Ralph Dungan, a top aide to President John F. Kennedy who later served as U.S. ambassador to Chile and as New Jersey’s chancellor of higher education, died Oct. 5 at his home in St. John Parish, Barbados. He was 90.

He had complications from intestinal surgery, his daughter Jennifer Dungan said.

Dungan was part of the so-called “Irish mafia” that made up much of Kennedy’s inner circle. He joined Kennedy’s staff in 1957, when the future president was a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

After Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Dungan became the chief White House expert on Latin America as well as the top talent scout. He was one of nine “special advisers” to the president and was “widely known,” according to a 1967 New York Times article, “as the President’s top recruitment officer, credited with attracting scores of top officials to Washington.”

Following Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Dungan helped plan the president’s funeral. He stayed on at the White House as an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson for a year before becoming ambassador to Chile.

Despite rudimentary Spanish – he once addressed a classroom of bemused schoolchildren by saying, “It’s a great privilege for you that I’m here today” –- he set a new path for U.S. foreign policy, based on principles established by Kennedy.

Dungan reached out directly to the working poor of the country, rolling up his sleeves to help build houses in poor districts and visiting workers in the country’s copper mines. He once said “private property is not an unlimited right.”

“This attitude has not endeared him to Chile’s big business and land-holding interests or to their supporters in conservative political parties,” The Washington Post reported in 1966.

Nonetheless, a 1966 New York Times magazine story by foreign affairs author Richard West described him as “the best American diplomat in Latin America.”

“Ambassador Dungan has made scores of visits all over Chile, talking to slum dwellers, factory hands, fishermen and housewives,” West wrote. “He has acquired an understanding of Chile rare in ambassadors who have been in a country three times as long.”

Dungan left Chile in 1967 to become New Jersey’s first chancellor of higher education. Although it was the sixth-wealthiest state in the country, New Jersey ranked 46th in higher education. More than half its high school students left the state to attend college.

Dungan’s plan was to convert six state teachers’ colleges into full-scale liberal arts universities and to improve the faculties and staffs throughout the state. But within months, the faculty of the state college in Trenton censured Dungan, and others complained that he wouldn’t meet their salary demands.

He replied by saying that some faculty members were “close to illiterate.”

After calling for increases in tax rates and tuition, he was pelted with eggs by students at Rutgers University in 1976.

Dungan held the chancellorship for 10 years, under both Democratic and Republican governors, and was credited with tripling the enrollment at state colleges and increasing opportunities for minorities.

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