The international boundary community lost one of its most respected and well-loved members on 1 August, when Ray Milefsky died after a long battle with cancer.
Ray was the senior boundary and sovereignty specialist in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues from 2000 to 2014. In that role he made a significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of boundary and territorial disputes around the world, providing policymakers in the U.S. and other governments with thoroughly-researched analysis and practical recommendations for diffusing tensions between quarreling neighbours. I am sure that his expertise will be greatly missed by many of his colleagues.
Ray also shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of boundary – and many other – issues with great generosity in academic and practitioner circles beyond government. He was a regular participant in IBRU conferences and training workshops, bringing experience, boundless enthusiasm and an infectiously irreverent sense of humour to discussions both in the classroom and at social events. My former IBRU colleague Clive Schofield reminded me the other day of a classic Ray contribution. In a boundary negotiation exercise at an IBRU workshop, Ray was part of a team representing the fictional Republic of Van Diemen’s Land. As the negotiations intensified and tempers began to fray, Ray reminded his colleagues that the exercise was meant to be fun by leading his team in a rousing rendition of the Van Diemen’s Land national anthem “We all love VD”. Needless to say, when the laughter subsided the negotiation reached a successful conclusion.
Ray was a polyglot who spoke fluent German, Japanese and Russian, and was either conversant in or familiar with most Turkic and Slavic languages. With a geographer’s curious mind he soaked up information on the customs, language, religion, music and food of any culture that came into his orbit (my thanks to Ray’s colleague Leo Dillon for that elegant description). Ray also had an incredible knowledge of, and empathy for, Washington DC, which he shared enthusiastically with visitors. He kindly put me up many times on visits to DC, and the walking tours he led of the city were always fascinating and entertaining. He lived in what real estate agents call a ‘transitional’ neighbourhood, and “Mr Ray” was clearly a much-loved member of a colourful community. One of my favourite stories comes from the time when he was being vetted for security clearance at the State Department, and on returning home one evening his next door neighbour – someone who had good reason to avoid contact with the authorities – rushed up to him saying: “Mr Ray, Mr Ray, some people from the gummint came by asking questions about you – but don’t worry: I didn’t tell them nothing”!
Ray outside the “Bistrot au Ghetto”, a mural he painted on the vacant building next to his home in Washington DC
I learned of Ray’s death while I was in Paris. I was immediately reminded of Ray arriving in that city for an IBRU workshop – in his beret – and announcing, straight off a redeye flight, that he was off to visit a museum of Jewish history (which of course nobody else present had ever heard of) way on the other side of the city. That was Ray in a nutshell: energetic, quirky, endlessly curious and living life to the full.
I am, of course, very sorry to have lost a dear friend far too early. But I – along with many others who were fortunate enough to know Ray – will remember a remarkable and inimitable person with gratitude and great affection. We will miss you, but we will remember you with smiles on our faces.