Georgetown Neighbors & Legends: Jenonne Walker
By August 31, 2023 0 802•
From Oklahoma, to the National Security Council, to Ambassador to the Czech Republic, this Georgetown neighbor was a diplomatic trailblazer.
Despite her diminutive size, longtime Georgetown resident Jenonne Walker radiates charisma and energy. Greeting me for lunch at Sara’s Market, the 88-year-old Walker exudes warmth, high energy and is quick with a big smile. Her energetic presence may be one of the reasons she broke through in U.S. foreign policy circles in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was mostly a male-dominated sphere. Her reputation for collaboration, and her deep expertise in one of the world’s most complicated regions also helped.
In an interview with the Library of Congress in 2004, Walker described herself as “a working-class kid from a hick town in Oklahoma.” The first in her family to go to college, she worked her way through the University of Oklahoma. She found herself engaged to an Englishman she met in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. While the engagement didn’t last, she fell in love with London and landed a job as a secretary to the Naval Attaché at the U.S. Embassy and stayed for five years.
Returning to the United States, she tried her hand as a researcher in network TV journalism. On the advice of an old professor at the University of Oklahoma, she then accepted a job at the CIA that would set her on a lifelong career path in foreign policy and diplomacy.
Starting as an analyst for Western European Affairs in the Office of National Estimates, her department was soon abolished by the Nixon Administration. She then landed a job as an assistant to the new CIA Director William Colby who was looking for a sharp analyst for his office. Her role there set her up for what was to be a two-year “loan” to the State Department working for Winston Lord and Henry Kissinger in the Office of Policy Planning. When future National Security Advisor Tony Lake took on the role after Lord, Walker found not just a boss, but a longtime mentor, friend and a fulltime position on the State Department payroll. This career move would put her on a path to influencing some of the most complex diplomatic relationships between the U.S and Europe for the next 40 years.
According to her longtime friend and former COO of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Harriet Hentges, the key to Walker’s success was “certainly her fine mind but also her commitment to successful U.S. foreign policy. There is no harder worker on behalf of U.S. foreign policy.” Hentges also said “Jenonne brought to her extraordinary career in government, sheer brain power coupled with broad interests in history, art, foreign policy and [insights as] a serious reader of fiction and non-fiction.”
Over the course of her decades-long career, Walker held key positions including political counselor at the U.S Embassy in Sweden, a Europe expert on the NSC staff, as well as deep experience in arms control, chairing important inter-agency committees. President Reagan awarded Walker the Distinguished Civil Service Award for her work in arms control. Chairing many commissions both in and out of government, Walker’s energy, intelligence and personality helped bring key players together to affect policy. This wealth of knowledge, experience and personal savvy led to her nomination as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic by President Bill Clinton, a post she held from 1995 to 1998.
Sitting with the engaging Walker over a lunch of delicious sandwiches, it’s no surprise her life and career were filled with friendships with key figures in U.S. foreign policy from Tony Lake to Madeleine Albright. Her personality buzzes with positivity.
Tony Lake was a major influence on Walker’s career. As Walker’s second boss at the State Department, she said that Lake was “one of the best minds I ever encountered and also had one of the highest ethical standards of anyone I’ve known in government.” Walker said of her mentor, “he had a strong moral sense about foreign policy and a practicality.”
She also shared a longtime friendship with future Secretary of State and fellow Georgetowner Madeleine Albright, even sharing season tickets to the Washington Opera together. Later in her career, Walker said Albright visited her twice while she was Ambassador to the Czech Republic, first when the story broke about Albright’s Jewish roots as she and her family tried to revisit old family connections and history, and second on a trip with First Lady Hillary Clinton when she said “Albright was campaigning for Secretary of State,” from her post us Ambassador to the United Nations.
As ambassador to the Czech Republic, Walker had a close relationship with Czech president Vaclav Havel who was the father of the modern Czech state. She described Havel — a former dissident during the Cold War — with a laugh as “a moral icon, but flaky.” Havel was “a very shy man,” she said. “I saw a lot of him but I never felt like I really knew him.” Havel was a larger-than-life character to the outside world, but to Walker he felt like a shy ideologue with a strong moral center.
Walker has lived in Georgetown on and off for 60 years, first moving here in 1963. She has moved around Georgetown, owning five different homes. She describes herself as “a house-nut” who loves fixing up new places. Walker is often seen walking at a fast pace around the East Village, always with a warm smile and a hello.
If you have someone to nominate as a “Georgetown Neighbor & Legend,” email me at Sam.Sallick@DU.edu.