Today is the hundredth birthday of Donald N. Wilber PhD. He won't be celebrating it in this world but one hopes he will be looking down on the party tonight at his wonderful daughter's apartment in Washington. Some of his old time comrades will be there before they too join the ages.
I got to know Don through his daughter Valentine. He was one of those "greatest generation" men who's life seems an unintentional reproach to the men of my generation. The beginning of World War Two found him in Egypt with an advanced degree from Princeton, working as an archaeologist. He spoke middle eastern languages, was there, and unlike our kind was a patriot. So in addition to his scholarly study, he entered the OSS under State Department cover. He became an expert on all things Persian in the fight to keep the Nazis from turning the allies flank in that once and always pivotal country. He developed a real love of Persia and Afghanistan, their peoples and cultures. He wrote books on architecture, art and language that informed a generation about these problematic and important realms.
When western interests were threatened during the early fifty's he, Kermit Roosevelt, and some Brit's engineered the overthrow of an unfriendly government to re-install the Shah as Iran's head of state. Now that we aren't fighting the Nazis anymore this sort of thing, even when done at the behest of one's country, can be viewed as a crime. Answering to the CIA he tried to replicate in Iran the successful transformation of a backward Muslim country into a modern state that has taken place in Turkey. All that, like so much else came undone during the Carter years. The old WWII hands in intelligence were shown the door and Don was among them.
I met Don during the Reagan years and he was in decline. He lived it seemed to me, for his private studies and interests. He was the Dean of the Princeton oriental rug world. He kept up correspondence with people who recognized his expertise. He surrounded himself with with memento's and artifacts that only a traveled man of taste could acquire. His lovely wife Margaret was the best spouse a man such as Don could have, a fellow scholar and artist. He was a quiet brooding man who resented frivolous interaction and I did the best I could to play the student rather than an equal. Sometimes he opened up with stories such as his reluctant and ultimately comic role in the Tehran Conference. Some of these were of a surprisingly comic vein. Indeed Don had a dry, mischievous side that I found engaging. Once or twice he asked me about something. I did my best to provide him with the best information I could. I remember his interest in what can only be called mass hypnosis.
I think he just grew more and more tired of the stupidity of the world and so faded away. He was a private, scholarly man drawn into a world of action and power that used him badly and it was too late for him to do anything new.
If the story of Donald Wilber has a lesson it that this is how our republic rewards men who serve our interests. Now, Post 9/11, our country needs men like Don as never before. But our culture doesn't produce scholar patriots of the old school anymore. Perhaps we deserve what happens next.