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A place in the Obama world

Between the Lines



Vinai Thummalapally thought he had a busy life, heading a global manufacturer of CDs and DVDs based in Colorado Springs.

Then his former college roommate became the leader of the free world.

So what happens to a highly successful businessman who, despite no high-level political experience, is so connected that President Barack Obama always asks about his children by name?

In Thummalapally's case, looking for a late-career challenge at 54, you express an interest in government work — and you're appointed ambassador to Belize, a tropical haven on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Thummalapally leaves in mid-August for a month of training, and then he and wife Barbara will move to Belize's tiny capital of Belmopan, with about 16,400 residents.

"It's a phenomenal job," Thummalapally says from Chicago, wrapping up another of many business trips before leaving his current position. "There's a lot to learn, going to another part of the world in a completely new line of work."

Thummalapally, who brought his family to Colorado Springs in 1996, has never been to Belize, but he's fast becoming an expert. It borders the southeast edge of Mexico, not far from Cancún and Cozumel. Belize, a former British colony about the size of New Jersey, has only 308,000 people and a tiny military serving security purposes. American tourists are discovering it more and more, but Belize still is a fairly well-kept secret.

What would the U.S. ambassador to Belize do? Aside from attending ceremonial functions and making speeches (in English, Belize's official language), helping American visitors and keeping Washington informed, Thummalapally will work on regional matters with two groups of fellow ambassadors, from Central America and the Caribbean. He'll share in helping Belize deal with international issues, such as growing concern about drug trafficking after crackdowns in Mexico.

As head of the embassy, in a compound where he'll live, Thummalapally will oversee local Peace Corps operations, military liaisons and help with hurricane preparations — though Belize has endured only seven direct hits in 48 years.

It all sounds fascinating. In some ways, perhaps it reminds Thummalapally of his last move from California's Orange County to Colorado Springs. He didn't know much about this place.

"We were coming from one of the best school districts in the country," Thummalapally says, "and we almost placed our kids in private school. But we decided to put them in District 20, and it's been tremendous. [Their son and daughter are International Baccalaureate graduates of Rampart High School.] And we saw great leadership here, with initiative and hustle. My company came here from Japan, and they made us feel like we were wanted, that we would be appreciated."

Over the years, despite building many friendships — "My best friends are Republicans," he says — Thummalapally has developed some sobering views of Colorado Springs as a whole.

"I'm just amazed at this disdain for anything to do with public services and improving the infrastructure," he says. "They don't want to spend for anything. You go to comparable cities around the country, and there's something happening there that Colorado Springs is missing, even though this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's like we're in this little shell, and we're unwilling to open it or go outside and see what we look like."

Still, he and his wife love the Springs enough that they can't decide whether to sell their home here. For now, though, Thummalapally is psyched about becoming America's first Indian-American ambassador. And yes, he'll have an easier time than other diplomats talking to the president. After all, he and Obama have been buddies since rooming together 30 years ago at Occidental College in California, and they're close enough that they've seen each other nine times in the past 18 months. Thummalapally, who worked hard for the local Obama campaign, even had some personal time with the new president after his inauguration.

"No matter how busy he is, he always has time to talk, and I'm told that he has found relief and relaxation in his old friends," Thummalapally says. "But never, in any conversation with him, did he ever say he was considering me for a position in government. Never."

Combine his campaigning and fund-raising with that friendship, though, and it's easy to see how Vinai Thummalapally's diplomatic career might have a future.

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