By Liesel Schmidt
When Karen Blanchard was born, she came into the life of a military brat—the constant moves, the unique places, the understanding of the military machine. The daughter of an Army intelligence officer, Karen spent her childhood traveling the world. She was educated at a French middle school in Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War and a French high school in Beirut, Lebanon shortly before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. The globe-trotting continued when she married a Marine Corp officer, Bill Waddell, whom she accompanied on various overseas assignments. Eventually, Karen pursued her own path in public service as a diplomat in the US Foreign Service—a role which fell nicely into place beside Bill’s career.
In her own embassy assignments, Karen made a name for herself as the embodiment of the classic traditions of the Foreign Service, venturing beyond the embassy gates to immerse herself in the local culture. In each of her postings, she leveraged her genteel charm and cultural fluency to represent the best of America.
After Bill’s passing in 1999 while the two were stationed in Shanghai, China, Karen continued her diplomatic career. It was during her next posting in Seoul, South Korea, that she met someone who became her next partner in the grand adventure of her life—and a companion in love.
Robert “Bob” Blanchard was a formerly aspiring academic who had found his niche in the defense industry after leaving graduate school, a position which saw him traveling the world for far-flung business projects that included considerable time spent living in Europe, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Serendipitously, Bob and Karen met in South Korea through a mutual friend, which led to a few casual dates and occasional run-ins at embassy receptions in Seoul. When Bob began to encounter challenges in getting to his office from his apartment because of all-new security procedures that were suddenly put into place after the events of 9/11, Karen offered him a guest bedroom in her home within the embassy compound—an offer which led to the deepening of their friendship and a shift in the nature of their relationship.
“And the rest, as they say, is history,” Bob says with a wry smile.
“The rest” came with a surprise proposal one evening three months into Bob’s stay with Karen. During cocktail hour preceding a romantic candlelit dinner for two in front of the fireplace, Bob suddenly went down on one knee and presented her with a ring.
“I wanted to do the whole romantic thing.”
Happily, Karen said yes.
The couple married before moving to Chicago for a few years, where Karen worked in a passport office while Bob engaged in his own business ventures. The couple later traveled the Middle East when Karen accepted postings at embassies in Tunisia, the UAE, Kuwait and Syria. As a result of the work she did there, Karen was asked to accept special and sensitive assignments in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan at the height of the War on the Terror.
She was later asked to accept a temporary assignment in Saudi Arabia, where the State Department was struggling the staff the embassy. After having worked there in the 1990s as a defense contractor during the Gulf War and experiencing that fasting and other penitential practices are socially and legally enforced during Ramadan, Bob was understandably reluctant to move to Saudi Arabia. Hoping to entice Bob for the move, Karen suggested they summer in the south of France at a friend’s house. As someone familiar with the slow process of government paperwork, Bob figured that by the time their posting to Saudi Arabia had cleared in Washington, they would already be well on their way to France.
Uncharacteristically expedient, the State Department sent Bob and Karen on their way in a week. As it happened, what was meant to be a temporary assignment stretched into a two-year tour, during which time Karen became the first female in Saudi Arabia to obtain a driver's license. She and Bob also played a central role in managing the delicate and sensitive issues in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. At the time, policy shifts and political controversies were challenging the alliance, making their work all the more crucial. Clearly, the couple was as dynamic a team in work as they were in life.
Those two years in Saudi became their last overseas assignment before Bob and Karen proudly retired from public service. They made a home together in Old Town Alexandria in 2018, where the couple’s outgoing personalities and unique stories earned them a much-loved place as social pillars of the local community. Their lively and leisurely long dinner parties became the stuff of legends, while their loyal patronage at the best haunts of Old Town made them beloved fixtures at Fontaine Bistro and Brut Wine Bar. They were also known as mentors to the many young and intellectually curious people they came across—all of whom benefitted from their wealth of knowledge and their many cosmopolitan experiences.
Bob and Karen’s adventures came to an end on February 23, 2023, when Karen lost her battle with cancer. That loss was felt throughout Old Town as well as across the world—but most especially by her children, grandchildren and the husband who embarked on so many journeys with her and loved her so deeply.