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A Personal Reflection on the Loss of America's Greatest Diplomat

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Working for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was hard. Actually, it was incredibly hard.

The problem with working for Holbrooke was that before you even opened your mouth he already knew the questions he was going to ask you in response to the questions he asked you.

In any given room, Holbrooke was ten steps ahead of everyone else.

Often I would enter his office and he would have a cell phone on one ear, an office phone on the other. I would sit down, amidst photos of Holbrooke and the world's leaders, and he would say "go ahead Trevor" and continue his two other conversations. My briefing would begin, as he gave direction to two other people on the phone and as he peppered me with questions in between.

Holbrooke seemed to know everything (and everyone) everywhere.

After a long day of meetings with corporate leaders in Berlin I finally got back to my hotel room, close to midnight, and collapsed in to bed. At the very moment I fell asleep my phone rang. It was Holbrooke, and we were headed out to dinner to meet ten of his German friends -- journalists, spies and diplomats -- for hours of cold-war stories.

On a US government mission to Rwanda and Kenya, we received word that Al Qaeda in Kenya had threatened to attack our delegation. This was during the Bush years, and Holbrooke was not leading the delegation. But when the delegation gathered in a Kigali hotel room to decide whether to proceed, it was Holbrooke -- instead of the security team -- who provided the group with an analysis of the threat and the history of Al Qaeda in East Africa.

He was also funny -- very funny.

One day we were at the United Nations with Secretary General Kofi Annan for an important meeting focused on the AIDS pandemic. A plate of muffins sat on the table between him and the Secretary General, and dozens of aides flanked the two men. Over the course of the meeting, Holbrooke beheaded no fewer than four muffins, chomping down the muffin tops with a startling efficiency that seemed to unnerve the Secretary General. As we left the meeting and got in his car and I subtly mentioned his approach to the muffins. With a stern look and a straight face he simply said "I have never understood why anyone eats the bottoms."

At long Beijing dinner with government diplomats, I can still remember him buckled over and laughing uncontrollably and clapping his hands as the Chinese Vice Minister of Health rose from his chair, demanded a microphone, and proceeded to sing a perfect -- if slightly drunken -- version of "Edelweiss" from the Sound of Music. I believe the Ambassador Holbrooke sang along.

There is no question that he was the only man alive who could quote directly from the Paris Peace Accords, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the Dayton Peace Agreement and "Mean Girls" the 2004 comedy written by Tina Fey.

While much has been said about how tough Holbrooke was, he was also incredibly kind. I remember how excited he was when our first child was born, and remember very clearly the advice he gave me about the difficulty in balancing family and a busy career. His service to his country had come at a cost to his family, and he wanted to help me do all I could to avoid that. Routinely he would check in with my wife to ensure I was doing well as a new father while working for him.

A few days before he died he found the time to send me a note congratulating me on a media profile of our company and asking about my wife and children -- at a time when he was leading the review of America's policy in Afghanistan, and dealing with the security implications of the blown cover and removal of the CIA's Station Chief in Pakistan.

Much has been said about how he was a giant in foreign policy -- unparalleled in his mark on history.

But in addition to this, he was a kind and caring man. Unlike many people in positions of power, he was able and eager to laugh at himself, and always willing to help everyone he loved.

We have lost America's finest diplomat, but also one of its finest men.

Neilson is a partner at Global Philanthropy Group. He served under Ambassador Holbrooke at the Global Business Coalition.