Posted: Monday May 7, 2012
May 7, 2012
When Dan Piccuta, C’77, was a freshman at Saint Vincent College, Asian history professor Roy Mills got him hooked on China. Now, more than four decades later, Mr. Piccuta has retired from an impressive career as a U.S. State Department Foreign Policy Advisor where he worked alongside Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, Tim Geithner and a host of other top-level officials in his post as second in command at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China.
“On the 30th anniversary of relations between the United States and China, we organized a celebration in Beijing,” Mr. Piccuta related on a recent visit to campus. “Henry Kissinger came as well as five former U.S. ambassadors, and I found myself standing among all of these notable figures. On another occasion, when Secretary of State Clinton had her first formal meetings with Chinese leaders I found myself as Charge’ d’Affaires sitting in-between Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, Chris Hill.” Later, on assignment to the four-star Admiral in command of all U.S. military in Asia, I advised him on foreign policy and on engagements in Asian capitals and Washington.
This exciting high-level career in government service was only a dream when Mr. Piccuta returned to Saint Vincent in 1976 after a year studying and traveling in Taiwan and China, the first Saint Vincent student to study Chinese abroad. “Saint Vincent opened my eyes, my mind, my curiosity to Asia and to China,” Mr. Piccuta recalled. “Saint Vincent gave me the freedom to explore, allowing me to go to China and study Chinese.”
“Imagine what it was like back in the 70s,” Mr. Piccuta said. “Few Americans knew much about modern China. The U.S. had virtually no trade with China. It wouldn’t be fair to say that I left Saint Vincent knowing exactly what I wanted to do. But I knew I was going to do something working between the U.S. and China.”
The late Mr. Mills was a longtime teacher of Oriental history who was very popular with his students. He frequently spent hours playing cards amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke with students in the Shack snack bar. “I was drawn to Mr. Mills because he made the material so fascinating,” Mr. Piccuta explained. “I was looking for something different. He made China accessible and fun. I remember one essay exam he gave with a single question: A Confucian scholar, a Taoist scholar and a Buddhist scholar are having a conversation. What are they saying?”
Mr. Piccuta said that it always meant a lot to him that the Benedictine monks were responsible for his education. “You can’t think about the Benedictines without thinking about carrying knowledge through the darkest period,” Mr. Piccuta advised. “The Benedictine tradition is not a 100 or 200 year old tradition but an ancient approach that I felt a part of. Frankly, as a Benedictine it must be instilled in you that you are a cell in an organism that has been living for a thousand years and that it is your responsibility to ensure that students respect learning.”
One of Mr. Piccuta’s first assignments was in Beijing as staff assistant to U.S. Ambassador James R. Lilley. “He was George H. W. Bush’s first ambassador,” Mr. Piccuta noted. “I remember when Jimmy Carter came to speak to us and I happened to be standing next to him. Ambassador Lilley told someone to take my picture with the former President, and he said to me “stay in China and everybody will come to you.” Later, in China I met then First Lady Hillary Clinton, former President Nixon twice, Henry Kissinger of course, and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Condoleezza Rice, the list is endless. So, having chosen China as the place to be, the high points came to me. I think I was very lucky.”
In 1993, Mr. Piccuta was again assigned to Beijing to be in charge of Embassy services to American citizens handling nationality problems, passports, and arrests. “Here I was a lawyer, having studied law in China, and I found myself responsible for where the law and American citizens intersected,” Mr. Piccuta explained. “I had that job for three exciting years. During that time Harry Wu, a well-known activist and dissident, got arrested in China. I was the person who attended his trial, the first foreign Diplomat ever to attend a Chinese ‘State’s secret’ trial, and I reported on it by telegram to Secretary of State Christopher who passed my report on to President Clinton. That same summer, First Lady Hillary Clinton came to China along with 10,000 other American women attending the UN Women’s Conference; all while I happened to be there handling Americans. When I went back for my third assignment in Beijing in 2007, as Deputy Chief of Mission, China was preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. So a year later there I was at the Olympics Opening Ceremony with 80 heads of state including President Bush and, when the father-in-law of the U.S. volleyball coach was murdered by a mentally unstable vagrant during Olympics opening weekend, I found myself dealing frantically once again between China and White House colleagues.” After the Olympics, we completed construction of our new embassy in Beijing and moved our 1,000 employees into the 2nd biggest and most expensive U.S. Embassy ever built overseas. I took advantage of my position and chose to name the Embassy’s public conference rooms after three pioneers of U.S. relations with modern China: Nixon, Kissinger and Carter. Over the years I had met them all; what an honor. I will never forget how touched Dr. Kissinger was when we showed him the conference room we’d named for him.
