The sun was blinding in a dry sky over Chicago, reflecting hard against the new Chicago FBI headquarters, and against the several hundred people gathered for an outdoor memorial service to remember those who died in the performance of their duty.
The low-key and tasteful ceremony, an annual memorial service instituted a few years ago by Robert Grant, the special agent in charge who runs the FBI's Chicago office. So there were bagpipes and drums, a color guard, the families of the dead, wives, daughters, sons, and the names read of the 50 special agents across the country who've died, beginning with the first.
The first of the FBI's dead was named Edwin G. Shanahan. He was killed in Chicago, on Oct. 11, 1925, by a car thief with an automatic pistol.
The FBI had asked me to say a few words, so I stood up at the lectern Friday, looked out over the crowd, and I heard my own voice. I realized how puny and foolish words are, how thin they are, how inadequate to measure such sacrifice. I realized the only words that counted were the words of the survivors, the spouses and the children of slain FBI personnel. That hard sun bounced off the starched shirt collars of hundreds of FBI agents and support personnel, and against their sunglasses, the American flag.
It bounced especially hard off the cellophane-wrapped flowers, held loosely by Jane Lynch. Her husband, Special Agent Michael James Lynch, was one of four FBI special agents killed in a 1982 plane crash while working a bank fraud case in Ohio. Agent Lynch left a son and three daughters.
"President Reagan called the day after my husband was killed," Lynch told me at the reception after the ceremony. "My son wasn't there. He was 9 years old then, and I was so distraught, and I asked the president if he would call back to speak to my son.
"The president called back the very next day. And he told my son how important his father had been to this country. How important the bureau was to the country. I wanted my son to have that," Lynch told me. "I wanted him to have that understanding."
During the ceremony, there was another speaker: Tom Bourgeois.
He's been out of FBI for a few years now. Those of you who follow cases may know him as the retired boss of the FBI's organized crime section. Bourgeois began the case that took down the Chicago mob, that case against the Outfit called "Operation Family Secrets."
And those of you who understand the reach of the Outfit know that it infects politics and local law enforcement, and that FBI agents like Bourgeois and those who followed him are often the only shield between decrepit warlords and the rest of us.
Bourgeois' father was one of the FBI agents killed in the line of duty, in a 1953 shootout with a murder suspect in Baltimore.
"He was 35 years old, had been in the FBI for 13 years. Among the offices he served was Chicago," Bourgeois said. Bourgeois was 2 years old. One brother was 4, another was 6 months old when their father died.
During that shootout, Bourgeois' father mortally wounded the fugitive suspect. In the hospital, he was told that the suspect had been killed.
"May God have mercy on his soul," Bourgeois recounted his father as saying. "And those were my father's last words. Last words of compassion and forgiveness . . .
"Out of necessity, my brothers and I grew up learning about our father from stories that others told," Bourgeois said. "I learned that he loved his family. He loved his country. He wanted to make a difference. There were a few family photos, ones where my mother looked happier than I had ever seen her." His father's name was Brady Murphy.
Years later, his mother remarried, a woman alone with three boys to raise, and she found a good man named Henry Bourgeois, a decorated fighter pilot who had flown with the Black Sheep Squadron in World War II. He adopted those little boys and gave them his name and raised them as his own.
"For the families of these fallen heroes, the 50 we honor were our parent, our spouse, our brother, our sister and our good friend. For all of us, they gave their lives while performing their duty and are forever part of the brick and mortar of the FBI," Bourgeois said.
"Many of us have come and gone. We've had fine careers in law enforcement and made great contributions to the bureau. But these good people—the 50 we honor today, have never left."
I've spent years studying government, watching politicians pretend that public service is about using government to make themselves rich. They're the takers. There are so many of them. They take everything, and pay media mouthpieces to convince the rest of us that taking is part of the natural order. But there are those in law enforcement, like the FBI, who don't enter public service to take. They make a career to give. Sometimes, they give more than they can afford to give. And we should never forget it.
Thanks to John Kass
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