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Richard S. Williamson, 64, former presidential aide, U.S. Senate candidate, dies

Rich Williams1999.. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman File)

Rich Williamson in 1999.. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: January 11, 2014 6:31AM

Rich Williamson’s career stretched from being a top foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to taking on Carol Moseley Braun before a historic tidal wave swept her into the U.S. Senate as its first African-American female in 1992.

He served in three presidential administrations and as an ambassador to the United Nations who worked to prevent human rights abuses and promote democratic elections in hot spots around the globe.

Closer to his Kenilworth home, he was Republican National Committeeman for Illinois. From 1999 to 2001, he also chaired the Illinois Republican party.

Richard S. Williamson died at Evanston Hospital Sunday of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage, said family friend Alan Holmer. Mr. Williamson was 64.

Calling him “a dear friend,” Romney said Mr. Williamson was “instrumental” in shaping his foreign policy.

“Time and again, Rich put aside the fruits of lucrative private practice to answer the call to serve our country,” Romney said. “His was a consistent call to strengthen our alliances, to face down tyranny, and to share the promise of freedom around the globe.”

Former President George W. Bush tapped Mr. Williamson to be a special envoy for Sudan in 2007, to help stop killing in the Darfur region. At the time of his death, he was working with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the prevention of future genocides. In a report they issued last July they concluded, “Sixty-eight years after the Holocaust, governments continue to struggle with how to prevent genocide and mass atrocities.”

“Rich said in July at the Holocaust Museum that, ‘What has made the United States different is not only that it was founded on a belief in human rights, but in the last 100 years we have allowed it to animate our foreign policy,’” Albright said.

“As the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for Peacekeeping and President Bush’s Special Envoy to Sudan, he said he was continually shocked about the capacity of man’s inhumanity. Instead of resigning himself to accepting that brutal truth, he traveled through Sudan, Darfur, Chad and Congo, where he met with countless refugees and sought ways to overcome injustice.”

Mr. Williamson also advised the 2008 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain said he “made an enormous difference in the lives of people around the world.”

“Rich served three presidents in high-level positions, in the White House, State Department and United Nations. He served with strength, perseverance and compassion as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs under President Ronald Reagan, and as Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs,” McCain said. “He later used his extensive foreign policy knowledge, diplomatic skills and temperament, and negotiating experience in several posts at the United Nations — appointed by President George W. Bush as Ambassador to the U.N. for Special Political Affairs and Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.”

In addition to his work in Sudan, his efforts helped Ethiopian refugees and Sierra Leone abuse victims, McCain said.

Mr. Williamson also served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Born in Evanston to Marian and Donald Williamson, a businessman, Mr. Williamson attended New Trier High School and graduated cum laude from Princeton University, where he played varsity football and was president of his senior class.

“When he arrived his freshman year, he was the quarterback on the football team,” his friend Holmer said. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia.

After a mid-1980s posting in Vienna in the Reagan administration, Mr. Williamson returned to the Midwest for an executive position at Beatrice Foods. He was delighted to raise his family in Illinois, Holmer said, “to be able to ride bicycles to school, and church and Lake Michigan.”

He met his future wife, the former Jane Thatcher of Hinsdale, on a plane as he was returning home from Princeton and she was returning from Wellesley.

He lived in a home filled with thousands of books and mementos of his travels, including baskets, sculptures and masks produced by refugees. There were photos of his family in Dubai, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Croatia.

The Williamsons also had a home in Saugatuck, Mich.

Mr. Williamson kept a hand in foreign policy throughout his career and was a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“Rich cared deeply about human rights and democracy around the world, and the importance of strong international institutions to help foster conditions for both,” said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Rich had great plans for ways to enhance the foreign policy dialogue, both here in Chicago and nationally. He will be sorely missed.”

Mr. Williamson tried his hand at electoral politics, running for the U.S. Senate in 1992. Braun, the Democratic Cook County recorder of deeds, beat him 53 percent to 43 percent.

Mr. Williamson had a happy night on Nov. 2 at Cafe Brauer at Lincoln Park Zoo, attending the Chicago wedding of his son, Ricky.

“I have never seen Rich happier, especially at the rehearsal dinner the night before. He was on the top of his game and on top of the world,” Holmer said.

Former Gov. Jim Thompson said Mr. Williamson was one of the smartest people he ever met, with “such a wide range of interests — politics, yes, but diplomacy, problem-solving and the trust of three presidents,” Thompson said. “I mean, that’s extraordinary. He knew everybody in the world.”

He was never afraid to go to the world’s danger zones, said Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, which promotes global democracy. “He would come out on [election] observations with us on the most rough assignments — Afghanistan, South Sudan, Liberia,” he said. “Whenever I had a tough country to go to and needed a prominent board member to come, I knew Rich would come.”

He didn’t carry much on his travels, but “what he always had was 10 pounds of books,” Craner said. He preferred yellow legal pads to a laptop, he said.

Mr. Williamson also worked as a partner at the law firms of Winston & Strawn and Mayer Brown, taught foreign policy at Northwestern University, and wrote books on foreign policy.

“Our nation and our state and the Republican party lost a good friend,” said Pat Dorgan, Illinois GOP chairman.

In addition to his wife and son Ricky, Mr. Williamson is survived by his other children, Elizabeth Graham and Craig Williamson; his sister, Barb Wentz; his brother, Bruce, and one grandchild, Cora Jane.

“Rich loved video-conferencing with Cora Jane,” Holmer said. “He would do anything to make her giggle, including putting a pumpkin hat on his head.”

Visitation is 3 to 7 p.m. Friday at Scott Funeral Home, 1100 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette. Services are at 2 p.m. Saturday at Kenilworth Union Church, 211 Kenilworth Ave., Kenilworth.

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