Ralph Dungan, 90; was JFK aide, ambassador to Chile

Ralph Dungan also served as chancellor of higher education in New Jersey.
New York Times/file 1972
Ralph Dungan also served as chancellor of higher education in New Jersey.

WASHINGTON — Ralph Dungan, one of President John F. Kennedy’s top aides, who later served as ambassador to Chile and as New Jersey’s chancellor of higher education, died Oct. 5 at his home in St. John Parish, Barbados. He was 90.

He had complications from intestinal surgery, said his daughter Jennifer, of Scottsville, Va.

Mr. Dungan was part of the so-called ‘‘Irish mafia’’ that made up much of Kennedy’s inner circle. He joined Kennedy’s staff in 1957, when the future president was a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.


After Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Mr. Dungan became the chief White House expert on Latin America. He was one of nine ‘‘special advisers’’ to the president and was known, according to a 1967 New York Times article, ‘‘as the president’s top recruitment officer, credited with attracting scores of top officials to Washington.’’

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Following Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Dungan helped plan the president’s funeral. He stayed on at the White House as an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson for a year before becoming ambassador to Chile.

Despite rudimentary Spanish — he once addressed a classroom of bemused schoolchildren by saying, ‘‘It’s a great privilege for you that I’m here today’’ — he set a new path for US foreign policy, based on principles established by Kennedy.

Mr. Dungan reached out directly to the working poor of the country, rolling up his sleeves to help build houses in poor districts and visiting workers in the copper mines. He once said ‘‘private property is not an unlimited right.’’

‘‘This attitude has not endeared him to Chile’s big business and land-holding interests or to their supporters in conservative political parties,’’ the Washington Post said in 1966.


Nonetheless, a 1966 New York Times magazine story by foreign affairs author Richard West described him as ‘‘the best American diplomat in Latin America.’’

‘‘Ambassador Dungan has made scores of visits all over Chile, talking to slum dwellers, factory hands, fishermen, and housewives,’’ West wrote. ‘‘He has acquired an understanding of Chile rare in ambassadors who have been in a country three times as long.’’

Mr. Dungan left Chile in 1967 to become New Jersey’s first chancellor of higher education. Although it was the sixth-wealthiest state in the country, New Jersey ranked 46th in higher education. More than half its high school students left the state to attend college.

He sought to convert six state teachers’ colleges into full-scale liberal arts universities and to improve the faculties throughout the state. But within months, the faculty of the state college in Trenton censured Mr. Dungan, and others complained that he wouldn’t meet their salary demands.

He replied by saying that some faculty members were ‘‘close to illiterate.’’


He held the chancellorship for 10 years and was credited with tripling the enrollment at state colleges and increasing opportunities for minorities.

Ralph Anthony Dungan Jr. was born in Philadelphia. His father was a politically connected lawyer. After serving as a Navy pilot during World War II, Mr. Dungan graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He received a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton University.

He was an analyst with the former Bureau of the Budget before working for Kennedy.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Mr. Dungan executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank. He later held executive positions with the Caribbean Development Bank and the International Executive Service Corps. He had lived on a farm in Barbados since the early 1980s.

His first wife, Mary Rowley Dungan, died in 1987 after 36 years of marriage.