As President Obama prepares to receive most of Southeast Asia’s heads of state at the US-ASEAN Summit February 15-16 in Rancho Mirage I am thinking of a recently fallen friend of AICC, Duane Gingerich, who passed away last Friday. President Obama had it right several years ago when he coined the “pivot to Asia” policy, but Duane had already made his own “pivot “over 40 years ago. Born in a rural region of southeast Iowa known for its one room schoolhouses and annual youth basketball tournament, Gingerich made his way to a similarly rural region of Indonesia (also featuring one room schools) in the late 1960’s, through a Mennonite mission. The hardscrabble lives of the people of East Nusa Tenggara left a deep impression on him. He once remarked to me: “I had to figure out a useful way to return”.
Upon completing his service mission Duane chose law school as his return ticket to the people and nation who captured his heart, eventually helping to build Baker & McKenzie’s affiliate office, Hadiputranto & Hadinoto, into one of Indonesia’s top law firms.
Duane and Reti outside their “Semar House”
I got to know Duane and his wife Reti towards the end of his 30-year career in Indonesia. In 2010 they flew from Jakarta to Yogyakarta to meet me at the airport and welcome me into their second home in Klaten district. Called “Rumah Semar” (Semar’s House) the house sat a few feet from the rice paddies Duane loved and was filled with instruments and art. After explaining his love of wayang kulit (shadow theater) and the wise but vulgar clown servant Semar, we toured several community projects Duane and Reti had personally supported. The following day he and Reti departed for Jakarta and I was the sole occupant of a house with a cook and a driver. By day I would ride in his jeep to visit AICC members in the region and return home to a satisfying meal. I visited friends in nearby Solo who took me to meet its dynamic mayor, Joko Widodo, now President. One evening I woke to the thunderous sound of Mount Merapi’s eruption. With six-inch daily ash rains there was no way to fly to Jakarta where I was scheduled to attend a state dinner in honor of President Obama’s first visit. I called Duane and he simply said “tidak apa apa” (no worries). Soon I was traveling with his driver on a 14-hour overland journey to Semarang on Java’s north coast and west to Jakarta. Because of Duane I made the dinner.
Although Duane spent his working life overseeing the preparation of countless contracts, incorporations, closing documents, and other legal issues, he never lost his sense of adventure that had first brought him from an American farm to Indonesia or his pride in his birthplace. During my 2014 visit he was reviewing catalogs to decide which John Deere tractor he was going to buy for his Goshen, Indiana home. He wasn’t going to necessarily use it in a field, it was going to be enough for him to ride on it. My right arm, AICC’s Program Coordinator Mini Meraxa, went to school in Jakarta with Reti. She and Duane advised and celebrated Mini and her husband when their reverse dream to live in the US came true. Reti, the big city girl and Duane, the small town country boy were an ideal couple. On trips to the US, it was Reti that headed to NY; Indiana (and the John Deere) was for Duane.
Since announcing the “pivot to Asia” President Obama, partially raised in Indonesia, has rarely had time to focus the nation’s attention on the importance of southeast Asia to its future. ISIS and terrorism overwhelms the narrative, including his last State of the Union speech. As Curtis Chin, a former ambassador to the ADB commented in a recent Jakarta Globe op-ed: “Americans could well have benefited from Obama’s taking a moment to underscore how strengthened trade and security relations with the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia will help the United States meet economic and security challenges: a pivot to Southeast Asia.” Let’s hope that this month President Obama, White House staff and press corps maximize the importance of the region to America’s future and if they do, somewhere Duane Gingerich will know that his pivot helped pave the way. He was one of our best native sons.
The views and opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members.