Like many good friendships, mine with Mark Erwin began over a round of golf. It was nearly thirty years ago, and the two of us were in Hilton Head, South Carolina for Renaissance Weekend back when the conference was in its infancy and I was still Governor of Arkansas.
Renaissance Weekend was a terrific event, started by Phil and Linda Lader in 1981, intended to gather together a group of individuals for a weekend of seminars on an amazing array of topics, meals, conversation and sports. Guests were encouraged to get to know one another and learn from each other in a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere. I loved those weekends. Spending New Year’s at Renaissance Weekend was a family tradition that Hillary, Chelsea and I looked forward to for many years. We made a lot of lasting friendships, including many people who would serve in my administration. One of them was Mark Erwin.
As I recall, it was New Year’s morning in 1986 when I happened upon Mark and two others gearing up for a round of golf. They needed a fourth player and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I wanted to accept, but I didn’t have my clubs with me. Mark offered to let me share his, and we had a great time. It was the beginning of a long friendship that has included many more rounds of golf and much more.
At the time I met Mark, he had already overcome some early challenges, served in the Air Force before college, and built a highly successful real estate development and investment business in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was serious and hardworking, but fun to be with, and he had the creative problem-solving skills our nation needs much of today.
After I was elected President, I asked Mark to serve as a Presidential appointee to the board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which advances our nation’s interests by facilitating economic development. Later I appointed him Ambassador to the countries of Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. He and his wife. Joan, represented America very well, and Mark’s initiatives brought many big improvements to those small islands in the Indian Ocean. In early 2000, thanks to Mark’s advocacy, both the House and Senate passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act, securing a long hoped for area of free trade between the United States and thirty-four countries in sub-Saharan Africa—an agreement which would have a measurable impact on the economies of those countries, while again advancing the interests of the United States. Mark was at the forefront of the growing movement to replace aid to developing countries with trade, a policy now widely supported by politicians and business leaders of both parties.