Clara Slayhi, globe-trotter who worked for U.S. embassies, dies of COVID-19 at age 91

In a tiny town tucked in the farm fields of North Dakota, Clara Slayhi dreamed as a little girl of trekking to the far-flung countries pictured in her magazines, books and stamp collection.

In her 20s, when she spotted a newspaper ad for secretaries in the U.S. government, she saw it as her ticket to see the world. Over the next decade, she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), living in embassies from Thailand to Turkey, visiting palaces and temples alongside princes and policymakers before settling back in Minnesota.

Slayhi, of Stillwater, died Jan. 12 after contracting COVID-19. She was 91.

“She was ahead of her time,” her daughter Mariam Slayhi of Minneapolis said of her independent mother. “She wanted to see the world.”

One of five children, Clara Mae Settevig was born in 1929 in McVille, N.D., and grew up there before moving to Forest Lake, Minn. She attended business school before landing her job at USAID. While the role meant organizing paperwork, overseeing schedules and travel plans, it also involved top-secret work. She later told her family she couldn’t reveal that while living at embassies in South Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Turkey and Yemen.

In Yemen in 1965, she ran into a young Lebanese contractor in a dining hall. Khaled Slayhi asked the adventurous American to dinner and a whirlwind romance ensued. The couple married at a Yemeni courthouse before jet-setting for a month across Europe.

By 1966, the couple was ready to put down roots, moving to Minnesota near Slayhi’s family. She helped raise the couple’s two daughters while attending college to get a teaching degree and then worked in insurance. But the couple’s wanderlust still sparked trips. Each summer, the family piled into their car to crisscross the U.S., visiting national monuments and parks from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore. Slayhi relished meeting new people, exploring new places and sharing her stories, once giving a presentation to her daughter’s class on Lebanon.

“She was always trying to get people to learn there is another world outside of where you live,” Mariam said.

As she got older, Slayhi’s travels wound closer to home, where she was an active member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater and loved baking homemade wheat bread and fresh cinnamon rolls.

Other survivors include her husband, daughter Ida Tessmer of Lakeville, sister Karen Fowler, brothers Russell Settevig of St. Paul and David Settevig of Brainerd and two granddaughters. Services have been held.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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