Foreign Service Journal - November 2013 - page 57

Former FSO Makes the Most of Her 105 Years
Talk about active after active
duty—Edna Grenlie, Foreign
Service retiree, AFSA mem-
ber and member of life for
105 years! Now that’s some-
thing, even though billboards
now tell us that 30 percent of
those born today will live to
be 100. Edna is a vital 105.
On Oct.17, I interviewed
Edna at her residence in the
San Francisco Towers, the
lifecare community where
she lives on Pine Street. I also
had the pleasure of present-
ing her with a certificate
confirming her “Honorary
AFSA Member” status, appre-
ciation for her many years of
membership and gratitude
for the generous contribu-
tions she has made to AFSA’s
legislative action fund.
Edna was born in Scan-
dinavia, Wisc., in 1908, the
second of eight children with
sober parents who loved the
outdoors. Everyone Edna
knew spoke Norwegian, as
did she—Wisconsin was like
that back then.
So what has Edna been
doing for the last 105 years?
She made it through junior
college before leaving home
at 19 to find a job in Chicago.
When that didn’t work out,
she returned home and took
a secretarial correspondence
course before landing a job
with the state tax office in
The conversation with
Edna weaved in and out for
more than two hours. She
was fun to interview—good
at remembering the distant
past, but sometimes a little
foggy at the recent present.
In the 1930s, a friend
was moving to Washington,
D.C., so Edna
decided to go
as well. She
ended up with
a job in the
passport office
at the Depart-
ment of State.
Edna’s eyes lit
up when she
said, “I wanted
one of my own,”
referring to a
In 1938,
Edna’s career
in the Foreign Service began
when she asked to go over-
seas as a secretary. She was
offered, but refused, South
Africa (“too far”) and Riga
(“too cold”), but Madrid was
“just right!”
The chronology of Edna’s
assignments went something
like this: Madrid, Mexico City,
Guatemala City, Bergen, Oslo,
Manila, Mexico City, Palermo
and Dublin (with a brief stint
in Cork). She served as vice
consul in Manila and Pal-
ermo, and consul in Dublin.
The fact that she could
remember the posts, not to
mention some of the details,
was amazing. Edna’s obser-
vations during our conversa-
tion revealed just who she is.
She never felt “discriminated
against as a woman” in the
Foreign Service. Only once
was a young male officer
“unpleasant.” After she made
the mistake of saying she
spoke Nor-
wegian,” two
in Norway
followed. “If I
had had a pet
in the Foreign
Service it
would be
a horse.”“I
loved driving
my MGB
along the
hedgerows in
Ireland.” And,
despite never
marrying, “I was never lonely
while in the Foreign Service.”
Edna is keenly aware of
the differences and dangers
the Foreign Service faces
today. She rose through the
ranks, and feels she would
not qualify for the Service
today. Although she served
in Europe during World War
II, she believes the world
is a much more dangerous
place for FSOs today, citing
drug wars and terrorism. And
although her grandniece is
studying at American Univer-
sity, in Washington, D.C., she
doubts she will go into the
So how did a young
woman from rural Wisconsin
leave home to become a
member of the Foreign Ser-
vice? What did her parents
think of her going off into the
world as a single woman?
Her reply was filled with
emotion, “I chose my own
path. My parents were good
to give me so much con-
fidence. My father never
deigned to answer the
phone, except once, and that
was when I was about to
leave D.C. for overseas,” she
recalled tearfully. “I lived in
the best of times. I was very
fortunate. The Foreign Ser-
vice taught me to be adapt-
able and open-minded.”
Edna retired from the
Foreign Service in 1973 at
the age of 60. Since then,
she has traveled the world,
volunteered with the League
of Women Voters and the
International Hospitality
Center, enjoyed opera and
ballet and subscribed to
New Yorker.
Today, she does yoga
twice a week, physical
therapy once a week with a
professional and hopes she
can go down to San Fran-
cisco’s Chrissy Field one day.
She ascribes her longevity to
genes, an occasional glass of
wine and the avoidance of TV
talk shows, “where they just
talk over one another.”
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