The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community


Our man in Bahrain

Roebuck-at-HearingAfter serving in some of the hottest spots in the world — Libya, Iraq, Syria and Israel — William Roebuck’s (’78, MA ’82) next posting might seem like a day at the beach for the career diplomat.

In July, President Obama nominated Roebuck as the next U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf with about 1.3 million people. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Roebuck’s nomination last month, but he still awaits confirmation by the full Senate. (Bill Roebuck was confirmed by the Senate in November and began his posting in Bahrain on Jan. 8, 2015.)

Testifying before the foreign relations committee, Roebeck summed up his impressive 20-year career: “I have spent most of my career posted in the Middle East … fostering political dialogue, providing support for elections, helping governments address the threats posed by terrorism and violent extremism, promoting and protecting human rights, and encouraging regional security efforts between neighbors.”

Roebuck follows in the footsteps of at least two other alumni. Jeannette Wallace Hyde (’58) was ambassador to Barbados and areas of the West Indies from 1994 to 1997. The late Graham Martin (’32) was a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Thailand and Italy and was the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam before the country’s fall to North Vietnam in 1975.

“Bill” Roebuck, 58, grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and received a George Foster Hankins Scholarship to Wake Forest. He wrote for the Old Gold & Black and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature.

As reported on the news site,, and in his State Department biography, Roebuck served in Côte D’Ivoire during a stint with the Peace Corps and taught English in Saudi Arabia. After earning a law degree from the University of Georgia, he joined the Foreign Service in 1992. In the two decades since, he’s become a well-traveled and respected diplomat.

He was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv for several years before moving to Damascus, Syria, where he served as acting deputy chief of mission. After a short stint in Washington, he went back to the Middle East as deputy political counselor at the embassy in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.

Roebuck was sent to Tripoli, Libya, in early 2013 as chargé d’affaires — the top U.S. diplomat in the country in the absence of an ambassador — several months after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Most recently, he was deputy assistant secretary of state of Egypt and Maghreb Affairs, based in Washington.

While Bahrain doesn’t attract the headlines of its Middle East neighbors, Roebuck isn’t likely to have much time to spend at the beach. He’s sure to be tested as he and the U.S. government push back against the Bahrain government’s human-rights record and targeting of opposition groups.

Fitting for one who spent his college days studying literature, Roebuck occasionally writes poetry for the Foreign Service Journal. Bahrain’s leading English newspaper, the Daily Tribune, even described the “new amby” as a poet. Roebuck once penned a moving tribute to his late friend, Chris Stevens, which reads, in part:

“I think back to that long night last September: the frantic phone calls,
 The unreliable shards of information, the series of urgent plans drawn up and discarded, The crushing news, And no time to mourn, then or later.”

— Kerry M. King (’85)

The Wall St. Journal on the Archimedes Palimpsest

Michael Toth (’79) isn’t mentioned this morning in The Wall Street Journal’s “Reading Beneath the Lines” about the Walters Art Museum’s Oct. 16-Jan. 1 exhibit in Baltimore called “Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” but I think he should be, and, at Wake Forest Magazine in the latest issue, he is.

Adventurer and historical detective Michael Toth ('79)

Toth was one of the digital-imaging experts who helped reveal the vestigial ink of the undertext of a prayer book that turned out to be treatises on math by Archimedes. Here’s how the Journal’s William Triplett describes it today: “In 1229, a monk in Jerusalem wanted to make a prayer book, but virgin parchment — the staple of medieval publishing — was hard to come by. So the monk did what most people did at the time — took existing handwritten books, removed the binding, and used a knife to scrape the ink as much as possible from the parchment folios. He then cut the folios in half, rotated them 90 degrees and started writing on them. Eventually he added a new binding, and a palimpsest — derived from the Greek word palimpsestos, meaning ‘scraped again’ — was born.

“The monk had used parchment from several books, the principal one a tome of Archimedes’s treatises on math, first written on papyrus in the third century B.C. and then copied into book form around the 10th century, (Will) Noel (curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters) says.”

In Wake Forest Magazine, Mark Schrope (’93) interviews Toth about the long process to recover the writings. “With all the projects I’ve worked on the goal is to always ensure the data become available for the public good,” Toth tells him.

And that’s a crucial point of today’s article about the Walters exhibit and, at Wake Forest, a reminder of how a liberal arts education allows alumni to work across disciplines and occupations. (In Toth’s case he began as biology student, shifted to history, graduated, worked in U.S. intelligence, the Defense Department and NASA before putting his experience in handling satellite imagery to work examining historical treasures as an adventurer-detective possessing a distinguished facility with multispectral imaging.)

