When asked in conversations what it was like balancing the demands of faculty and administration while serving as dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School, Stephen W.
Bosworth answered with dry wit informed by decades of statesmanship.
“I was well-prepared,” he’d say. “I’ve negotiated with the North Vietnamese.”
In a Foreign Service career that began in the early 1960s and stretched to serving as President Obama’s special envoy to North Korea, Mr. Bosworth had a deft touch with diplomacy. He tried to defuse nuclear tensions in recent years and helped persuade Ferdinand Marcos to give up power in the 1980s, personally walking the Philippine leader to an awaiting aircraft. One former colleague recalled that Mr. Bosworth was able to turn negotiations into a comfortable enough space that even North Korean and South Korean representatives could trade jokes.
“In the broadest sense, you are trying to broaden areas of common interest and create incentives — and occasionally disincentives,” Mr. Bosworth told the Globe in 2009, not long after traveling to North Korea. “You have to be clear in what you’re committing to do, and what you’re expecting from the other side.”
Mr. Bosworth, who served as an ambassador under three presidents and a special envoy under a fourth, died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 4 in his Boston home. He was 76.
“Steve had a commanding presence,” said Lawrence Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts. “He was tall. He had this shock of brilliant white hair. And he had this deep resonant voice. It almost sounded like the voice of God when he spoke, so whenever he spoke, he commanded a room.”
Mr. Bosworth served as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy from 2001 to 2013 and “it was very, very obvious to me from the first time I met him why it was that presidents and secretaries of state turned to him for advice and guidance,” Bacow said. “He was wise. He was direct. He was completely unflappable. He was the kind of person you wanted to have at your side in a crisis.”
In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said “Steve’s unique brand of diplomacy blended the gravitas of a statesman and the timing of a comedian. He was an unfailingly genuine and nice person, a straightforward man who was quick with a kind comment or a self-deprecating joke. One of our nation’s most capable and admired diplomats, Ambassador Bosworth is a legend in Foggy Bottom, beloved by all.”
Most recently, Mr. Bosworth was chairman of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. President Jimmy Carter nominated him in 1979 to be ambassador to Tunisia, where he served until President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz asked Mr. Bosworth to serve as ambassador to the Philippines. Mr. Bosworth held that post through the “people power” revolution that swept Marcos from power.
After leaving the Philippines in 1987, he was president of the United-States Japan Foundation, which promotes stronger ties between the two nations, and he directed the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a multinational group. Mr. Bosworth was US ambassador to South Korea from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton, and special envoy to North Korea from 2009 to 2011.
Mr. Bosworth “literally knew the world, and most of the world’s leaders had worked with him,” Bacow said. “He had offered to advise the nation’s leaders, both Republican and Democrat. It was an extraordinarily nuanced view of the world that Steve possessed.”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Bosworth “was one of the first people in the field to integrate things economic and things diplomatic — it gave him a real advantage,” and added that “he was one of the few people who was respected on all sides. You keep coming back to the idea of a consummate professional. I thought Steve was a real pro.”
The oldest of three sons born to Warren Bosworth and the former Mina Phillips, Stephen Warren Bosworth grew up on a farm in Jenison, Mich., southwest of Grand Rapids, and began his education in a one-room schoolhouse. His father worked in a factory until returning to college in his 50s to become a high school teacher of speech, debate, and drama.
Mr. Bosworth’s brother Brian of New York City said their father became a significant influence: “He taught us all how to speak, in a sense — how to argue, how to think.”
Brian added that “because of those very humble beginnings, Steve was never entitled to anything. He achieved what he did through the sheer force of his character. The idea that someone could move from there to Dartmouth College to the Foreign Service, rise to become ambassador, serve under four different presidents, and have an impact on so many people all over the world is, to me, startling.”
In 1961, Mr. Bosworth graduated from Dartmouth, where he later served on the Board of Trustees — including as chairman. Mr. Bosworth was accepted at Harvard Law School but chose instead to join the Foreign Service. His postings included Panama, Madrid, Paris, and Washington, D.C. He was well-suited for diplomacy, his brother said.
“Steve was a huge believer in dialogue, engagement, conversation, negotiation. He was not patient with those who believed in confrontation, and I think that would be the most distinguishing aspect of his Foreign Service career,” his brother said. “His belief was that you just continue to try to work it out, you just keep trying, and in a sense, that defined his personal life as well.”
Mr. Bosworth was married to Sandra De Puit, with whom he had two children — Allison of Rochester, N.Y., and Andrew of Chengdu, China. That marriage ended in divorce.
In 1984, he married the former Christine Holmes, who helped prepare and edit a cookbook, “Dinner with Ambassadors,” that gathered recipes from the families of dozens of ambassadors around the world.
A service will be announced for Mr. Bosworth, who in addition to his wife, children, and brother, leaves two stepchildren, William Rutledge of Scituate and Stacey Rutledge of Tallahassee; another brother, Barry, of Silver Spring, Md.; and 10 grandchildren.
Bacow traveled many times with Mr. Bosworth, with whom he shared lengthy flights, and recalled that his friend “was a terrific raconteur. He had just fabulous stories, most of which he was telling on himself. In all the time that I knew Steve, I never once heard him crack a joke at the expense of someone else. He had a tremendous sense of humor but was the consummate gentleman. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
On one trip to Seoul, the airline lost Bacow’s luggage, and he needed a suit for pending meetings. Mr. Bosworth took him to his tailor in the South Korean capital, where Bacow spotted a framed photo of Mr. Bosworth in the window, along with a framed letter of gratitude the diplomat had written, saying he left the country better dressed than he had arrived, thanks to the tailor’s expertise. Inside, Bacow said, they were treated like royalty.
“Steve was kind to everybody, and he had a common touch,” Bacow said. “One of the things we shared is that we both grew up in Michigan and were from modest means. Steve never forgot that. He never forgot his roots. He was the best.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.