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Jacques Montouroy, Catholic Relief Services worker and beloved soccer coach, dies at 63

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; B07

Jacques Montouroy, 63, an aid worker with Catholic Relief Services who distributed food to the hungry in some of the world's most desperate and dangerous places, died July 29 at a hospital in the western African nation of Sierra Leone. He had complications from an ulcer.

A native of France, Mr. Montouroy had lived in Sierra Leone for the past 12 years, but he was frequently dispatched to disaster areas and war zones. In four decades with Catholic Relief Services, he served in Angola, Haiti and Somalia during those countries' most intense periods of political upheaval, civil war and natural disaster.

Lane Hartill, a spokesman for the humanitarian agency, called Mr. Montouroy an "emergency guru" and master of logistics who had a reputation for serving in situations most people would consider terrifying.

"He didn't mind it," Hartill said in an interview. "I think he actually kind of liked it."

In 1990, Mr. Montouroy was sent to Liberia on a temporary assignment to help people displaced by that western African country's civil war. After going to a hospital with a civilian who had been wounded by rebel fighters, Mr. Montouroy was arrested and handcuffed to a Liberian accused of stealing rice.

Rebel leader Prince Johnson confronted the two handcuffed men. Waving an AK-47, he threatened to shoot them both.

"The guy I was handcuffed to kept saying to me, 'It's just a bluff. It's just for publicity,' " Mr. Montouroy told the Washington Times in 2000.

Johnson shot the Liberian point-blank in the stomach. An Associated Press photographer caught the moment before Johnson fired again, killing the Liberian. Mr. Montouroy was held overnight and released with the message that Johnson was not to be taken lightly. The photograph appeared in newspapers around the world. Johnson is now a senator in Liberia.

It was not the only time Mr. Montouroy displayed steely nerves. In 1999, during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, the country became so violent that nearly every foreign national was evacuated. Mr. Montouroy stayed as rebels overran the capital of Freetown, burning much of it and forcing young boys to join the rebel army or be killed.

Mr. Montouroy gave safe harbor to three boys, hiding them in his attic. They were "his boys," members of the soccer teams he coached.

He coached soccer teams in every far-flung place he lived, volunteering his time and hundreds of dollars a month to equip players and pay for their transportation to games. He also often paid their school fees and bought them food. They called him "Papa Jacques."

The teams didn't play on finely manicured pitches of the sort Mr. Montouroy had grown up with in Europe, but on dusty, uneven dirt fields. The games were occasionally canceled because of violence. Many of the boys were from the slums and found in Mr. Montouroy a rare adult whose presence was constant and caring.

"What I really love is to have them play spectacular football," Mr. Montouroy said in 2000. "To have them do things other people can't do."

Mr. Montouroy was born Oct. 1, 1946, and grew up in the Bordeaux region of France.

He became an aid worker by an accident of circumstance. In 1967, while finishing compulsory military service at a post in what is now Burkina Faso, he played a game of pickup basketball. One of his teammates was a country representative for Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community.

"I got fouled, and I swore very loudly in English -- which I could do very well," Mr. Montouroy told the Washington Times. The representative said he needed someone who could speak English and offered Mr. Montouroy a job.

Mr. Montouroy was intensely private. His colleagues said he was never married and had no children, but they knew little about his personal life. His survivors, they said, include hundreds of former soccer players scattered around the world, including dozens who have made it into Europe's professional leagues.

In an online tribute to Mr. Montouroy, Michael Wiest, executive vice president for charitable giving at Catholic Relief Services, wrote about a phone call he received in 1976.

The caller was President Sangoule Lamizana of what is now Burkina Faso, and the subject was Mr. Montouroy. Lamizana expressed disappointment that the Frenchman was transferring out of the country.

"What a nice tribute, I thought, from the President de la Republique about Jacques' work with CRS," Wiest wrote.

In fact, the president was far more concerned about the effect of the move on the country's national soccer program. He told Wiest that Mr. Montouroy was "the best coach we have ever had."

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