Talking Life: Diplomat’s Widow Remembers a Lifetime of Love, Travel, and Service

Brightview Senior Living in Great Falls, Va., is the latest stop on Sheila Woessner’s incredible life journey, which began in the Scottish Highlands and includes 30 years of living all over Europe.

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As the wife of a U.S. diplomat, the 86 year old accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stories and experiences — some funny, some sad, all fascinating.

Woessner was born Sheila McLellan in 1931 (“Not yesterday!” she jokes) in Renfrewshire, just outside Glasgow, Scotland. Her family owned a 500-year-old castle and its surrounding land, including two mountains. During World War II, she and her siblings were evacuated from their home due to constant air raids.

While studying International Relations at the University of Glasgow, she met a Fulbright Scholar named William Woessner. It took her a little while to learn his name; until then, she and her friends referred to the American man as Hank the Yank.

“By that time, I was already engaged to a very wealthy lawyer,” she says. Then, at the request of a single friend, she invited “Hank” to a canasta party — and he captured her heart.

“It took one round of canasta, and I decided there was more to life than wealth, and I chased Bill,” Woessner remembers.

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After graduation, she went to work for the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, while her future husband was hired by the U.S. Department of State. As she tells it:

“I was concerned he’d go to a good place and I’d go to Timbuktu. So I wrangled a job at British Information Services in the Rockefeller building in New York. It only took me four months. We got engaged in January, married the 31st of March. Two weeks later, I became a citizen, and two weeks after that, we were on our way to Vienna, Austria — our first post.”

From there, the Woessners moved throughout Europe, living in Warsaw; Berlin; London; and Bonn, West Germany, where they hosted a number of world leaders for the 11th G7 Summit in May 1985.

Group shot from the Economic Summit, May 3, 1985 (Associated Press)

“President Reagan used our house, the ground floor, for his meetings with Maggie Thatcher, [Yasuhiro] Nakasone, all of those people,” Woessner says. “The house was gorgeous, and there was a long driveway and a circular area in front of the door.”

To prepare for the president’s visit, Woessner planted some beautiful flowers along the driveway. Then, she watched the leaders’ arrival from the upper floor of the house.

“I looked out the window. There they were, standing on my flowers!” she says. “And I looked down… Sam Donaldson, from the ‘New York Times,’ looked up, and he said, ‘Say lady, it’s a nice patch you have here.’ I said, ‘We like it. I wish you lot would get off my flowers!’ And I made a face and pointed down.”

Woessner laughs as she remembers how “the pictures and the quote was on the front page of the ‘New York Times’ the next day!”

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The Woessner family eventually returned to the States and settled in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. William Woessner retired and became president of Youth for Understanding, an international educational exchange program. He passed away in January 2016 at age 84.

“It’s hard. We had 59 wonderful years together,” Sheila Woessner says.

She keeps her late husband’s ashes in her room at Brightview.

“The deal is, when I die, we’re going to mingle our ashes,” she says. “The kids, they’ll take us back to Scotland.”

And so the wonderful journey will end where it began.

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