Roger LeCompte was just a toddler when his father, an engineer, got a job working in Brazil. His family lived there for two years, and many of his earliest words were in Portuguese. As his mother would recount, when friends would visit, her young son would pretend not to speak any English.
That was first of many times he would seek to blend into another culture. It was a process he enjoyed immensely. As he grew older, he paired it with a passion for public service.
After leaving Brazil, he grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went on to the University of Cincinnati, where he gravitated to politics. He volunteered for the local Charter Party, an independent third party committed to government reform, and he got involved with a student group affiliated with the ACLU that irritated school leadership by bringing controversial speakers to campus.
He majored in geography, and learned Danish during a study-abroad program. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps, just a few years after President John F. Kennedy began the program. He recalls when he first heard of the program: "There was an instant attraction. It was the notion that you would go out in the world and try to do good. I said, 'That is for me.'" He was sent to Cameroon to teach English in 1965. High school, college and Peace Corps training brought him to fluency in French. His first assignment was in Kaele, a small, remote town 500 miles north of the capital city. Getting there involved flying to a regional capital, and then waiting several days to hitchhike a ride another 50 miles with the local doctor. When he finally arrived, the school's leaders had no idea that he was coming. Neither did the provincial director of education, and he was reassigned soon after.
Be flexible: A Peace Corps lesson he learned to carry with him. After the Peace Corps, he moved to Chicago where he found his vocation while working for the national association of Blue Cross plans. He became interested in the social value of insurance, the idea that people could help each other "smooth out the bumps in life" by coming together and sharing risk. In Chicago, he also found an abiding love of sailing, thanks to friends with a boat on Lake Michigan. Together they sailed on weekends and did overnight races, including the three-day race to Mackinac Island when they encountered a 50-year storm and 12-foot waves. A third of the boats dropped out of the race, including theirs. Roger thinks it was his sailing stories that charmed Helen Smits, the woman who would become his wife, the night he met her in Philadelphia. He had moved there to study business and health care management at the Wharton School of Business. She was a doctor teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
For his part, he was drawn to her imaginative mind.
"She is the smartest and most compassionate person I have ever met," he says.
In the summer of 1976, they married. She went to work in the Jimmy Carter administration in Washington D.C., where their son Theo was born. From there, Roger got a job at a hospital in Connecticut.
In the small town of Essex, Roger was drawn back to local politics. He served on the school board and became chairman of a building committee to oversee an addition to an elementary school.
On the New England shoreline, everyone sailed boats. Roger has fond memories of sailing to Newport and Martha's Vineyard, and watching his son learn to sail. Their family enjoyed summer theater and, during winter, escaping from the cold into humid indoor pools to watch Theo's swim meets. Roger became an avid cyclist and took long rides every week and enjoyed charity rides like the three-day AIDS ride from Boston to New York.
"I once joked when Helen and I were talking about planning my funeral, that I wanted my bicycle up there next to my ashes as a symbol of my life and something I loved," he says.
In 2002, to kick off an ambitious retirement, he and Helen moved to Mozambique. Roger was appointed as a Volunteer in Mission by the Episcopal Church to the Portuguese speaking Diocese of Lebombo in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
He and Helen learned Portuguese and Helen taught public health at a university. They became involved in a major initiative, supported by the Clinton Foundation, to roll out antiretroviral drugs throughout the country, one of the hardest hit by the HIV epidemic. Roger became involved with the life of the church and developed deep friendships with the head of the Anglican Church in Mozambique, Bishop Carlos Matsinhe and many of the priests there. The Church was struggling financially and Roger wanted to help. "I asked the bishop, 'What is it we could do, in addition to supporting projects like church and school construction, to make you sleep better at night?'" His answer was "I worry that when one of my priests dies, the Church has no resources to help his family." He recruited his home church, St. John's Episcopal in Essex, to develop a contract with the Church in Mozambique to fund salary and pension reform, in return for a commitment of the Lebombo Diocese to stabilize its finances. It worked. In any kind of work or partnership, Roger says it is important to him to listen carefully and to work with people on their own terms, another Peace Corps ethic. And during his time in Mozambique he says he got a validation that he was succeeding.
After a year-long consulting project with a Methodist church-supported hospital, one hospital official told him. "'I have seen missionaries come and go. You are different: you start where we are," he recalls being told.
"That was one of the nicest things he could have ever said to me." They returned from Mozambique in 2004. These days, Roger and Helen live together in Maryland, close to their son and grandchildren. He recently sold his road bike because of health issues, but he still plays the saxophone, which he took up at age 66, and plays in the Montgomery Village Community Band.