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Alumnus John Kordek, former ambassador and associate vice president for external relations, dies at 82


John Kordek
After 26 years as an American diplomat, John Kordek returned to his alma mater to serve as associate vice president for external relations from 1991 until his retirement in 2004. (DePaul University Archives)
​​John Kordek never would have applied to the Foreign Service if it were not for the encouragement of a DePaul professor. Kordek took the Foreign Service exam his junior year at the urging of the late Richard Houk, professor emeritus and founder of DePaul's geography department. The U.S. Foreign Service recruited him during his senior year. Nearly 25 years later, Kordek became U.S. ambassador to the African Republic of Botswana.

A distinguished American diplomat and veteran who later returned to his alma mater to serve as associate vice president of external relations, Kordek died on Feb. 16 at home with his wife of 56 years by his side. He was 82.

Kordek's journey at DePaul started as an undergraduate student. He enrolled after serving in the Strategic Air Command 818th Air Division of the 8th U.S. Air Force for four years. In 1964, he graduated with a bachelor's in geography and immediately joined the Foreign Service. He spent 26 years in the U.S. diplomatic corps, working in Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Belgium, Botswana, Italy and Venezuela. President Ronald Reagan nominated him to serve as U.S. ambassador to Botswana in 1988.  

During his Foreign Service career, he was nominated for diplomatic positions by every American president, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bill Clinton. 

Upon his retirement from the State Department, Kordek returned to DePaul as its associate vice president for external relations in 1991. He served under former university presidents, the Rev. John P. Minogue, C.M., and the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

“John was a great blessing to DePaul," Father Holtschneider says. “Many of DePaul's international programs abroad and key international relationships were established with John's assistance. He had a certain greatness of soul that always put people at ease, even as they entered into difficult and challenging conversations."

During his tenure at DePaul, Kordek taught courses on World War II and the Holocaust. He also directed a Law School program on “Memory and Conscience." In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Kordek to serve two five-year terms on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C., which oversees the operations of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Kordek retired from DePaul in 2004. He is a recipient of the Via Sapientiae Award, the university's highest honor. Throughout his life, he remained an active community member. He served on many boards, including the Illinois Humanities Council, the International Human Rights Law Institute and the Chicago International Visitors Center. He chaired the Chicago-Warsaw Sister Cities program and was co-chair of the National Polish American-Jewish American National Council. In 2019, he shared his life experience with eighth graders at Thomas Middle School as part of its Oral History Day program.

“John dedicated his life to promoting the value of dignity and respect for all people," says A. Gabriel Esteban, president of DePaul. “He exemplified DePaul's Vincentian mission to serve the public good, and his legacy will remain an inspiration to us all."

Kordek also is a graduate of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He is survived by his wife, Alice; son Andrew (Elizabeth) Kordek; daughter Catherine (Lynn) Stover; grandchildren Joshua Kordek, Henry Stover and Will Stover; brother Phillip (Theresa) Kordek and sister Judy (Chester) Pasowicz. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be given to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital​.

Read the Chicago Tribune obituary.​