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Captivated by current events

Art Lowrie is sure to catch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer every day. He tapes Nightline and the daily BBC report every evening. And most importantly, he thoroughly reads the New York Times.

Such is the life of a man who spent 50 years as a student of, and often a participant in, the politics of the Middle East. Now 71 and retired in Lake Forest, Lowrie has little desire for his former globe-trotting days as an American diplomat. But he's enthralled as the world media spotlight sweeps across his old posts.

In 1972, when the Iraqis decided to readmit Americans, Lowrie was the first U.S. official in Baghdad.

After Egyptian president Anwar Sadat stunned the world in 1977 by broaching peace with Israel, most of Congress visited the Middle East, and Lowrie helped brief them from the embassy in Cairo.

And as Central Command was created in 1983 to oversee America's military in the Middle East, Lowrie was brought to Tampa from Brussels to advise CENTCOM about Middle Eastern politics.

"It was like somebody designed my career to fill that job," he said.

A native Pennsylvanian, Lowrie expected the assignment to MacDill Air Force Base to be just another posting until he met Pat Lessard through a tennis outing.

Lowrie was divorced. Nine years younger, Lessard was the widow of a diplomat. She had lived in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We started playing tennis, and next thing you know, I'm staying in Tampa," he said.

Three decades before, Lowrie had stumbled into foreign affairs somewhat accidentally. As a radio operator with the Air Force in Libya, the young Lowrie was learning Italian at a night school on base. But he arrived one night to find the course canceled. So Lowrie walked into a class on international relations, taught by a captain from Greece.

"I just got totally captivated," he said.

After the Air Force, Lowrie finished college, studied in Europe and passed the foreign service exam in 1956. That launched a career of assignments in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, New York, Belgium and, finally, Tampa.

A daughter was born in Gazinatep, Turkey, another in Washington, D.C. A son was born in Beirut. The children attended boarding schools in America, and spents summers with the Lowries.

It was a charmed life of nice homes in exotic cities, with diplomatic immunity. "You were privileged," he said.

After retiring in Tampa in 1986, Lowrie taught international studies at the University of South Florida. He remains a guest lecturer there, and is vice chairman of the school's Committee for Middle Eastern Studies.

Lowrie sees the revolution of Islamic fundamentalism as a response to economic stagnation in Arab nations, America's "military protectorate" in the region and our country's role in Israel's policing of Palestinians.

"We've given Israel $90-billion. We've provided them all those arms that they use to kill Palestinians," he said. "Israel's policies are basically those of a colonial power."

Lowrie is a leading defender of Sami Al-Arian, the USF engineering professor and an outspoken leader of local Muslims, who the university is trying to fire as a security risk. Lowrie said Al-Arian's activities at USF have been intellectual and scholarly.

But Lowrie has branched into other interests in retirement. He spends 8-10 hours a week as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children who have been removed from their homes.

He's become a student of the famous muckraking author, Ida Tarbell, a fellow graduate of Pennsylvania's Allegheny College. He took a lead in persuading the U.S. Postal Service to recognize her with a commemorative stamp. It's due in September.

He has two shelves of books about the New York Times, the nation's leading newspaper, particularly in foreign affairs coverage. That's in addition to Lowrie's daily subscription.

"If I don't read the New York Times every day, my day's not complete," he said.

_ Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com.

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