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Keeper of the Peace

updated 03/09/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 01:00AM

IN 1959 UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-General Kofi Annan, then a 21-year-old economics student from Ghana, gladly accepted a two-year Ford Foundation scholarship to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. A native of tropical West Africa, he knew little about winter. Though by necessity he soon became acquainted with heavy coats and gloves, he balked at the "inelegant" ear muffs he saw other students use. Only one day when he returned from a brisk walk with his ears nearly frozen did he concede "that the natives probably knew what they were doing," he said. "Never walk into an environment and assume that you know it better than the people who live there."

That lesson has served him well in the world of international diplomacy where earlier this week he made headlines around the world for apparently achieving in three days what weeks of negotiations between key leaders in the West and Middle East had failed to do. As some 30,000 U.S. troops were poised for a possible military strike against Iraq, Annan, 59, the first black African to serve as the world's top diplomat, flew to Baghdad and secured a pledge from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein allowing U.N. weapons inspectors unrestricted access to presidential palaces—a major issue in the Iraqi-U.S. standoff.

President Clinton, still skeptical of Saddam's sincerity, kept American troops in the region. But for the moment, many experts credited Annan with averting—or at least delaying—a war. "He doesn't come in with a hammer in his hand," says Minnesota's Rod Grams, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But he has enough force with him."

As the son of a hereditary chieftain, Kofi Atta Annan was raised in a family familiar with leadership. Born in 1938, when Ghana was still a British colony, Annan was educated at a Methodist boarding school (where he led a hunger strike protesting the poor quality of the food). In 1959, while attending college and serving as vice-president of the Ghana Students' Union, he was spotted by a recruiter for the Foreign Student Leadership Project and invited to attend Macalester. There he was a serious student who played soccer, toured the country in a Rambler station wagon and once beat the son of a prominent political family in a statewide debating contest. "The other guy was a cinch to win," says Annan's debate coach Roger Mosvick, now 67. "But then Kofi stepped on the stage and in his deep British accent blew him away."

After graduating in 1961, Annan joined the U.N., where he has remained, except for a two-year stint as a Ghanaian tourist official and time off in 1971 to earn a management degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1993, in a sure sign of his steady ascent through the U.N. bureaucracy, he was named head of the U.N.'s force of 80,000 peacekeepers in 17 hot spots around the world, including Somalia and Bosnia.

The U.N. has provided him with more than mere job security. While stationed in Geneva in 1981, Annan met Nane Lagergren, a lawyer for the U.N. He was infatuated not just with her but also with her heritage: Lagergren was the niece of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued thousands of Jews from Nazi camps before disappearing in 1945.

Annan and Lagergren, who has since given up law to paint, married in 1984 and lived in a modest apartment on New York City's Roosevelt Island until last year, when they moved to the elegant townhouse that serves as the Secretary-General's residence. Though an avid reader who enjoys solitary walks, Annan also entertains regularly with his wife. "He is very outgoing; she's more shy," says friend James Goodale, a Manhattan attorney. "It's a relationship full of symmetry." They have three grown children from previous marriages.

When Annan was appointed the U.N.'s top official in 1996, his wife, now 53, said she felt "tremendous pride" but wondered if she was up to the pressures of such a life. Still, she told The Jerusalem Post, "I knew that my husband was." Few issues have tested his skills as has the crisis over Iraq, but friends say he is their first choice to do such diplomatic battle. "He relishes those kinds of challenges," says Jack Mason, a judge in St. Paul who has known Annan since 1959. "He has in mind a goal: world peace."

PATRICK ROGERS
MARGARET NELSON in St. Paul, LINDA KRAMER in Washington and LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City

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