organization, was not easy. I accomplished that by accepting a difficult-to-fill position in a hardship post – Supervisory General Services Officer in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since Kinshasa was primitive in several respects, the family was in for some significant adjustments.
After two years in Kinshasa, I returned to FBO for three years in a liaison position coordinating facility requirements with classified federal agencies before getting another Supervisory GSO position in Brasilia, a considerably larger operation than Kinshasa. Overall, Brasilia was the best of our three overseas tours; however, it was far from perfect. The American School had big problems, resulting in a decision to send our daughter to boarding school in New Jersey for one year at age 15. This was a “between a rock and a hard place” decision, which was difficult for everyone concerned.
After three years in Brasilia, I returned to Washington to work in the Office of the Inspector General, another learning curve but a nice change of pace. My final assignment was as Supervisory GSO at the largest US diplomatic operation in the world, Mexico. This was a notoriously difficult job, made much more so by a change to the housing space standards for the USG employees shortly before my arrival in Mexico City. This final job as a direct federal employee was by far the most difficult three years of my career. It was a great relief to depart Mexico in April 1994 and head for the USA and retirement after 34 years.
My biggest break
About a year after my retirement, I received a call from a friend who was still working in FBO and who was aware that I was interested in further employment. The Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (SDBU) had asked my friend if he knew someone who was retired and might be interested in working under a contract to handle the part of the SDBU program that was focused on acquiring Small Business contracts for work with the FBO program. He recommended me and that was the biggest break I ever received among several good breaks throughout my career. It was also the most significant rebooting I ever undertook.
Ironically, this unexpected job turned out to be the most satisfying in my career. I am proud to say that I was able to greatly expand the FBO Small Business program by working closely and amicably with various FBO contacts as well as the Department of State Contracting Office. From my perspective, this job provided the best of all worlds – I was basically my own boss, I had no supervisory responsibilities and I received great satisfaction from helping Small Businesses obtain some exciting contracts for interesting projects. I ended my career on a high note by working for SDBU for 16 years before retiring at age 75.
In 2011, around the time of my retirement, Elcira was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The following eight years I assumed the loving and often stressful role of caregiver until my sweet wife passed away in 2019.
My latest reboot is an attempt to become an author. I have taken a few writing courses. My daughter suggested that I write my life story for her family and future generations. I am doing that now and finding it enjoyable even though it can be hard work. When I finish this project, I am thinking that I will try to write a non-fiction or perhaps a historical/fiction book and shoot for the New York Times Top 10 Best Sellers List (smile). Rock climbers are always looking to move up.