Ray Milefsky


posted in: Borderblog 6

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”!

Bistrot au Ghetto 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.

See also:

Obituary in the Washington Post

Tribute from Phil Steinberg

6 Responses

  1. Kate Edwards

    Thank you Martin for writing such a fitting tribute to Ray; I considered him a dear friend, colleague and mentor and he shall be sorely missed. I too had a great experience of seeing Washington DC through his eyes on a visit several years ago, I loved his passion for the city and for his craft, like none other.

  2. Leo Dillon

    Ray continued to be a tour guide to the hidden gems of Washington DC to the end. In May of this year, after he knew his cancer was inoperable and that palliative care was his only real option, I picked up Ray and Nancie and he took me to a humble (if not marginally grody) restaurant in a strip mall in Wheaton, MD where, he claimed, the area’s best Sapporo-style ramen could be had. The ladies in the restaurant knew him and fussed over him in their singsong Japanese. On the way back we detoured through back streets to neighborhoods I never knew existed, with Ray offering rolling narrative of the history and eccentricities of each.

    When Ray went to the Balkans to help mediate the Kosovo-Macedonia boundary dispute, he brought a “fly-through” visualization of the whole boundary that showed the disputed pockets of land. The two parties were suspicious and didn’t look cooperative. It turned out that the cable to the projector didn’t work, so the negotiators had to huddle around Ray and his computer to see the fly-through. This created a casual intimacy which, leavened with Ray’s cheerful banter, got the two sides relaxed and willing to discuss their differences. The end result of these negotiations were a demarcation of the Kosovo-Macedonia boundary and a subsequent opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Both sides gave Ray credit for making it happen so quickly and smoothly. You gotta love the Milefsky touch.

  3. Al Arseneault

    We are saddened to learn of the passing of our dear friend. I had the pleasure of getting to know Ray while working along his side at a few boundary workshops. Betty and I also had the pleasure of hosting Ray and Nancie in our Ottawa home, last year. Such a tragic loss.

    Betty and Al Arseneault

  4. Missing you Ray…missing my great borders expert…

  5. Juan Jose Valdes

    A wonderful man that enriched many lives…including mine.

    Juan Jose Valdes

  6. Mari Inshaw

    I was shocked to hear of his death.
    He was such a neighborhood fixture, grumpy with good reason with a cheerful heart. He was a unique man and we have lost his knowledge and a small part of Shaw history that resided in him.