Laurence Bourassa

[ Age 75 ] He pursued humanitarian work across Asia and Africa for 40 years with Catholic Relief Services.

April 02, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,sun reporter

Laurence J. Bourassa, whose long career as an international aid worker took him to countries across Asia and Africa, died of kidney and respiratory failure Thursday at Long Green Center, a long-term care facility in Baltimore. He was 75.

Mr. Bourassa's life was most notably shaped by two episodes, friends and colleagues said - his stint in Somalia with the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, which first gave him a taste for overseas humanitarian work, and two harrowing years he spent in Cambodia during the bloody era of the infamous killing fields.

He first went to Cambodia in 1973, as the conflict in Vietnam was spilling across the border and the brutal Khmer Rouge communist regime was gaining power. Mr. Bourassa was in charge of field operations for Catholic Relief Services, where he worked for 40 years. He provided food, medical assistance and water to Cambodians who were fleeing to government-controlled pockets of the country.

He set up a relief operation and field hospital in Neak Loeung, where he briefly was stranded in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge was shelling the city round the clock.

"We were in a siege situation," said Pat Johns, the director of emergency operations for CRS and a fellow worker in Cambodia. "We couldn't get a chopper in there to get them out."

Mr. Bourassa and several medical personnel finally escaped via helicopter just 12 hours before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. "When the helicopter landed in Phnom Penh it was a sight to behold," Mr. Johns said. "It was shot to hell. There were bullet holes all over."

After Mr. Bourassa's contingent left the country, the Khmer Rouge killed most of the Cambodians that the relief workers knew, including hundreds who had served on the Catholic Relief Services staff, Mr. Johns said.

One of Mr. Bourassa's friends during that time was Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times correspondent whose account of his years in Cambodia was the basis for the film The Killing Fields.

The Catholic Relief Services team "was a very admirable, you might even say heroic, group of people bringing aid to refugees and people who were under fire and doing the best they could in a totally insane situation," said Mr. Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the conflict.

He remembered Mr. Bourassa, who was in his 40s then, as an impish fellow who liked a good drink, was easy to talk to and enjoyed being a bit of an iconoclast. The priests would sometimes chide him for his unruliness, but in a gentle way.

"He struck me as carefree, which of course he wasn't. No one in that situation was carefree," Mr. Schanberg said. To endure the death and horror that surrounded them, workers and journalists alike had to be committed and obsessed with what they were doing, he said.

Mr. Bourassa was born in New Hampshire and graduated from Brandeis University in 1953. After serving in the Army for two years, he moved to New York, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to launch an acting career.

But he always had a desire to help less advantaged people in the world, friends and former colleagues said, and it was those convictions that led him to supervise farm laborers in Washington, to teach English in Somalia with the Peace Corps and then, in 1966, to join Catholic Relief Services. With that organization, which he viewed almost as family, he went to the Congo, South Vietnam and what was then Zaire. He went to Burundi in 1971, during a bloody massacre there, and also served in Morocco, where he headed a tree-planting project, and in Djibouti.

Later, he became a fundraiser at the organization, and even after he retired in 2006, he continued to work in alumni relations. He only stopped several months ago, when his health deteriorated, Mr. Johns said.

Mr. Bourassa, a handsome, dapper man, was well-known as a bon vivant - a great cook with a passion for entertaining and fine food and wine. When he was based in Djibouti, his parties were renowned throughout the country. He also loved the theater, classical music and literature. He collected first editions of rare books - everything from World War II literature to poetry - which he had bound in leather from Morocco.

"He was a great combination of really caring for people and also enjoying the good things in life," said his friend and former colleague Jean Gartlan.

Catholic Relief Services is organizing a memorial service for May.

Mr. Bourassa is survived by two brothers, his twin, Clarence Bourassa of California, and Roland Bourassa of New Hampshire; and a sister, Irene Vintinner of Maine.

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