By Laura Moyer
Rose McCartney Likins ’81 had been ambassador to El Salvador for just five months when a 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit in January 2001. Highways crumbled, homes shook apart, and the Central American country needed help urgently.
But with a new presidential administration just arriving in Washington, Likins would have to fight to keep the country’s plight in the forefront.
She flew to Washington and walked the halls of the State Department, knocking on doors and talking to anyone who would listen. And she arranged for George W. Bush, just weeks into his presidency, to meet with the Salvadoran president at the White House.
With the resulting United States financial support and help from nongovernmental organizations, communities in El Salvador rebuilt infrastructure and rehoused 100,000 people. The efforts stemmed a potential mass migration and strengthened U.S.-Salvadoran ties.
The earthquake was just one crisis Likins handled in an eventful diplomatic career that also featured an ambassadorship to Peru and top State Department positions.
Every step of the way, Likins – now retired – had to assess people and situations, think creatively, argue persuasively, and help opposing parties find common ground. “I wouldn’t have been prepared to make that contribution if I hadn’t laid the foundation at Mary Washington,” she said.
As a Spanish and international relations major, she challenged herself on campus and off, earning membership in Phi Beta Kappa and completing a senior-year research internship in Washington with political experts Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.
She took the notoriously difficult Foreign Service examination as a Mary Washington junior, expecting that she’d have to repeat it several times. But she passed on the first try, and by the end of senior year she had security clearance and a diplomatic job waiting.
She delayed her starting date just long enough for graduation and her wedding to John Likins ’81. They’d met as freshmen, bonded over study sessions in the lobby of Mason Hall, and dated all through college.
“When you join the Foreign Service, your whole family joins,” Rose Likins said. “My husband was willing to take this where it went.”
That meant postings to Mexico, Paraguay, Bulgaria, El Salvador, and Peru, with assignments in between at the State Department.
John Likins, who majored in geography and sociology, forged his own career in government and consulting.
He has been “such a wonderful partner in this whole adventure,” Rose Likins said. They have two sons, James and Kevin Likins ’15.
Two years into retirement, Likins is pursuing a master’s degree in library science and serves on the board of the Mountain Institute, a nongovernmental organization that addresses challenges of communities in the Andes, Himalayas, and Appalachians.
In 2005, she was UMW’s commencement speaker and was named a distinguished alumna. She and her husband consider their Mary Washington years invaluable.
“We both say we are the models for a liberal arts education,” Likins said.
“There’s no cookbook, no recipe that says, ‘If this happens, you do this.’ It’s a case study for knowing how to learn.”