Patchogue native serves as ambassador to Latvia
Nancy Bikoff Pettit, 63, has served for more than 30 years overseas committed to the Foreign Service, first as a diplomat, then as an ambassador, but always remembers her Patchogue roots.
Though she currently lives in Latvia as the U.S. ambassador, she grew up in Patchogue on West Lakewood Street with her parents, brother and two sisters, went to Medford Avenue Elementary School, South Ocean Avenue Junior High and graduated from Patchogue High School when it was located on Saxton Street in 1971. Her father, David Bikoff, owned a doctor’s office on South Ocean Avenue for over 40 years and her mother, Muriel Bikoff, was very active in the community, serving on the PTA.
Upon graduation, Bikoff Pettit attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and then grad school at the University of Michigan. There she majored in Russian and obtained a master’s in European studies.
“When I attended Patchogue High School I took an English class, where a teacher encouraged me to read difficult Russian books in English like [Leo] Tolstoy and I just thought it would be amazing to read in the original language,” she said of her first interest in the Russian language.
Back then, she explained, the high school was overcrowded, allowing juniors and seniors to be dismissed by noon. Every day after school, she attended classes at Stony Brook University and soon had credits in Russian language and fell in love with the literature. She now speaks fluent Russian.
“When I was in high school I never even heard of the Foreign Service or diplomatic life,” she said. First she went to Washington, D.C. to work in the Library of Congress for a few years before joining the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, an organization providing free radio to Europe and Eastern Europe.
At that time she met her husband, Jim Pettit, who was interested in the Foreign Service, which also began to spark her interest. Soon, he joined the service and married Nancy in 1981 in her parents’ backyard in Patchogue before beginning his first tour in Mexico. Then the young couple went to Moscow, Russia while it was the Soviet Union, from 1983-84.
“It was quite an experience to live under communism; it was oppressive and terrible. I was pregnant with my first child,” she said. Their first daughter Sarah Pettit was born at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in 1984 during a visit home.
Bikoff Pettit joined the service herself in 1985 and began her first assignment alongside her husband and daughter in China and then Taiwan, where their second daughter Liz Pettit was born in 1987.
Jim and Nancy Pettit traveled the world in the service moving on to their next tours serving as diplomats in Moldova, Austria, Vienna, the Ukraine and more. Their children experienced most of their lives overseas, attending school in Moscow, Vienna and the Ukraine. After graduating high school, Sarah Pettit went on to study psychology in Michigan, where she met her husband, married and gave Nancy and Jim their first grandchild, Lily, who is 18 months old. Liz pursued her master’s in psychology and lives in San Francisco.
“I think living in a different country, in general, comes with its challenges. But ultimately, it was such an amazing way for my sister and me to grow up,” said Sarah. “I think my parents did a good job of trying to keep things stable, bringing all of our familiar toys and pets with us, sending us to English-speaking schools, while still encouraging us to get to know the culture, language and people of the country in which we were stationed.”
She said her mother always made the challenges of living in foreign countries and the challenges of moving look easy, even as a mother and full-time diplomat. Now as a mother herself, Sarah said she tries to emulate how hardworking her mom was, and still is, while also keeping boundaries between home and work.
“When she was at work, she used her time efficiently and did the best job she possibly could, but when it was 6 p.m., she was off-duty and completely focused on me and my sister,” she said. “She always made us feel that we were the most important part of her life.”
Proud of her mother and all that she accomplished in her career, she noted that even in 2017, it is not often you see women in leadership positions such as ambassador. Friend and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, Kathleen Kavalec, agreed. She met Bikoff Pettit in Moscow about 30 years ago.
“Working together we have become great friends and love to keep in touch. I think she has had a fabulous career and has done a great job balancing her career with her commitment to her family,” she said. “She is a real role model for women.”
But even for a strong independent woman, being apart from her husband for the first time since being married has been a challenge. Jim Pettit is the U.S. Ambassador to Moldova and Bikoff Pettit is the U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, forcing them to live miles and miles apart for possibly their last tour before retirement. They are currently the only married couple serving as ambassadors, the highest ranking in each embassy.
“It is a really big accomplishment for us. It is kind of amazing and nothing we could have expected,” she said. “It is a tremendous honor to represent the United States overseas. I love the job because every day is different.”
Despite the distance, she and her husband speak to each other every day and night. Often, she said, they share good ideas and best practices. They look forward to moving back home to their house in Virginia and being able to visit their granddaughter more often.
But for her last three years in the service, she plans to make the best of it. In Latvia, she explained, she often spends the day at different events, in the capital or with students from the four high schools. Recently, she said, she had a film producer show the children a film about the Holocaust and had a discussion about social inclusion, bullying and tolerance. Later that day she went to a wreath laying and laid flowers at the freedom monument commemorating the freedom of the Latvian people, who were occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991.
“Latvia is a frontline state bordering Russia. They are a very close friend and partner to the United States and a wonderful NATO ally,” she said, proud to serve where she is.
Last year, Bikoff Pettit was a member of the first class inducted into the Patchogue-Medford Hall of Fame. She said she enjoyed speaking with the students about her career and hopes to one day return to encourage students to join the Foreign Service.
“It was a thrill to return to Patchogue and see how well it’s doing,” she said.
Of the past friends and acquaintances made in Patchogue, she said she enjoys staying in touch via Facebook and loves to keep up with what is going on in her hometown.
Like what you have read? Click here to subscribe to the Long Island Advance so you can read more stories like this, and find out everything that’s going on in your town!