PRACTICING SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
As the United States and the Soviet Union gritted their teeth through the Cold War, Maria Teresa (Carrasco) Pietrok ’66 (BA) was creating smiles behind the Iron Curtain, the onetime figurative barrier between communism and capitalist democracies in the West.
As an export manager for Oregon-based dental equipment manufacturer A-dec, Pietrok introduced state-of-the-art dental equipment to 16 Eastern bloc
nations unaccustomed to Western enterprise and technology. Business, she says, “was considered a dirty word.”
But Pietrok practiced her own brand of shuttle diplomacy — skills formed in part by her time at USD — to open new markets.
“I gained the people’s respect as they recognized that I was there, not just for selling, but to help them,” she says. “When you have a liberal arts education, you have a better understanding of humankind and how to relate to people.”
While the Cold War was characterized by suspicion, Pietrok avoided intrigue. She subsequently received commendations from the Russian and Czech dental associations — and from other countries — for her work to improve dental care. She was held in such high esteem that she even collaborated with the Far East Russian minister of health to help bring a sick child to the U.S. for treatment. She’d go on to assist three more Russians seeking American care.
In May 2019, in honor of her achievements, Pietrok was knighted in Rome by Prince Lorenzo de’ Medici, descendent of the famous Italian banking family and political dynasty.
Pietrok recounts her experiences in her book, Piercing the Iron Curtain: The True Story of an American Business Woman’s Challenge to Travel and Open Markets Behind the Iron Curtain, which came out in March 2019.
That she found herself a player in history might seem surprising, given that Pietrok was unsure of her life’s direction when she enrolled at USD as a French literature major. But she was, at that point, a veritable citizen of the world.
She was born in Mexico City, where she spent her childhood. During her teenage years, she lived in Tijuana and crossed the border each day to attend San Diego’s Academy of Our Lady of Peace. Pietrok’s parents — her father was a physician, her mother a San Diego community leader — believed that the best inheritance they could leave her was a quality education.
She enrolled at USD on the advice of her mother’s friends, who called the institution “a wonderful school.” She opted to study languages at the suggestion of nuns from her high school. (Pietrok is proficient and fluent in seven languages: Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Russian.)
She met her husband, Luke, a Navy pilot who served in Vietnam, through a friend from USD. While her husband was flying sorties, Pietrok taught second grade in San Ysidro. The couple, who’ve been married 51 years, initially lived in Mexico, where they ran a Honda motorcycle dealership. But Mexican customs officials ultimately banned motorcycle imports to protect its own manufacturing industry.
Pietrok and her husband moved to Portland, where she spent the next 11 years working in international sales and marketing for a steel foundry. Then a headhunter approached Pietrok, asking if she would consider a job with the dental product manufacturer. The possibility tantalized her, although she assumed the position would go to a man.
But she got the job, and her influences are still felt in Eastern and Central Europe. Pietrok helped promote modern dental techniques — where even local anesthesia was formerly seldom used in general dentistry, except for dental surgery — to the design of dental offices. In fact, she impacted the very way in which dentists see their patients.
“They were working standing up, but I taught them to work ergonomically, how to work sitting down, because that’s a healthier way to do dentistry,” she says. “I also told them how important it was for the patient to be seated in a comfortable chair, because they would relax and the dentist would be able to do better dentistry.
“They said, ‘Oh, thank you. That’s very interesting. We never thought the patient should be comfortable.’ These were Soviet times, and they were not so concerned about the patient, because they had to treat so many patients a day.”
Thereafter, Pietrok was routinely invited to give lectures at Russian Dental Association conferences.
She retired in 2013, after more than 28 years with A-dec, one of the largest dental equipment manufacturers in the world. These days the mother of two — and grandmother of four — does volunteer work for the Portland Art Museum, and she previously served on the board of the European American Arts Council.
Today, there is her legacy to consider. “I hope I was able to make a difference in people’s lives,” Pietrok says. “Even in very trying circumstances, if one is creative or innovative, one can find a way to succeed, and, if needed, also help others.” — Andrew Faught