WASHINGTON – He played football with the Kennedys. He bore witness to moments of terror and tragedy. Now one of Canada’s longest-serving foreign employees is calling it a career.
Glen Bullard is retiring after 48 years at Canada’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
He’s never held a diplomatic post, technically speaking. But his decades’ worth of stories as an embassy handyman and events co-ordinator would be the envy of many at a diplomatic soiree.
Even within his own workplace, Bullard’s the go-to guy for information on the various nooks and crannies of Canada’s largest foreign embassy, and that’s partly because he participated in its construction.
He even picked the address — 501 Pennsylvania Ave.
“I’ve had a very fortunate life here,” said the 66-year-old, whose retirement begins this week.
Bullard’s American adventure began in 1961, when his dad’s career with the Royal Canadian Air Force took him to Washington. The Calgary native attended high school in the tony suburb of McLean, Va.
That’s where he participated in some of the legendary Kennedy family touch-football games. Those contests usually involved the clan’s lesser-known cousins but, a couple of times, the president’s brothers showed up.
Sen. Ted Kennedy was there on different occasions, and attorney general Robert Kennedy showed up once.
Apparently, the Camelot cousins played football exactly the way you might expect quasi-royalty to.
“Their ball, their rules,” Bullard reminisced in an interview.
“When they thought they had scored, when they thought they had won, they’d won.”
They sometimes went out for ice cream after the game. It was a more relaxed time. Bullard recalls walking into the Pentagon back then, and describes stories from the veteran embassy drivers about socializing with their counterparts in the White House parking lot.
Security’s a lot tighter in Washington these days.
Bullard had a front-row seat for some of the tragic events that transformed parts of the U.S. capital into a virtual fortress.
First was the JFK assassination. Bullard was still in high school at the time, and he recalls the entire country screeching to a standstill for several days, with stores closed and public events cancelled amid the national grief.
Three years later, Bullard began working at the embassy. His dad was headed back home to Canada, and the teenager had had enough of bouncing around between homes as part of the life of a service brat.
Half the six Bullard siblings stayed in the U.S., and he was one of them.
Bullard got a maintenance job at the embassy, and worked his way up. In 1968, he was still a junior staffer assigned to keep watch over the old embassy building during the Washington riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
From the top of the building, he watched Washington burn.
“It was the most horrendous experience,” Bullard said.
“We could see the looting, and the fires, and the trouble going on up on 14th Street. You could see it from the top of our building. You could see people stealing televisions, you could see people running down the street with things they’d stolen from stores. It was a terrible time.”
Dupont Circle was transformed into an army camp. With security checkpoints set up around the city, Bullard had to repeatedly stop to show his curfew pass on the way home, just to prove he wasn’t out to stir up racial trouble: “There was a lot of paranoia in the city … If you were white and driving around in a car it was, ‘Why would you go out, driving around in a car?'”
That swath of Washington was fire-scarred and quasi-abandoned for decades. It’s now one of the hottest neighbourhoods in town, a haven for hipster bars, foodie destinations and high-end groceries.
By the time of the next national trauma, Bullard had a new vantage point.
The Canadian embassy had moved downtown, away from the diplomatic zone to become the only foreign mission in that prime real-estate area between the White House and the Capitol, a block from the National Mall.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was close enough to feel the windows rattle when the plane hit the Pentagon.
The subsequent scenes were surreal, as rumours rippled across the city.
Bullard looked outside as hundreds evacuated the Capitol, streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue from the left. At the same time, another crowd rushed the opposite way, from the right, as a telephone repairman’s unattended gear had caused a bomb scare.
“It was like an anthill being turned upside down… Traffic was paralyzed,” he said.
“They were criss-crossing. People were crying, people were panicking… It was a scary, scary feeling… It was a terrible day. A terrible time.”
The next day, Bullard put up American flags outside the embassy, next to the Canadian ones. Soon thereafter, airport-style metal detectors were sprouting up at building entrances throughout the city, including at his workplace.
The happy moments — those are too numerous to count.
One that stands out is his first meeting with musician Diana Krall, whom he now considers a friend. Bullard set up the stage and lighting for two of her performances at the embassy in the 1990s.
The building is a bit of an entertainment draw, thanks to its downtown location and its postcard-perfect rooftop view of the Capitol dome and Washington Monument. Just a few months ago, an American TV show and newspaper used Canada’s embassy to host a White House Correspondents’ Dinner party.
Ted Kennedy was a repeat visitor at Bullard’s workplace, many years after those football games. The Massachusetts senator was one of the first politicians in the new embassy after it opened in 1989.
“I remember (then-ambassador Derek) Burney saying Kennedy looked out his window and said, ‘Can I bring my constituents here? This is an unbelievable view of the Capitol. I can’t give them this from the Capitol grounds.'”
Bullard is demonstrably proud when talking about the building — in fact, there’s almost a proprietary quality when he speaks of it.
He was a liaison between different offices involved the project.
His job description included running errands to the D.C. public works building to get the required municipal permits. It was during one of those early-1980s trips that he was asked to pick the address for Canada’s most important diplomatic building.
So he did.
Bullard had a choice of any odd number between 401 and 599. He picked the one that he felt implied the prestige of a corner office, just after 5th Street. A supervisor later pushed for 555 Pennsylvania but, by then, it was too late.
To the hundreds of Canadian federal employees who have since passed through those doors, Bullard was their prime source of info about the building. One comment on a Facebook page dedicated to his retirement refers to him as the embassy’s Wikipedia.
Millions more people, tourists, wander past the site each year.
“This building is exposed to every tourist that comes to Washington … And it does help people understand the significance of Canada to this country … I think this is a perfect metaphor for how we work with the United States,” he said.
After all these years down in the U.S., his identity is a little more binational than it was in 1961. But Bullard was clearly seen wearing a red Roots hat as he worked at Olympic hockey-watching parties earlier this year.
When guests at those parties compliment the embassy, his Canadian pride is further kindled.
And when he hears people say that 501 Pennsylvania Ave. still looks, after all these years, so shiny and new, Bullard says, “that’s good payback for me.”