By Kevin Matthews
When Al Stone ’64 finished his U.S. Foreign Service assignment in Vietnam in 1970, a bureaucrat wrote an understated comment in his personnel file: “Works well in unstructured environments.”
That phrase was and remains a good summation of Stone’s eventful life.
In his career with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Stone supported relief for refugees in South Vietnam, directed health programs in Nigeria in the aftermath of the Biafran war, chartered ships to aid survivors of the deadliest tropical cyclone in history, and helped to rebuild immediately following the 1972 earthquake that destroyed much of Managua.
Born in Texas in the Dust Bowl economy of 1935, Stone began acquiring, early, the skills he would need for unexpected and daunting tasks. His father worked on railroads after the family farm was lost, and his mother served food at Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe Railway. While some people his age were starting college in the 1950s, Stone was becoming possibly the youngest conductor on the Southern Pacific, or S.P., Railroad.
None of his childhood experiences, however, prepared him for the way people lived just across the Mexican border, along the route operated by S.P. out of Arizona.
“There were people literally under a piece of metal in a hole in the ground,” said Stone, choking up during a Skype call from his home in New Mexico. “It’s just a hell of a thing to know that those people are living literally on the same five acres we are and they’re starving to death. Very early, I decided that I wanted to do something to better their lives, and that’s when I started going to college.”
Although he joined the Marines and later accepted various jobs to support his family, Stone kept his mind set on work with the State Department for a Latin American mission.
Four of Al and Nancy Stone’s five children were born by the time he graduated from Cal Lutheran with a double major in economics and business. As the oldest student on campus and the only one who was married, he was not much involved in social life, he said. At one point he worked as a security guard on campus, in addition to jobs elsewhere.
Stone remembers the breadth of the education he received, especially useful for the Foreign Service, and the tiny classes. One of his Spanish classes had just two students and often met at a restaurant because the classmate could afford to treat. He thinks his teacher, Rhoda Dybvig, would have been proud when he made his first speech in Spanish in 1972, as the U.S. representative to the Guatemala-based Central American Common Market Bank, “since no one laughed or sniggered.”
Although he still lived in Washington, D.C., Stone was finally part of an official Latin American mission. He was getting used to his duties when, very early in the morning on Dec. 23, 1972, Managua was leveled by a major earthquake and two big aftershocks. High-rises and tilt-up buildings came down, thousands of people were killed, 20,000 were injured and 250,000 were left homeless. As Nancy Stone writes in a new memoir about her family’s life abroad, vendors from the countryside had swollen the population of Managua before Christmas, and “no one will ever know the real death toll on that awful day.”
Based on his handling of difficult situations since his time in Vietnam, Stone, age 37, was chosen to manage the $140 million U.S. reconstruction loan program as capital development officer. He also oversaw British and domestic reconstruction funds. In postwar Nigeria, Stone had run measles and smallpox vaccination programs. After that, from Washington, he coordinated food aid by ship to the area (not yet independent Bangladesh) that was still suffering effects of the Bhola cyclone, which killed 500,000 people.
When he arrived in Managua for the first time shortly after Christmas, Stone realized that he would effectively lead the U.S. response, with help from a team of Nicaraguan specialists and about 3,000 laborers who cleared rubble. Although the workers’ temporary camp was crude, with metal roofs placed on box-like dwellings, Stone was proud to be housing and putting to work some of the people most affected by the quake.
With 660 city blocks severely damaged, Managua looked as though it had been carpet-bombed. Fires burned and services were at a halt: water, electricity, traffic, communications and the healthcare system.
When everything needs fixing at once, where do you start?
“You walk around and you open your eyes, and you ask a lot of questions, and you try to be sensible,” Stone said.
One of his main accomplishments was to get the health system moving again. Hospitals that had been functioning before the quake were no longer standing, so Stone was forced to renovate a former hospital, Velez Paiz, that was already overflowing with the quake’s wounded and dead.
To add a 115-bed wing to Velez Paiz, he said, “I drew the floor plan on the back of an envelope,” and the minister of public works found lumber. It was up within days, he said.
Over more than two years, Stone oversaw many reconstruction projects, from hospitals and 66 clinics to a system of storm drains and a 260-kilometer market road to Managua for farmers. Except for one son, Al III, then a student at Cal Lutheran, the whole family drove to Managua with a 14-foot trailer in June 1973, an odyssey recounted by Nancy Stone in the memoir Iguanas on My Roof (2014).