Exchange Matters / August 29, 2019

In Memoriam: Thomas W. Gittins (1940-2019)

By Alexander (Sasha) Gorev, Director, International Visitor Leadership Program, Institute of International Education

On July 6, Tom Gittins, a member of the Global Ties U.S. Advisory Council, passed away peacefully in Arlington, VA.

Throughout his life, Tom served as a leader of exchanges and citizen diplomacy. He served as Peace Corps country director in the Dominican Republic and then as Chief of Operations for the Peace Corps Latin America Bureau. Tom left Peace Corps to become the Executive Director of Sister Cities International (SCI), a national association of U.S. cities and counties that maintain partnerships with similar jurisdictions.

I first met Tom in 1988 when I was working for the Soviet Sister Cities Association in Moscow. As I worked with him to expand Sister City partnerships between the two countries, I was first impressed, then enamored of Tom. He was a great leader, firm in making decisions and expecting results while remaining flexible, supportive, and truly caring for his colleagues and partners.

While he placed the interests of the United States and American cities first and foremost, he was genuinely supportive of people on the other side and open to their points of view. That earned him trust from government officials and respect from his counterparts. In 1990, Tom began a staff exchange where I worked with an American colleague in the Moscow and Alexandria, VA offices of the two national Sister City associations. This type of exchange was unprecedented and instrumental in developing many new and effective city-to-city partnerships.

During the staff exchange, Tom and his wife Sue invited me to stay at their home, introducing me to their children, Tom Jr. and Dianne, as well as many friends. Eventually, the Gittins family became my American family; I was privileged to call Tom “my American father” because that was what he was for me for many years. On the day I took the Oath of Allegiance as a U.S. citizen, Tom was there to cheer and support me.

Tom’s passion for improving mutual understanding between countries and people was evident in his ability to secure political and financial support for innovative exchange programs. His charismatic personality, strong leadership, and great sense of humor helped SCI maintain working relationships with leaders of many international organizations, as well as leaders in the U.S. private and public sectors. These relationships were key to the growth of the U.S. Sister City program, both in number of Sister City linkages and in the quality and variety of exchanges. In coordination with the U.S. Information Agency, Tom pioneered grant programs for municipal professionals, and NGO, business, and community leaders in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. These programs led to much-needed societal transformations, such as the creation of a domestic violence prevention program and a shelter for victims of violence in Valdai, Russia.

After retiring from SCI in 1992, Tom became Founder and President of Gittins & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that specialized in international projects and organizational development. In this capacity, he consulted and assisted many organizations, including Global Ties U.S. He often shared that he was proud to serve in an advisory capacity to Global Ties U.S. and the Community-Based Members. Tom and Sue also continued to host international visitors in their home in Falls Church, VA.

The citizen diplomacy network lost a dedicated supporter of international exchanges. However, Tom’s legacy will continue to live on through the many professionals he mentored and supported.


“Tom was always a bright light, always a solution and never a problem, always tireless in promoting mutual understanding.” —Rick A. Ruth, Senior Advisor, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

“Tom was a great mentor and model of a dedicated fighter for the power of exchanges. Our professional world just grew smaller.” —Peter Simpson, Board Member, Atlas Corps

“Tom was good friend and sharp-witted member of the Global Ties U.S. Advisory Council. His expertise, candor and good humor will be greatly missed at out gatherings. He leaves behind a tremendous legacy of commitment to people-to-people diplomacy.” —Lawrence Chastang and Phil Lauinger, Co-Chairs, Global Ties U.S. Advisory Council