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Eulogy for Alex Rondeli
15 June, 2015
For twenty five years since Georgia became independent when people from North America, Western Europe, and around the world would visit Tbilisi, they would often be taken to see Alex Rondeli very early on in their visit. He was often the very first meeting, and no visit was complete without seeing him. I met him a few days after I arrived in Georgia in 1997. The reasons why seeing him was so important help explain why he was such a
great man, and his death is such a great loss for the nation and for the many people around the world that care deeply about Georgia.

Often the people taking these internationals to see him were his former students. In the very dark period when Tbilisi State University was disassembled and sold by its leadership to ambitious parents, Rondeli built and protected a small but beautiful island of real education amid the sloth and corruption. He would oversee admissions and held high expectations of work and participation. His students are a list of the most able and insightful leaders in Georgia. After he had his first heart attack, I remember sitting with a group of influential internationals and one of them said that him getting good medical care was more important for Georgia than all of the work we were doing combined. We all agreed that he is the most important educational figure in Georgia in the last century. Although his former students love him and are as a group one of the main conduits through which the world knows Georgia, his work in education is not the reason we were always taken to see him.

He was an expert on Iran and spoke fluent Farsi although few people knew of this expertise or talked to him about it. It gave him a unique view. While so many people tended to see Georgia as a football kicked between Russia and the West (whatever that is), his view was different. Understanding Iran, Georgia's giant ancient neighbor that was neither the West nor Russia, he could clearly see Georgia as a small, delicate independent nation and state that should look carefully around its neighborhood, asses its interests and act accordingly. He personified the famous quote by the American intellectual Adlai Stevenson, "Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." So many of the loudest patriots are the ones that can least understand or imagine Georgia's independence. Very early on, he recognized it, understood it, and dedicated his life to protecting it. But that is not why we were taken to see him.

He didn't care about money. So often in in Georgia there are discussions of intelligencia and it is usually said with contempt. And there are certainly many people who through connections and not much else benefited from the Soviet system and don't understand change or independence and fear both. But at the same time there is also a group of older Georgians, some times academics, intellectuals, or civil servants that for whatever reason, simply don't care about money or the things it can buy. They don't hate it, it comes and goes in their lives as it does in all of our lives. They just don't care. They are interested in other things and spend their time on those other things. This attitude of theirs has allowed them to do so much and to see so clearly. In a society with a deep preoccupation with corruption and the easy win, they can stand aside from that and live a real life as Alex did. But that is not why we were taken to see him.

He was well informed and was not afraid to criticize those in positions of power and wouldn't look over his shoulder when doing it. But his interest in the day to day politics of Georgia and the world was in how it influenced the future. He understood history well and that gave him a longer view. He looked at Georgia's future in decades and centuries not in electoral cycles. He had concerns but didn't panic because he looked at now as the beginning not the end. Maybe that came from spending so much time with young people, certainly it was a habit his students tended to take from him. But that is not why we were taken to see him.

It didn't matter who he was meeting from around the world, he would listen to their ideas, honestly answer their questions, crack jokes, toss around opinions, and imagine the future. He met everybody as an equal no matter their age, sex, status, or origin. For first time visitors especially, when we came to Georgia, knowing almost nothing, these first few meetings were important. We'd meet some people who would try to impress us, or who would lie to us, who would want things from us that we couldn't give, people who would spit venom at their enemies or perceived enemies, people who clearly didn't understand were we were coming from, all sorts of different people. Many of those meetings, particularly with politicians, would signal to us that this was a complex place full of bitterness and aggression, with more focus on animosity than solutions, that it was a very different from where we were from.

But when we would meet Alex and talk about Georgia and its place in the world, we would listen to and engage with a man so kind, so warm, so insightful, so honest. His love for Georgia and his simple certainty that Georgia was a great nation moving towards having a strong state and a place in the world that was peaceful, prosperous, and stable would stay with us. He felt like one of us, so open and clear. We trusted him and understood his vision. No matter what we talked about, when we walked away from talking to him, we didn't feel like an outsider or a visitor, we didn't feel like an object of hospitality. We felt like an equal partner in a grand project, part of a group in love with Georgia and trying to help it in any way we could. He was the one to truly connect us, to bind us tighter than any other could, an ambassador in the truest sense. And that is why we were always taken to see him. And are so so sad we can never see him again.
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