SCOTT SIMON, host:
The FBI turns 100 today. It was started on this day in 1908 as a small, investigative unit assigned to the Department of Justice. Today, it has more than 28,000 agents. To mark the bureau's centennial, NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston sat down with the agency's oldest-living former agent, Walter Walsh. He's turned 101. That's right, a year older than the FBI.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Walter Walsh was an FBI agent in those days when the life of an agent seemed right out of the movies.
(Soundbite of 1930s newsreel)
Unidentified Announcer #1: The FBI in peace and war. Drama, thrills, action.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Newsreels painted the FBI as a team of real-life heroes. When they shot bank robber John Dillinger in 1934, newsreels trumpeted the victory.
(Soundbite of 1930s newsreel)
Unidentified Announcer #2: John Dillinger is dead. Trapped at last, and shot down on his tracks as he emerged from this motion picture theater here in Chicago. Tipped off to the gangster's movements by a woman, federal agents surrounded the theater with a ring of steel, blue steel, and itching trigger fingers.
TEMPLE-RASTON: All this headline-grabbing crime helped the FBI fulfill its most ambitious recruitment campaign ever. The FBI wanted men with a college degree. And when Walsh signed up fresh out of Rutgers Law School in 1934, the bureau was on track to grow from several hundred agents to over 10,000 by 1945.
Mr. WALTER WALSH (Former FBI Agent): But I thought to myself, this might be a good outfit to tie up with. I'm not trying to pin medals on myself, but the people in the FBI knew that I was very handy with firearms.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Actually, he was more than just handy. Walsh's living room is filled with shooting trophies and medals. He says he started out shooting clothespins with a BB gun off his aunt's clothesline. He ended up on the 1948 Olympic shooting team. He was commander of the Marine Corps marksmanship training for years.
Because he could shoot, the FBI assigned him to the biggest cases. Walsh was there when the FBI arrested Doc Barker, Ma Barker's lawless son, in Chicago in 1935. Walsh recalls the fugitive's girlfriend had a trademark fur coat that tipped off the lawmen.
Mr. WALSH: The place had been under surveillance. We may not have been thoroughly convinced that this was the place to be, but when this gal came out of the house with that - I think it was an apartment - in this red fox fur coat, we knew we were in the right place.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI arrested Barker then and there. Walsh was in Bangor, Maine, in 1937 when the FBI got a tip that its public enemy number one, Al Brady, was hiding out there. Walsh had trouble recalling the details at first, and then brightened as his nephew jogged his memory. The episode ended with an infamous shootout.
Mr. WALSH: I remember having a shootout with somebody in a sporting goods store, I believe it was.
Mr. CHIP WELLS: In Bangor, Maine.
Mr. WALSH: Oh, that's it. Bang, bang, Bangor, Maine.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al Brady and his gang had committed more than 200 robberies and four murders. As Walsh recalled the day, little details like the name of the sporting goods store, Dakin's, began to click into place.
Mr. WALSH: Brady, or one of his cohorts, had been into Dakin's a couple of days before trying to buy a machine gun. And Dakin's, or a clerk therein, said, we don't stock them. It will take a couple of days for us to get one.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So Brady and his gang left, saying they'd come back to pick up their guns in a couple of days. The clerk called the police, and the police brought in the FBI. Walsh was assigned to the FBI stakeout. And when Al Brady came through the door, the shooting started.
Mr. WALSH: The only thing I can remember is shooting through this plate-glass door. And I must have recognized him. I didn't just shoot to shoot plate glass down, to shoot a plate-glass door.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al Brady, public enemy number one, died that day on Central Street. There's a brass plaque in the sidewalk today commemorating the event more than 70 years ago. It's hard to believe Walter 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 still lives alone, and 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 him if there was a secret that got him past that century mark.
Mr. WALSH: To start with, you have to be lucky. Then if you listen to your parents and follow the path of the straight and narrow, 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.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI turns 100 years old today. Former FBI agent Walter Walsh will be 102 next May. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can see public enemy number one Al Brady, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and pictures of other notorious criminals from the FBI's Most Wanted list. As a matter of fact, check for your own on our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.