By Michael Coleman
Washington’s glittering holiday season turned dark for many last week when tragic news of Robert “Alo” Cushing’s untimely death began to circulate in emails, phone calls and social media.
An El Paso native and University of New Mexico graduate who worked for five years in former Rep. Heather Wilson’s Washington office, Cushing died last week in an apartment that he and his wife, Carrie, shared in Bangkok, Thailand.
Cushing, known simply as “Alo” among friends, had lived in Asia for several years working on democracy, women’s rights, public opinion research and other initiatives for the International Republican Institute. His wife had returned home to the United States for Christmas ahead of him. A housekeeper found his body on Monday morning.
Thai authorities are still investigating the cause of death. A U.S. State Department official said the U.S. embassy in Bangkok was notified but will not issue a public statement. Bob Cushing, Alo’s father, told me that, under Thai law, it could take as long as 45 days to learn how his son died.
News of the former congressional staffer’s passing last week at age 34 came as a shock. That’s because, if anyone embodied “life,” it was Alo. Funny, irreverent, smart, handsome and compassionate, Alo was a friend to hundreds, if not thousands, of Washingtonians and New Mexicans.
I came to know Alo as the Journal’s Washington correspondent covering Wilson’s office in the early 2000s and we developed a personal friendship. He was a valued source of information and perspective about news on Capitol Hill but, more than that, I just enjoyed his company, and it seemed that most everyone else did, too.
A former member of the UNM swim team, Alo worked in Wilson’s office from 2002-2007 before taking an assignment with the International Republican Institute in Washington. He dived into international affairs with zeal, immersing himself in the culture and politics of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tunisia and Thailand. In these often tumultuous locales, he taught local leaders the nuts and bolts of good government and democracy, always advocating a greater role for women.
Alo met his wife, Carrie, in Washington and she joined him to live in Bangkok the past couple of years. They lived a life full of new friends, important work and exotic adventures. Those of us who knew and admired Alo offer Carrie and both of their families our deepest condolences.
Wilson, now the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, called me with the sad news on Monday night.
“Robert was a wonderful young man,” Wilson said. “He took the skills he learned working on Capitol Hill and devoted himself to strengthening democratic institutions in places where democracy is just taking root: Indonesia, Tunisia and, most recently, Thailand. I joined him to do some teaching in Tunisia and he was very good at his work. Robert had a great sense of humor and was always playing some joke or making some funny comment, often at his own expense. Even when the work was serious, you knew you were going to have some fun if Robert was along. Robert is gone too soon, and the thoughts and prayers of those of us he touched are with his wife, parents and family.”
The extensive outpouring of grief on Alo’s Facebook page last week amounts to a deeply affectionate and emotional portrait of a life well-lived. It’s clear that he made a difference.
“Shocked and sad to hear the terrible news,” one friend wrote. “I’ll always remember listening to monks chanting in that mountain-top monastery in Bhutan or sneaking into India for a fun afternoon.”
“From enjoying bad sweater parties in Jordan to riding our motorbikes throughout Penang, it was a great ride,” another said. “I’ll miss you buddy.”
“The democracy and governance community lost a talented advocate and teacher,” yet another wrote. “More importantly, the world lost a very kind heart.”
The International Republican Institute on Thursday issued a statement calling Alo “a gifted leader,” and praising his contribution to freedom and democracy.
“Robert was more than a member of the IRI staff, he was a member of our family,” the organization said. “We celebrate his contributions and his achievements, and we will miss him and his tireless commitment to building a better future for the countries he worked in.”Top