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Ambassador with Hempfield ties spreading the joy of running to Turkmenistan

Joe Napsha
| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Patterson
U.S. Ambassador Robert Patterson

Robert E. Patterson Jr. won't make it to the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 5, so he did the next best thing. He had the Pittsburgh Marathon come to him.

Patterson, the son of Robert E. and Joyce Patterson of Hempfield's West Point neighborhood, won't be running the streets of Pittsburgh because he will be in Turkmenistan, where he is the U.S. ambassador to that Central Asian country that borders both Iran and Afghanistan.

Patterson, 60, joined with the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and the Marine Corps Community Services to sponsor the first St. Paddy's Day 8K in a place not normally associated with a St. Patrick's Day celebration – Ashgabat – the capital city of Turkmenistan. The country of 5.1 million people is almost 90 percent Muslim.

“Amateur runs and marathons have become a fixture in the U.S. sports landscape and we're enthused about sharing that aspect of American culture with our friends in Turkmenistan,” Patterson said in a statement. “This 8K (5 miles) is a great example of the potential sports has to bring people together.”

Just like the Pittsburgh Marathon features street festivals along its route, the event in Ashgabat featured music, food, company and friendly athletic competition. The race attracted about 150 runners. Runners and spectators in the Pittsburgh Marathon will be able to see footage of the “St. Paddy's Day 8K” on marathon race day.

Patterson is one of the highest-ranking U.S. government officials to participate in a satellite run in a partnership with a U.S. road race, according to the Pittsburgh Marathon.

“It was probably the first international event that had been staged there in years,” said Robert Powers, the official announcer of the marathon.

Powers was one of the leaders of the Ashgabat event in his capacity as the founder of the American 300 Foundation, a nonprofit which sponsors activities aimed at motivating and honoring those serving in the armed forces, their families and the communities where they live and are stationed.

Powers praised Patterson's leadership in getting the embassy to support the event.

“The guy is a leader. He is an Olympic gold medal standard, from his personal style of leadership to his staff,” said Powers, whose organization is based in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Career officer

Patterson is a career foreign service officer.

After Patterson graduated from Fairview, which is 10 miles west of Erie, the family moved to Hempfield, said the elder Robert Patterson.

Patterson was working at the Elliott Co. in Jeannette after graduating from Reed College in Portland, Ore., when he decided to join the Air Force, said Joyce Patterson.

Patterson served in the U.S. Air Force from 1974 to 1978, which he said sparked his interest in how others lived.

“Two years of my service time were spent in West Berlin, my first time outside the United States, and I found it fascinating. I also was interested in using the Russian I had acquired while in the military in the Soviet Union itself. A career in the foreign service seemed one way to do that,” Patterson said.

He went on to earn master's degrees from Columbia University in New York City and the U.S. Naval College in Newport, R.I.

Patterson began his career as a foreign service officer in 1985 and it has taken him around the world. Prior to coming to Turkmenistan, Patterson was counselor for Somalia affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. He also was chief of the political and internal office in Moscow and has headed the political sections at embassies in Hungary, Ukraine and Armenia.

Patterson speaks Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and German.

“He's got an ear for languages,” his father said.

President Barack Obama nominated Patterson for the ambassadorship in March 2011 and he was sworn in on April 26. He arrived in the country in May 2011. The ambassador said he did not request an assignment to Turkmenistan, but is delighted to be in the country, which was a republic in the Soviet Union until that country broke apart in 1991.

“The work is rewarding and I am lucky to work with very talented colleagues in the embassy,” Patterson said. ““I hope to remain here for at least one more year.”

Seeing Patterson on the job, marathon announcer Powers said, “Ambassador Patterson is working so hard to strengthen the lines of communication and the lines of relationships” in Turkmenistan.

Despite being a small country that is overshadowed in the news by neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, Patterson said that Turkmenistan is important to the United States.

“Turkmenistan is home to the world's largest, onshore deposit of natural gas. Because it is attempting to use some of the money generated from the sale of natural gas and oil to build infrastructure and energy links, that could help stabilize the Central Asian region,” Patterson said.

He maintains a long-distance commuter marriage. His wife, Inmi Patterson, is a career foreign service officer who is the U.S. consul general in Hamburg, Germany. Inmi Patterson has worked in the State Department public affairs offices in Japan, China and Kenya and did a stint in the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Robert Patterson said his son was able to come to the United States for a brief family gathering over the Easter holiday in Washington, D.C.

“He's had a very checkered life,” Robert Patterson said of his son.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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