By Joan Doggrell
Dwight and Kathy Ellison are active and beloved members of St. Paul’s. Kathy co-chairs the St. Paul’s Altar Guild and is a Daughter of the King. Dwight is a member of the Men’s Club, is an Usher and Verger and, until recently, trained and directed the acolytes. Kathy teaches GED classes at West Georgia Technical College, and Dwight takes care of his grandson while his mother works outside the home.
These “mild mannered” occupations disguise a far more exciting past. For twenty years Dwight was a United States Secret Service Agent. With Kathy’s support at home, he served in Newark, New Jersey, Atlanta, Georgia, Plains, Georgia, and Washington DC, with other temporary assignments all over the country, and, on numerous occasions, overseas.
Then he had a second career as head of security at Turner Broadcasting. More about that later.
According to the USSS Facebook page, the Secret Service was founded on July 5, 1865. This is their Mission Statement:
The mission of the United States Secret Service is to safeguard the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy, and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events.
Dwight Ellison, an innocent young man whose ambition was to teach high school English, wore this badge for twenty years and a day.
While a senior at Clark College in Atlanta, Dwight was approached by four Secret Service recruiters. It seems there was an effort going forth to bring more minorities into the Service. However, Dwight had trained to be a teacher, and he was looking forward to taking a position doing just that. So, he put the application form in his footlocker and forgot about it.
For three years, Dwight pursued a successful career in his hometown of LaGrange teaching high school English, coaching football and Track and Field.
“I enjoyed being home and working to expand my students understanding and use of our language,” said Dwight. “I coached football and was the head track coach, which was my specialty. I enjoyed that more than anything.”
But then Dwight and his principal had a disagreement. He loved his job, but just didn’t feel he could stay in it any longer. As fate would have it, he found the Secret Service application where it had lain ever since the agents had attempted to recruit him back in college.
“I called a friend that I’d known for quite a while – I knew his family – who was a Secret Service Agent. He told me there was still an effort afoot to hire minorities.”
Dwight finished his teaching year while applying for a Secret Service position, taking tests and interviewing. In April of 1971, he was notified by letter that he was hired. He reported for duty at the Atlanta Field Office on June 28, 1971. (Dwight has a precise memory for dates.)
“So I went to work,” said Dwight. “After six weeks of Treasury School, I received notice that I was going to be transferred. And I’d only been on the job for four or five months!”
Meanwhile, where was Kathy?
“I was still single,” said Dwight. “but we were dating. I had no idea I was going to be leaving LaGrange. But I was transferred to the Newark Field Office in October of 1971. In December of 1972, Kathy and I were married, and she left college in the middle of her junior year and moved to New Jersey. I had promised her mom I would make sure she finished school. So she enrolled in Newark State Teachers’ College, completing a semester up there.”
I asked if they had experienced culture shock.
“Well,” said Dwight. “We were both little country kids who moved to New Jersey and made it, in spite of the culture change”
“The agents and their wives always wanted to hear me talk,” added Kathy. Kathy had a pronounced southern accent.
They spent two years in Newark. “I worked a lot of criminal cases, made a lot of arrests, worked a lot of undercover, and traveled all over the country doing that. Back then, the big deal was counterfeiting and check forgery: Social Security and Veterans’ Administration checks, any check with a Treasury seal on it. We investigated forgery and fraud of those documents.”
“It was hard work involving a lot of all-nighters, a lot of surveillance, and serving arrest warrants. And it was just me and maybe one agent covering me. It was dangerous stuff,” admitted Dwight. “But the good news for me then was that everybody didn’t have four or five guns, and if they had them, they didn’t carry them. We made several arrests where people had firearms in their homes, but there were very few occasions where we had to confront someone who had a gun. Very few. Today it’s commonplace. I wouldn’t want to be an agent today.”
“What did you think, Kathy?” I asked
“It was just normal,” she replied.
Dwight was in Newark until August of 1973, when he was asked to return to the Atlanta Field Office. They needed a minority agent in that office to do undercover work among Black counterfeiters.
“Did you worry about him then?” I asked.
