From Cumberland To Kazakhstan

Published 4:22 pm Thursday, February 21, 2013

FARMVILLE – John Booker grew up down along a rural stretch of U.S. Route 45 north of Cumberland County's courthouse in the Oak Grove Baptist Church area.

There's not a lot of development along that stretch of highway even today.

Fence posts.

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A few scattered houses and farms.

As a youngster, Booker worked on one of those farms.

But in 1960 and at 18 years of age Booker was about to get introduced to the world, which began with a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy and featured stops all over the world. Though he had not completed high school, he would continue his education in the Navy and go to college.

That, of course, would seem sufficient enough for most, but Booker would go on to earn an academician (post doctorate) degree from the Belarus Academy of Ecology and began his second career.

A career that would, perhaps, culminate with the Medal of Freedom from Kazakhstan for his work in helping them to become nuclear free.

“…I had no idea I was receiving it,” Booker told The Herald. “A friend of mine was over there and it was awarded and he accepted it for me.”

It is, of course, a long way from where Booker lives to Kazakhstan, but it is a trip that Booker had made many times over the years.

“I lived in northern Virginia (then) so…Dulles to Frankfurt is eight hours,” he explained of the trip. “And then from Frankfort to-now this is strictly air time-to Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) is another seven.”

The people, he says, are “just absolutely fantastic.” Having worked in five of the breakaway countries, he offers that the people are very forthcoming and outgoing. He and wife Agnes, he says, have nothing but great experiences and great things to say.

But before all those trips to Kazakhstan, Booker began his military career by joining the Navy, where he served 30 years, though he concedes he never went aboard a ship.

In the Navy, Booker rose to the rank of Master Chief Cryptologist. After retirement, he went to work for the Defense Nuclear Agency as an administrative officer and became an international project manager and assisted countries in the former Soviet Union such as Kazakhstan.

He doesn't speak Russian, but explains that he understands more than he speaks. And, prior to going to Kazakhstan, Booker cited that he was in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Georgia-at times running programs in two or three countries at the same time.

As it notes in his biography provided to The Herald, “…He was responsible for the containment of various nuclear materials as well as the destruction of nuclear weapons and fuels rendering those sources incapable of producing or supporting strategic nuclear weapons.”

Booker worked in several projects in the break away republics and in Kazakhstan.

“…He aided in leadership in containment, securing and dismantlement of various nuclear material and other components used in the strategic weapons systems of the Soviet Army as well as the destruction and containment off strategic fuels rendering those sources incapable of producing or supporting strategic weapons.”

“I guess a lesson for younger people (is) you know you know about what you do, you jump into it and do the best you can and you shine and maybe sometime good things will happen to you,” Booker says. “Not guaranteeing anybody anything, but it's kind of what happened to me.”

In Kazakhstan, Booker reports, they were getting rid of test tunnels where Russia was testing nuclear weapons. In Belarus, he was tasked to get rid of about 90 metric tons of heating oil.

Or nothing like what he ever experienced on the Cumberland farm.

“…No, never, never in a hundred years thought I'd be doing those kind of things. You know, it's just something…it's just so far-fetched you don't even think about it you know?”

Booker has retired from his travels and his second career. He still has land and family in the Cumberland area and still visits from time to time. He and Agnes live in the Charlottesville area and he currently works as an associate with the J.F. Bell Funeral Home in Charlottesville.

“…I've just done a whole lot of things in life,” Booker deadpans. “Now I'm doing things in death.”

(Booker will be one of two featured speakers this Sunday afternoon in a black history variety program being held by Cumberland High School's junior class and school administrators. The 4 p.m. program at the high school's cafetorium is open to the public, with doors opening at 3:30 p.m. There is no charge, but donations will assist the junior class.)