“Quite possibly the exhibit will show that history itself may be a kind of palimpsest,” writes Triplett in the Journal. “‘Whether you study philosophy or science or whatever,’ Mr. Noel says, ‘the Archimedes palimpsest breaks down boundaries between disciplines. It contains history, philosophy and mathematics, and then all the latest technologies that were applied — the digital imaging, the metadata management — along with all the scholarship. We’d like people to know that because of all these things, history is still being written.'”

Thanks to Toth, we have a glimpse of history, the very ancient roots of our civilization, unearthed with modern technology and painstaking care.

WFU alums’ cabinet of curiosities

On Saturday I hadn’t expected to find myself on blogging duty. I was meeting a marvelous painter friend of mine Frances Hairfield (sister Nancy is a WFU alum) from Morganton at a historic house in Elkin, N.C., to mark the occasion of the second annual international Obscura Day. Neither one of us knew much about what we were in for. Obscura Day sounded vaguely familiar and yet, obscure. Wouldn’t you know it: The keepers of the flame of the obscure were both Wake Forest graduates.

“Everyone has a cabinet of curiosities,” says Anne Connelly Gulley (’77), an artist in Elkin.

She and her husband, Dr. Paul Gulley (’74, MD ’78), a doctor of internal medicine, opened their house to show off their special room marked above the door with brightly colored paint to let you know you are about to walk into an Alice in Wonderland scene. Look up. There’s a small alligator on the ceiling. How about that praying mantis toy peeping out from a box on the desk? Yes, that is a dissected frog on the wall – a knitted one, almost Kermit-like in a tragic way. Animal skulls abound. Butterflies rest under glass. In a plastic purse is the late pet hamster who landed at the taxidermy shop instead of a backyard grave. Books are everywhere.

Dr. Gulley visits with guests

On a shelf is Anne’s gem collection, including the rock she carried to show-and-tell in fourth grade. Her collecting began with seashells lovingly acquired on summer vacations when her family traveled from Ohio to Myrtle Beach. The rock collection started with a rock cut in half to reveal glittering innards. It came from Gatlinburg. (“Tells you about our summer vacations,” she says.) She insists that we should all look around. We will see the obscura in our own lives. Do you have anything collected on that window ledge above your kitchen sink? Voilà. Obscura.

Entrance to curiosities

The international “holiday” got its start through Atlas Obscura, “a compendium of this age’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica.” A science journalist started the Atlas Obscura online community, and this year 103 communities reported they were hosting Obscura Day, celebrating what one writer called the world’s “most spectacular nooks and crannies.” The point is to create far-flung explorers and a catalog of weird places not necessarily found in the tourist’s guidebook. If it all works as planned, we’ll feel, well, more curious.

A Gatlinburg rock

And so while some of us celebrated with the Gulleys on Saturday on West Main Street, near the Yadkin River, far-flung others traipsed through the Museum of the Weird in Austin; explored artists’ “squats” in Berlin; examined the strongest tidal current in the world in Saltstarumen Sound, Norway; crept through the catacombs of Brooklyn; and pondered how “buttons are communicating time capsules” at the Busy Beaver Button Collection in Chicago. Does it need mentioning that the Busy Beaver is the world’s only button museum? I thought not.


Dishing details of a spymaster

Douglas Waller’s (’71) latest book “Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage” (Free Press, $30) went on the sale this week and is already garnering praise.

“The book is replete with fascinating anecdotes and tales of derring-do that offer the stuff of espionage thrillers combined with historical fact,” wrote Jerry Harkavy for The Associated Press. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, an investigative reporter who specializes in U.S. intelligence and foreign policy, said the OSS as the forerunner of the CIA “was every bit as bewitched, beleaguered and befogged for much of its brief existence as its successor has too often been.”

He added, “Not that Waller, a respected former foreign and diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek and Time, set out to take down the Donovan’s OSS…. Indeed, Waller clearly, and rightly, finds much to admire about the OSS, its eclectic corps of brave and imaginative agents and of course, Donovan, the Wall Street lawyer whose dedication and perseverance in winning the war was emblematic of his generation.”

I asked Doug recently about how he became interested in writing about Donovan. “I’m intrigued by controversial historical figures, leaders who provoke strong opinions about them–pro and con,” he said in an e-mail. Wild Bill Donovan’s loyalists “thought he was a god,” while his enemies “thought he was a rogue spymaster and a devious empire builder during World War II. And the new ideas Donovan advocated–such as setting up a national spy service and launching unconventional covert operation –were highly controversial in the 1940s. In fact, Donovan’s legacy is still intensely debated by historians today.”

I wanted to know how his WFU education laid the foundation for his becoming an author. Doug said his liberal arts education best prepared him for the career. In publishing six books, he has drawn from history, political science, math and science courses as well as his English major. And, like me, he drew inspiration from the late journalism professor Bynum Shaw (’48) and Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson (’43).