Harold James Ashby, Jr. grew up in Newark, New Jersey. When he was 16, he was selected to represent New Jersey at a national meeting of high school student body presidents, one of only two black representatives out of the 50 states. When they got to Nashville, the 48 white student body presidents were placed with local families and invited to social events each evening, but Harold and his fellow black president were simply dropped off at a motel for “coloreds.” Harold’s dad wanted him to come home, but Harold decided to stick it out. He vowed never ever to let discrimination or prejudice steer him from his path.
Harold went on to Harvard University, where he received an undergraduate degree in international affairs. He continued his education by earning an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and later a M.Ed. degree from the University of Hawaii. In the late 1970s until 1982, Harold worked as the administrative director of Howard University’s Sickle Cell Center, which was researching the genetic disorder Sickle Cell Disease.
In 1980, Harold met Ed McKeon and they became a couple, eventually spending 34 years together. In 1981, Ed, who was a Foreign Service Officer, learned he would be assigned to Tokyo. It was a moment of truth for Harold – follow his heart into uncharted territory across the Pacific or stay safe in D.C. Harold followed his heart. He and Ed went on to set up homes in Tokyo and Osaka; Guangzhou, China; Tel Aviv, Israel; and finally Mexico City, with only brief stateside assignments in Honolulu and Washington DC. After gay marriage became legal in California in 2008, Harold and Ed rushed back to the U.S. to get married, then returned to Mexico to finish their tour.
Harold made each foreign country a real home, learning the languages well enough to get out and about, getting into the cultures, and making great friends. He managed to find jobs in each country — often as an English teacher or as an administrator — all the while planning the family’s next adventure, next diplomatic event, or next move.
Harold and Ed lived in Tokyo from 1982-1986, in Osaka from 1989-1991, and again in Tokyo from 2003-2007. They developed a deep love for Japan and the friends they made here. In Tokyo, Harold studied Japanese for two years at the Franciscan Institute in Roppongi. He also worked as a DJ for a radio station in Tokyo for over a year and was administrative manager of the U.S. Pavilion at the Tsukuba Kagaku Bampaku in 1985.
In 1999, while living in Guangzhou, China, Harold proposed that he and Ed adopt a child. While China frowned on men adopting, through a series of miracles, the adoption was approved and Max Albert Ashby McKeon entered Harold’s and Ed’s lives. Later in Japan, Harold raised the possibility of adopting a second child. Despite Japan’s reluctance to let foreigners adopt, this was also approved and Benjamin Makoto Ashby McKeon rounded out the family. Harold was the “education mama” for the boys. He was an active presence in their schools and helped them with homework. He became an avid supporter of their sports teams, as well.
Harold was a brave pioneer in creating a stable and loving same-sex household within the sometimes unwelcoming State Department. He forged a path for other same sex couples, creating the first same-sex home many foreigners and some Americans had ever seen. His decades as a dignified example of a loving and supportive same sex partner were eventually rewarded when, thanks to a change in State Department policies, he became the second person ever to receive a U.S. diplomatic passport as a same-sex spouse.
Since retirement to the U.S. in 2011, Harold was able to spend even more of his time caring for the two boys, who remained the love of his life. He indulged a passion for gardening which had been put on hold while overseas. When he began planting trees and bushes in their backyard in Washington, he gave each of them a name of a friend back overseas as a tribute – a Yoshino cherry named “Yoshiroh,” a Japanese maple named “Masu,” a redbud named “Takahiro,” and so on.
Harold James Ashby, Jr. died suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism on July 29, 2014. He is survived by his husband and partner of 34 years, Ed McKeon, and his two sons, Max Albert Ashby McKeon and Benjamin Makoto Ashby McKeon. Harold will long be remembered as a loving husband, father, role model, and friend.
Update: Harold Ashby's husband, Ed McKeon, a retired Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister Counselor, died on September 3, 2017, after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.