FBI Marks 100; Former Agent Has Long Memories

Correction July 26, 2009

The story says the FBI has "more that 28,000 agents." Actually, the FBI has about 30,000 employees — including support staff, surveillance teams and more than 12,000 special agents.

Walter Walsh i i

hide captionWalter Walsh celebrated his 100th birthday in 2007.

Courtesy of the Walsh family
Walter Walsh

Walter Walsh celebrated his 100th birthday in 2007.

Courtesy of the Walsh family
Walter Walsh and J. Edgar Hoover i i

hide captionIn 1937, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover presented agent Walsh with two marksmanship trophies. Hoover signed the picture, "To Walter R. Walsh, with all good wishes, from J. Edgar Hoover."

Courtesy of the Walsh family
Walter Walsh and J. Edgar Hoover

In 1937, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover presented agent Walsh with two marksmanship trophies. Hoover signed the picture, "To Walter R. Walsh, with all good wishes, from J. Edgar Hoover."

Courtesy of the Walsh family

The FBI turns 100 on Saturday. That makes former agent Walter Walsh one year older than his former employer.

Walsh was an agent when newsreels at the Saturday double feature were full of the drama, thrills and action of G-men tracking down criminals like John Dillinger, Ma Barker and the Brady Gang.

He joined the FBI in 1934, just a decade after J. Edgar Hoover took the helm and the bureau began to take the same kind of shape we see today. The G-men — or government men — were behind some of the most celebrated cases of the time, and Walsh thought he could be part of that. He signed up fresh out of Rutgers Law School.

"I thought to myself, this might be a good outfit to tie up with," Walsh says. "I am not trying to pin medals on myself, but the people in the FBI knew that I was very handy with firearms."

Actually, he was more than just handy.

A Recognized Marksman

Walsh's living room is filled with shooting trophies and medals from the Marine Corps and the FBI. He said he started out shooting clothespins off his aunt's clothesline with a BB gun, something she used to yell at him about. But he was good at it — so good he ended up on the 1948 Olympic shooting team, the first Olympics after World War II. Walsh was also commander of the Marine Corps' marksmanship training for years.

Because he could shoot, the FBI assigned him to some of its biggest cases.

Walsh was there when the FBI arrested Doc Barker — Ma Barker's lawless son — in Chicago in 1935. The FBI had gotten a tip about where Doc Barker was hiding, and Walsh was with the team on the stakeout.

"The place had been under surveillance," Walsh said in a recent interview with NPR. "We may not have been thoroughly convinced it was the place to be, but when this gal came out ... in this red fox fur coat, we knew we were in the right place."

The FBI arrested Barker then and there.

Tracking Public Enemy No. 1

Walsh was on the scene in 1937 when the FBI got a tip that Al Brady, its "Public Enemy No. 1," was hiding out in Maine.

In the interview, Walsh had trouble recalling the details at first. Then he brightened as his nephew, Chip Wells, jogged his memory.

"I remember having a shootout with somebody — in a sporting goods store, I believe it was."

His nephew reminded him it was in Bangor. "That's it — in bang, bang, Bangor, Maine," Walsh said with a laugh.

Brady and his gang had committed more than 200 robberies and four murders and had escaped from prison. They had figured that Bangor was so remote the FBI would never think of looking for them there. As Walsh recalled the day, little details began to click into place.

"Brady or one of his cohorts had been in [the sporting goods store] a couple of days before to buy a machine gun," Walsh said. The clerk told him there weren't any in stock and it would take a couple of days to get some, Walsh said.

So Brady and his gang said they would come back for their guns in a couple of days. The clerk called the police, who brought in the FBI. The shooting started almost as soon as Brady came through the door.

"The only thing I can remember is shooting through this plate-glass door," Walsh said. "And I must have recognized him. I didn't just shoot to shoot a plate glass door...."

Brady died that day on Central Street. A brass plaque in the sidewalk commemorates the event more than 70 years ago.

On The Straight And Narrow Path

It is hard to believe Walsh is 101. Except for his hearing and some small lapses in memory, he seems like a much younger man.

He has almost a full head of hair. He lives alone. He grouses that his family won't let him drive his car anymore. And while he needs occasional prodding to remember events that happened a lifetime ago, he's sharp and funny and there is a twinkle in his eye.

He is so vigorous, you can't help but ask if he has a secret that got him past that century mark.

"To start with, you have to be lucky," Walsh says. "Then, if you listen to your parents and follow the path of the straight and narrow, then I think God has mercy on you — permits you to live. That's about it. It has worked very well for me for a long time."

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