Phyllis Oakley, former assistant secretary of state, dies at 87

The cause was cardiac arrest, said his son, Thomas Oakley.

Ms Oakley rose to prominence in the late 1980s as a deputy spokeswoman for the State Department under George P. Shultz. She later became Deputy Director of Refugee Affairs and retired in 1999 as Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research.

She had first joined the Foreign Service in 1957, but her marriage the following year to fellow officer Robert B. Oakley meant the end of her career with the department.

In an oral historyMs Oakley told the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training that she “accepts this discrimination without flinching. … It never occurred to me to challenge the department on its personnel policies. I was deeply in love, ready for marriage. I didn’t see myself as a victim by marrying Bob.

She accompanied her husband to Sudan, the Ivory Coast, France and Lebanon. When he went to Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, she stayed and taught American history at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana.

In the early 1970s, the State Department began to relax its ban on two members of a couple working for the agency, and Ms. Oakley was reinstated in 1974. She again began at an entry-level position , like a “pencil pusher,” she said, before slowly carving out an expertise in Arab-Israeli relations.

She accompanied her husband to Africa when he was appointed ambassador to Zaire, now Congo, in 1979, but as an employee of the US news agency, not under his direct supervision. He then held the high-ranking title of “career minister” and served as ambassador to Somalia and Pakistan before retiring in 1991.

Ms. Oakley was working in a mid-level position in the Afghan bureau when her slick 1984 appearance on PBS’s “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” caught Shultz’s eye. Two years later, he hired her as the department’s deputy spokesperson.

To the public, she was probably best remembered for a high-profile quip when reporters – chasing a rumor – asked her to describe where on her body the Secretary of State might have had a tattoo of the tiger. of Princeton, the mascot of his university.

“I’m not in a position to comment,” she said dryly.

Phyllis Elsa Elliott was born in Omaha on November 23, 1934 and grew up in Lincoln, Neb., Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis. Her father was a salesman at a sporting goods company and her mother a high school math and chemistry teacher.

She graduated in 1956 from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a master’s degree the following year from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

After her federal retirement, Ms. Oakley served as an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College and Northwestern.

Her husband died in 2014. In addition to her son, of McLean, Va., survivors include a daughter, Mary Kress of Falls Church, Va.; and five grandchildren.

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