Celebration of life set for former ambassador who retired to Sarasota

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To Ronald Gault, his friend – the late Jim Joseph – was a man for all seasons, with an uncanny ability to engage in debate on a broad range of ideas and react to them almost with an emotional detachment, often underscored by a deep voice and a minister's sense of cadence.

Gault’s more than 50-year friendship with the man best known as Ambassador James Alfred Joseph – though he preferred Jim – spanned parallel careers in philanthropy, government service and an involvement with the reconstruction of South Africa after the end of apartheid.

“What I found, as we worked together, I didn’t find any flaws in him,” Gault said “What he said was what he tried to be and what he tried to be was what he believed in.

“I thought that was very important and that covers 50 years of a lifetime that we’ve known one another.”

Joseph, 87, a Civil Rights activist and former ambassador to South Africa in the Clinton Administration, died surrounded by family in Sarasota on Feb. 17.

He will be remembered both at an April 26 celebration of his life hosted at the Washington National Cathedral and a private May 3 service hosted by his wife Mary Braxton-Joseph at their residence in the Sarasota Bay Club.

The Washington service will be webcast live on YouTube at 11 a.m. and can be seen on this link: https://bit.ly/3n67uWH.

Donations in Joseph's memory can be made to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

The program for the service “In Celebration of and in Thanksgiving for the Life of James Alfred Joseph” includes what Braxton-Joseph considered a defining quote from her husband: “It is now well documented that what makes a nation a cohesive community is the ability of its citizens to transport the laissez-faire notion of live and let live into the moral imperative of live and help live.”

Joseph served in either senior executive or advisory positions for four U.S. presidents, including Under Secretary of the Department of the Interior for President Jimmy Carter and as the Ambassador to South Africa from January 1996 to November 1999 and was the only U.S. ambassador to present credentials to South African President Nelson Mandela.

He was awarded the Order of Good Hope by the Republic of South Africa in 1999 – the highest honor given to a citizen of another country.

Braxton-Joseph said Monday that the service at Washington Cathedral was set based on the cathedral’s availability, then joked that it may not have been a great idea to schedule the local gathering less than a week later, adding, “But we’ll get through it.”

That compressed timeline mirrored the schedule of their wedding day and his ambassadorship.

Joseph, who lost his wife of 33 years, Doris Taylor Joseph, in 1992, married Braxton in 1996.

Joseph had been working as president and CEO of the Council of Foundations in Washington, D.C., and Braxton-Joseph had been working on media relations for the council.

At first they dated quietly but became more public after Joseph received his ambassadorship.

“We decided at that point that we would get married,” Braxton-Joseph recalled. “We got married one day, he got sworn in the next day and the next week we were on a plane to South Africa.”

“I don’t recommend doing events like that so closely together,” she added, especially since all sides of the family had not yet met, but that schedule allowed them to celebrate two joyous occasions together.

From a segregated beginning to purposeful philanthropy

Born on March 12, 1935 on a family farm in Plaisance, Louisiana, Joseph spent much of his youth in nearby Opelousas – a KKK stronghold.

Joseph graduated from Southern University in 1956 and Yale University Divinity School in 1963.

An Army veteran, Joseph was commissioned as a first lieutenant after completing ROTC training in a non-combatant unit at Yale.

He taught at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and co-founded the local Civil Rights movement, leading marches and protests, receiving death threats from the KKK and working alongside leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., former U.N Ambassador Andrew Young and former Congressman John Lewis.

Braxton-Joseph noted her husband often liked to quote theologian Howard Thurman, a mentor to King, who often said, “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”

He served as vice president of the Cummins Engine Company and president of the Cummins Foundation from 1971 to 1977, helping to shape the future of charitable giving.

That’s also when he first met Gault, who left the Justice Department in 1969 to work at the Ford Foundation.

“That was a very worthwhile growing and nurturing experience on both of our parts,” he said. “We were making grants to organizations and issues that we thought would have a substantial impact on our lives as well as the country and that was rewarding.”

The two went on to help found the Association of Black Foundation Executives.

“Back in our foundation days, Jim really kind of spearheaded an effort in the foundation world to bring more racial equity to the world of philanthropy,” Gault recalled.

From 1982 to 1995, Joseph served as president and CEO of the Council of Foundations, an international organization of more than 2,000 foundations and corporate giving programs.

Their paths would cross again in South Africa, once Joseph became ambassador – two years after Gault joined J.P. Morgan and moved to Johannesburg, where he became CEO of business development and client relations and started a leadership program geared toward developing up-and-coming investment bankers.

Introduction to Sarasota

After Joseph’s tenure as an ambassador was up, the couple split their time between Cape Town and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as he became Leader in Residence of the Hart Leadership Program and founder of the United States-Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke and the University of Cape Town.

The emerging leadership program was designed to identify and mentor significant leaders.

Braxton-Joseph noted that both Thabo Cecil Makgoba, the South African Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter are among the notable graduates.

The Josephs came to Sarasota in December 2008, after Debra Jacobs, who was then president and CEO of the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, invited him to be a guest speaker for a Selby Scholars program.

Jacobs had known Joseph through his role with the Council of Foundations and considered him to be the “epitome of leadership in philanthropic circles.”

“I never hesitated to go for the gold,” recalled Jacobs, now president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation who asked Joseph to speak.

Meanwhile Jacobs arranged for them to stay at the Hotel Indigo and they made sure they got to see the best of Sarasota.

Like Gault, Jacobs took note of Joseph’s deep, resonant voice – at least two octaves lower than most − saying, "When Ambassador Joseph talked, you wanted to listen to him.”

“He talked in a way that he was planting ideas,” she added. “He always was cultivating what was possible.”

Jacobs introduced Joseph to Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, who asked Joseph to return two years later.

The return visit reinforced their earlier feelings about Sarasota as a destination should they sell their home in Cape Town.

“It was something about the civic energy, the people we met, the incredible arts community,” Braxton-Joseph said.

By 2012 – the same year Gault and his wife Charlayne Hunter-Gault bought a Sarasota home – the Josephs became snowbirds.

By 2018, they became full-time residents.

Though Joseph never served in an official capacity with the Community Foundation Jerde said she often sought his advice.

“There was so much I could glean from him,” Jerde said.

“He really understood for social change to happen, philanthropy can be a catalyst but it also is working collaboratively – not only with other foundations but government and business,” she added. “He had a really good sense about how you really move things forward, as far as social change goes.”

While serving as Undersecretary of the Department of Interior with the Carter administration, Joseph survived a plane crash in the Pacific. That became the catalyst for one of his four books, “Saved for a Purpose,” which Jacobs equated with his drive.

“He created global nonprofit organizations around the values of making sure every human’s voice had respect and that we were willing to think forward as a society,” Jacobs said.

“He got another chance to live and he wanted to make sure he was always purposeful,” she later added. “His life put him in places where he could have an impact but always with authenticity, humility and drive.”

Information from the Washington Post, Sarasota Magazine, the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and https://www.jamesajoseph.info was used in this report.

See this story as it originally appeared in Sarasota Herald-Tribune on April 24, 2023, here.