James Nicholas Cortada, 85, a State Department official specializing in Arabic language and cultural studies who after his retirement in 1970 became active in municipal politics, died Nov. 1 at Culpeper Memorial Hospital after a stroke. He lived in Orange.

While chief of mission of the American embassy in Yemen from 1963 to 1964, Mr. Cortada helped negotiate the release of 16 British soldiers captured by Yemeni tribesmen.

Mr. Cortada was born in New York and was a department store salesman there before joining the State Department in 1942. Fluent in Spanish, his first posting was Cuba in the economic service.

He was director of the Office of Near East and South Asia Regional Affairs from 1962 to 1963 and dean of the School of Professional Studies, known as the Foreign Service Institute, from 1965 to 1967. His last posting, from 1967 to 1970, was as American consul general in Spain.

Mr. Cortada was co-author of two books with his son, Dr. James W. Cortada: "U.S. Foreign Policy in the Caribbean, Cuba and Central America," which was published by Praeger in 1985, and "Can Democracy Survive in Western Europe?" also by Praeger, in 1996.

The elder Mr. Cortada, who had maintained a home in Orange since 1962, was its mayor from 1978 to 1982, and again in 1991 and 1992. He also had served on the town planning commission and as vice mayor.

He was a past president of the Orange County Volunteer Rescue Squad and a past member of the Culpeper Memorial Hospital board of directors and the Virginia YMCA board of directors. He also was a past president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and past secretary of the Orange County Rotary Club.

In 1967, Mr. Cortada received the State Department Superior Honor Award. He also received awards from the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Industrial Development Council of Virginia.

He was a member of St. John's Catholic Church in Orange.

He graduated from Havana Business University in Cuba in the late 1940s.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Shirley Barlow Cortada of Orange; two daughters, Vera C. Winkler of Arlington and Monica C. Ballard of Ellicott City; a son, Dr. James W. Cortada of Madison, Wis.; a sister; and three grandchildren.