|When Pamela Ahearn was entrusted to fly across the country to Los Angeles carrying millions of
dollars worth of jewelry belonging to Elizabeth Taylor, then the wife of US Senator John Warner, Mrs. Ahearn
dressed plainly for fear of attracting the attention of thieves. She was picked up in a small vehicle equipped
with flashing lights and sirens. That may have been the most unusual assignment Mrs. Ahearn had in her
years as protocol officer for the State Department and the House of Representatives, but her career was
not lacking for drama.
Mrs. Ahearn, whose duties ranged from organizing state dinners for visiting dignitaries and making funeral
arrangements when sitting members of Congress died to announcing the arrival of the diplomatic corps at
State of the Union addresses, died of an apparent heart attack March 26 at her home in Alexandria, Va.
She was 52. Mrs. Ahearn and her husband, Frederick L., began spending time in West Falmouth in 1977
and soon established a home there, splitting their time between Cape Cod and Washington. Her husband's
father, the late Francis X. Ahearn, was president of the Boston
City Council in the 1950s.
Known for her flawless choreography of diplomatic gatherings, Mrs. Ahearn was tapped by President Reagan
and his wife to accompany them to the former Soviet Union in 1988 to oversee arrangements for a state
dinner they hosted for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the US ambassador's residence. It required both
advance planning and attention to minute cultural differences, friends said, but the evening went off without
a hitch. Nancy Reagan was particularly grateful. "When my husband and I traveled to Moscow for the Summit,
it was very important that everything went smoothly," she said in a statement yesterday. "In spite of the
challenges of hosting an American State Dinner in a foreign country, Pam provided all the special touches
that made our dinner at Spaso House so memorable."
Condolences poured in over the past week, as word of Mrs. Ahearn's sudden death spread through diplomatic
ranks. "Washington's diplomatic community will miss her protocol expertise and gentle touch," Colin Powell,
former secretary of state, said in a statement. "Pam's smile was real not just protocol. And her
bounce was infectious. She could also handle the unexpected," former secretary of state George Schultz
said by e-mail.
Mrs. Ahearn served as assistant chief of protocol for ceremonials in the State Department under Schultz
during the Reagan Administration. Schultz "always said if protocol goes smoothy, no one notices; but if
there is a mistake, it is on the front page of every newspaper," Selwa Roosevelt, chief of protocol in the
Reagan Administration, said in a statement. "I am happy to say that Pam just did not make mistakes, and
thanks to her we managed to stay off the front page." At the State Department, the logistics of planning
luncheons and dinners for visiting dignitaries and heads of state were daunting. "At a State luncheon," said
Catherine C. Murdock, of Middleburg, Va., who was assistant chief of protocol for visits in the State
Department when Mrs. Ahearn was there, "Pam would have to know the dietary restrictions of the
visiting president and first lady. The seating was very important, and she would need to know who
outranks whom, both in the visiting group and in the Washington group. She also had to decide on
the color of flowers, which might be offensive to some, and the entertainment." Often, Mrs. Ahearn
had just seconds to avoid a protocol error, Murdock said. "Senators and congressman might have to
cancel at the last minute, and Pam would have to reorganize the seating in a minute, if not a second.
But, Pam never lost her cool. The bigger the hitch was, the bigger her smile."
After leaving the State Department, Mrs. Ahearn worked in protocol for six months for the 1990 Summit of
Industrialized Nations and from 1991 to 1993 with the United States Information Service. From 1995 to
2004, she was director of protocol for the House of Representatives under Republican Speaker Newt
Gingrich. Her appointment drew fire from House Democrats, not about her specifically, but about the
need for the $62,000-a-year position. Colorado's Patricia Schroeder said at the time that it was like having
"our own Ms. Manners." However, Mrs. Ahearn's husband said, many Democrats sought his wife's advice
on personal social manners "on a regular basis."
Her reputation for never getting flustered was well earned. Once, her husband said, when Prime Minister
John Major of Britain was about to have lunch with Gingrich in the speaker's office, she crawled under the
table to adjust its legs and was there when they arrived. But keeping her cool, she crawled out from under
the cloth and seated them.
Mrs. Ahearn's social graces may have stemmed from her Southern upbringing. "Pam was a bit like a
Southern belle," said Joseph Holley, a former assistant to President Reagan. "She was a sweet person,
extremely elegant in terms of everything she did." She was born in Nashville, Tenn., one of four children.
Her two younger sisters, Patricia Simpson of Nashville and Peggy Beasley of Franklin, Tenn., both described
her as a very supportive older sister, who looked after them and made sure, even when they were all children,
that they were on time for dinner. She loved politics and was a staunch Republican, who "always dreamed of
going to Washington," Beasley said. And so she did soon after graduating from the University of Alabama in
1976 with honors and a degree in American studies. She was working on the gubernatorial campaign of
John Dalton of Virginia in 1977 when she met Rick Ahearn, a political consultant for the candidate. Ahearn
said they married in 1990 "after dating for 13 years."
In 1979, Mrs. Ahearn worked on the campaign of John Warner and then became executive assistant to his
wife, Elizabeth Taylor. At the time of her death, Mrs. Ahearn was on hiatus from work. She was looking
forward to another summer on Cape Cod, where she "loved her friends, the beach, and boating," her
In addition to her husband and two sisters, Mrs. Ahearn leaves her mother, Jewell Eskew, and her
stepfather, Charles Eskew, of Franklin, Tenn., and a brother, James Gardner of Lakeland, Fla.
A funeral service was held yesterday in Alexandria. Interment will be Friday at Woodlawn Memorial
Park in Nashville.