His biggest challenge in government service? “I specialized first by accident and then by design in helping some important politically-appointed ambassadors manage their embassies,” he said. “By going in as number two, and helping them carry out their vision, that is a great challenge but one which I enjoyed. The work is never finished.”
Responding to several questions from students, he told them not to be afraid to take a risk. “The traditional paths are still a wise choice but take at least some risks that your mentors think are worth it,” he advised. At the age of 56, he formally retired from the State Department’s Foreign Service and has to answer the question, what will he do now? “I’m really excited that the State Department invited me back to assist the White House with the Chicago 2012 NATO Summit that President Obama will host in May,” he said. “I am also occasionally invited to teach as adjunct faculty of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, part of the Defense Department in Hawaii. The Pacific Command has also asked me to be ready to assist in future military training exercises involving foreign affairs scenarios.”
The Center for Political and Economic Thought at Saint Vincent College, in cooperation with the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government, recently presented a lecture by Mr. Piccuta as the seventh in the Center's 2011-2012 Government and Political Education Series. His remarks were entitled “The USA and China: Powers, Rivals, Partners.”
Mr. Piccuta’s reaction when he first saw the updated Saint Vincent campus was “it’s just astounding. I’ve had a sense through the years that Saint Vincent has not stagnated. But, I didn’t realize how broadly and deeply Saint Vincent has expanded academically and physically. I hope Saint Vincent will continue to take advantage of the almost limitless possibilities offered by the expansion of Chinese business and culture. The future of the United States is intimately tied with China. The more people from the United States who know China the better and why not people from western Pennsylvania? The more Saint Vincent can bring Chinese students here the better; and vice versa.”
A member of the State Department’s Senior Foreign Service (Minister Counselor/Senior Executive Service rank), Mr. Piccuta served three times in the Department’s Executive Secretariat. His foreign postings included Luxembourg, Milan, Belgrade and multiple tours in China (Beijing and Guangzhou).
In private law practice in Los Angeles prior to entering the Foreign Service in 1986, he handled corporate, investment and commercial matters for foreign and domestic clients and was vice president and assistant counsel at Standard Chartered Bank’s California subsidiary, Union Bank.
He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Saint Vincent College and a juris doctorate from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. He completed further studies in Chinese language and law at East China College of Law in Shanghai and at Fu Jen and Soochow Universities in Taiwan. He speaks Chinese and Italian and is proficient in French, Spanish and Serbian.
Mr. Piccuta, a native of New Castle (Lawrence County), and his wife, Christina Bezaire Piccuta, live in Kona, Hawaii. They have a daughter, Erin, in Oakland. His parents Dan Sr. and Jennie Piccuta reside in New Castle, PA; Jennie is a Seton Hill alumna.
Photo 1: Dan Piccuta accompanies Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down the stairs in the Chinese leadership compound in Zhongnanhai, near Tiananmen Square, following her meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Mr. Piccuta was in charge of the Embassy as Charge d’Affaires and was the senior United States diplomat in China responsible for arranging her visit in February 2009.
Photo 2: Dan Piccuta, center, poses with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, left, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing on the 30th anniversary of the formal opening of U.S.-China relations in January 2009.
Photo 3: Daniel W. Piccuta