Nancy McEldowney grew up among sand dunes and sea oats, during a time when there were more pelicans than people on Clearwater Beach.
She would gaze out at endless seas and skies and think, "There's a big world out there, and I want to see it."
On Friday, the 1976 Clearwater High School graduate was sworn in as the new ambassador to Bulgaria, replacing John Beyrle.
The appointment culminates a diplomatic career with the U.S. State Department.
McEldowney, 49, has met with heads of state around the globe and has studied several languages, including Arabic and Azerbaijani, a tongue spoken in the republic of Azerbaijan, once part of the former Soviet Union.
Her new title means she possesses full powers to represent the U.S. on security, political, economic and cultural issues in the small, but critically important, Central European country.
"Bulgaria is a NATO ally, a democracy with a free-market economy, a member of the European Union, and a friend of the United States," she said during a phone interview from her Washington, D.C., apartment. "They are strategically located in the crossroads area of the European continent. They are a partner for us in trade and commerce, energy supplies, and in the fight against international terrorism and international crime.
"My goal is to deepen and strengthen that partnership across the board," she said.
President George Bush appointed her to the position in January. She was confirmed during a U.S. Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, in April.
In a couple of weeks, she'll leave for Bulgaria. Accompanying her will be her husband, Tim Hayes, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who flew F-5 and F-15 aircraft, and their daughters Jessica, 7, and Alyssa, 2.
The Balkan country with a four-season climate is "one of the most beautiful in that part of Europe," McEldowney said. "It has beautiful mountains and gorgeous beaches along the Black Sea."
She'll be surrounded by reminders of her native Florida, too.
As part of the State Department's ART in Embassies Program, a dozen Florida artists have loaned paintings of the Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes and such to be placed in the public rooms of her Bulgarian residence in Sofia, the nation's capital.
"I want to share the natural beauty of Florida with the people of Bulgaria," McEldowney said.
Her mother, Patsy Schamber, 79, of Clearwater Beach, went to Washington to witness her daughter being sworn in by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
"I'm extremely proud of her and not at all surprised," Schamber said.
"Nancy always wanted to do something that would make a real impact on the world."
While McEldowney was in high school, the mother and daughter often volunteered together, working with autistic children and hospice patients. McEldowney said the experiences helped her develop compassion for others.
She received her associate's degree from St. Petersburg College and then went on to New College in Sarasota, where she delved into subjects like philosophy and theology.
"I just wanted to understand how ideas had shaped the world," she said.
There, her Latin professor, a former British diplomat, touted diplomacy as a "wonderful career."
She received advanced degrees from Columbia University and the National Defense University. While at Columbia, she studied Russian affairs at the Harriman Institute. She interned with the United Nations and ended up working with the State Department.
One of her fondest memories is of being part of the 1986 delegation that accompanied President Ronald Reagan to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he met with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss reducing nuclear missiles in Europe .
In 1988, she once again provided presidential support during the historic summit meeting in Moscow between the two world leaders.
She said she was honored to be a part of the negotiations that ultimately ended the Cold War.
"It made me realize you really can affect positive change in the world," she said.
Before her appointment to Bulgaria, McEldowney served as the deputy chief of mission in Ankara, Turkey; worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon; and was director of European Affairs on the National Security Council at the White House.
Other overseas posts include stints in Baku, Azerbaijan; Bonn, Germany; and Cairo.
Though diplomatic careers can be quite demanding, there are perks.
McEldowney remembered the times in Egypt when she rode Arabian horses across the Sinai Desert and around the pyramids.
"What's most wonderful is that I get to do fascinating and fun things while serving my country," she said.
Correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@ tampabay.rr.com.