(This week’s Fontana Success Story, Les Janka, lived the career I planned on pursuing after I graduated from Cal State San Bernardino with a political science degree, specializing in international politics, specifically U.S./Soviet Union relations. But alas, I married immediately after graduation and within two weeks I began my extremely enjoyable and gratifying career in education and later in law. Thank you Les for allowing me to live that “other” career vicariously through your international experiences!)
WOW! What a great Fontana Success Story!
In 1958, a young man named Les Janka graduated from Fontana High School. Little did anyone know that he would eventually serve in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan White Houses and his immediate boss would be none other than the famous and well-respected former Secretary of State and international peacemaker, Henry Kissinger.
Here is his backstory, in his own words.
“I graduated from Fohi in 1958. My favorite teacher was Dr. Augie Ramirez, who encouraged me to join student government and think about public service and leadership positions.
Much of my interest in international affairs came from my father’s long service in the U.S. Navy, both in World War II and 30 years in the Naval Reserve. Dad, known to others as Bill Janka, served as Fontana’s fire chief from 1957 to 1971. He also served as secretary of the Fontana Rotary Club for more than 25 years and retired from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer.
One of my favorite memories of growing up in Fontana was riding my bike to visit school friends through the dense orange groves that started only a few blocks outside of downtown.
I also learned a lot about business, customer service and local politics in my three years of part-time work at the Osgood Paint Store. Owner Jim Osgood was a great mentor.
Hiking and camping in the mountains above Lytle Creek provided a lot of independence, self-reliance and love of the outdoors which I have never lost.
Because Fontana was then a small town, we young people benefited greatly from close acquaintance with many fine adult role models including store managers, steel workers, veterans, pastors, and active citizens in many local organizations. Small town values provided a strong anchor in the power corridors of Washington.
I graduated from the University of Redlands, where I benefited greatly from the many inspirational professors I encountered there in my international relations major. (Redlands may be considered a small college, but it has more than 300 alumni working in Washington.)
—– “WITH my MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a focus on Middle East Studies and Arabic language skills, I was blessed with many great jobs in the U.S. government. I served at different times in Egypt, Bolivia, Morocco, and Vietnam.
A highlight of my career was serving for five years as a special assistant to Henry Kissinger in the White House. It was a great adventure, but my best jobs were serving as the National Security Council legislative liaison under President Gerald Ford, and as Deputy White House press secretary under President Ronald Reagan. Eight years in three White House tours!
Outside of my government service, I was also fortunate to serve as the assistant dean at SAIS, as one of the founders of the CloseUp Foundation that brings thousands of high school students to Washington D.C. to learn how their government works. Additionally, I served as board chair of American Near East Refugee Aid, the largest American charity serving the Palestinian people.
One of my proudest memories is when Kissinger was sworn in as secretary of state in September 1973. He asked me to escort his parents, who were observant Jews and would not drive on the Sabbath, in their walk from their hotel across Lafayette Square into the White House for the ceremony with President Richard Nixon.
Working in the White House during the Watergate crisis was pretty painful. I was standing just behind President Nixon when he told the nation he was not a crook. But on the day in August 1974 when Nixon resigned, all the staff gathered on the White House steps to see him depart by helicopter. After the TV cameras turned to show many staffers weeping, I returned to my office to take a phone call from my mother in Fontana, who said she watched the scene and asked: Why I was the only person smiling?
After eight years in Saudi Arabia, my wife, Michele and I, retired to the paradise of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We have two adult kids; Noelle lives in Western Massachusetts and Dean lives in Texas. No grandkids yet, but our Jack Russell terrier, Cassius, is a pretty good proxy.”
—– RESEARCH into Les’ background revealed other extensive and impressive experiences beyond that which he shared above.
From 2007 until his retirement in 2014, he served in a series of senior executive positions in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — most recently as president-Saudi Arabia for Quincy International, president of Raytheon Arabian Systems Company, and vice president, Network Centric Systems Operations.
Mr. Janka also led the Middle East and Africa government relations and trade advisory practice as executive vice president for one of Washington’s premier foreign policy lobbying and public affairs firms, as well as serving as a consultant for major U.S. and European companies doing business in Saudi Arabia.
Online sources further explain Les’ government experience as special assistant to Reagan and deputy press secretary for foreign affairs, as special assistant to Kissinger and senior staff member on the National Security Council staff under President Ford, and as a member of Nixon’s delegation to Saudi Arabia in 1974.
He also served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and African Affairs, where he oversaw major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including the F-15.
Les has also served as vice president of the National Council on US-Arab Relations and as founding chairman of the Council for American-Saudi Dialogue.
As impressive as is Les’ experience, his conscience and refusal to abide with misleading information provided to the press by the Reagan White House regarding the invasion of Grenada in 1983 is even more impressive. As reported by the New York Times, in protest of White House staff providing that misleading information, Les penned a letter to Reagan and resigned his deputy press secretary position. The article read:
“The White House announced today that President Reagan’s deputy press secretary for foreign affairs had resigned, citing damage to his credibility resulting from the Administration’s handling of the Grenada invasion.
“The deputy press secretary who resigned, Les Janka, in a letter to the President dated Oct. 28, (speaking of his own reputation and credibility) said, ‘Circumstances surrounding this week’s events in the Caribbean have damaged, perhaps irreparably, that credibility.’ Mr. Janka added that ‘mutual confidence among colleagues, once lost, regrettably cannot be readily restored.”
Normally, I close these columns with a recitation of the honoree’s accomplishments. In Les Janka’s case, I wouldn’t know where to begin. What I DO know, however, is that a kid who used to roam Fontana streets with his friends, and who sat in the same classrooms at Fohi in which I sat, eventually rose to serve in the pinnacle of American government, the White House, for three different presidents. Les Janka is beyond impressive and is a shining example of Fontana Success Stories and the moral compass which we so rarely see in the modern political and governmental arenas.
Thank you, Les. You make all Fontanans proud!