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Robert Kohls; Official, Author Led Training in Overseas Life

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Saturday, September 2, 2006

L. Robert Kohls, 79, former director of training for the U.S. Information Agency and the Meridian International Center in Washington, died of cancer Aug. 9 at his home in San Francisco.

While at the USIA, he wrote the first of his five books, "Survival Kit for Overseas Living" (1979), which has been used by many government and nonprofit agency officials who plan to live abroad. His monograph, "The Values Americans Live By," written in the 1980s, did the same for foreign visitors to the United States.

Mr. Kohls, who sought to improve understanding of other cultures, almost didn't make it out of his home state, said his wife, Norma Chappell Kohls. He was born in Granger, Iowa, and graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, and his parents wanted him to remain in Iowa.

Instead, he and his wife moved in 1953 to Korea, where he had been stationed in the Army during World War II. The Kohlses worked for the Mennonite Church, although he was raised Lutheran and his wife, Baptist.

They built an orphanage for boys in Taegu, Korea, and learned to speak Korean. They also created a middle school, high school and vocational school. The couple then worked in Seoul for the Christian Children's Fund and traveled throughout Southeast Asia and India with their 3-year-old daughter.

Mr. Kohls returned to the United States and received a master's degree in art history in 1960 from Columbia University and a doctoral degree in cultural history in 1963 from New York University. He moved to Washington to work for the Peace Corps and became the trainer for volunteers to Korea, Brazil, Tunisia and Libya, emphasizing compassion and empathy in his workshops.

He spent 10 years at the USIA, teaching cultural and media attach├ęs how to live overseas, before joining the Meridian International Center. He also helped found the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, which gave him its Primus Inter Pares Award in 1986.

Mr. Kohls moved from Washington to San Francisco in 1987. Most recently, he was a senior research fellow with the Global Vision Group there and professor of international relations and business at San Francisco State University. He also taught graduate courses in the Pacific Rim department of the University of San Francisco and was a professor of intercultural management in the Pacific Basin Studies graduate program at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif.

A member of the San Francisco Meeting of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), he volunteered there and taught classes in comparative religions during the past few years.

Survivors, in addition to his wife of 57 years of San Francisco, include his daughter, Kathy Kohls Wizowski of San Francisco; a sister; and a granddaughter.


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