“I never worried about him as an individual,” said Kathy. “One time he came home with tape all over him. I thought something had happened to him. But the tape was from the wire he was wearing. That’s the only time I ever threw a panic. I thought, ‘He’s been shot!’ But I never really worried about him.”
“Most of the time, as long as you remember where you are and what you’re doing and you don’t do something stupid, you’re fine,” said Dwight. “And if you don’t run into someone who is so doggone crazy it doesn’t make a difference.”
“You never really give the suspects money,” Dwight added. “You just examine the counterfeit and then lock them up. You come out of your undercover mode and became a policeman. I was always wearing a wire, and someone was always listening to my conversation. I wasn’t stranded out there, out of touch. And I had another agent with me.”
His last undercover assignment, however, went beyond his expectations. And not in a good way.
“The last time I worked undercover,” Dwight said, “we were making a counterfeit buy from an old man in southwest Atlanta. He hadn’t manufactured anything, but he had possession of a lot of $20 bills, probably 80 or 90 thousand dollars’ worth. We went to his apartment, Doug James and I, to make the buy. We knocked, and a young lady came to the door. She said she was his intermediary and that we had to conduct the sale thru her. Well, we went inside and made the deal. I said, ‘I need to see the money.’
“She went into the back and returned with a paper bag full of twenty-dollar bills. I opened it. As I was looking inside, she pulled a weapon out of her purse. She said, ‘I want my money now.’ Doug then pulled his revolver and said, ‘Make a choice. Money or your life.’ She dropped the gun, and we made the arrest of her and the old man.
“That was the last undercover assignment I ever worked. I’d never had anyone draw a gun on me before. I said, that’s it.”
Meanwhile, Kathy stayed busy. She went back Clark College in Atlanta, the same one she had left to accompany her husband to Newark – and, still on scholarship, completed her degree in Elementary School Education, graduating with her class and finishing with a 3.9 GPA. She taught for two years full time and then stayed home with their two children.
“I volunteered at their schools. When one of the supervisors found out I was a teacher, he asked me to sub in the children’s school, so I did that. Otherwise I was home with them. Dwight traveled a lot, so somebody needed to be home. We tried to live in neighborhoods where there were other agents with families. Fortunately, all of the guys wouldn’t be gone at the same time.
“When Dawn got sick, Dwight was in West Virginia,” said Kathy. “But a friend of ours, also an agent, was there. We were living up in Upper Marlboro, MD. The neighboring agent took me to the hospital while his wife kept Kimberly. Dwight was notified and was flown back home within hours. Usually someone was around who could get in touch with him and let him know what was going on.”
“I doubt seriously that that kind of caring exists anymore,” said Dwight, “primarily because the jurisdiction has expanded so much that agents are in travel status between 60-70 percent of their time. When I retired, we had 45-50 agents in the Atlanta Field Office. Today, they have close to 100. If you were to go into a field office today, you’d be lucky to find 15 people in there. They’re out doing other things: protecting the President, protecting a foreign dignitary, or they’re in school and training. “
Dwight returned to Washington DC in October of 1976. After spending two years in the Intelligence Division, he was transferred to the Presidential Protective Division. Jimmy Carter was President, and Dwight was assigned to his protection. And that led to one of the few times that Kathy worried.
As she tells it, “When Reagan was sworn in and Carter departed to civilian life in Plains, GA, Dwight packed bags. He was traveling with President Carter back to Plains. He said he might not see us for a couple of days. A few days later, while we were watching TV, there he was! In Germany. We didn’t know he was going. Afterwards we learned that as soon as Reagan was sworn in, Dwight was on his way to Germany with President Carter. American hostages, who had been held by leaders of Iran, were released and transferred to Germany. Since these hostages had been taken and held captive during President Carter’s term in office, Carter wanted to bring the hostages home.
“President Reagan had threatened the Iranians with serious consequences if the Americans were still being held hostage the day Reagan was sworn in. Dwight wasn’t gone very long. But we didn’t know when he was coming home.”
Dwight explained, “At that point, President Carter had left office. I was still on the Presidential Protective Detail, but I was temporarily assigned to escort Former President Carter home to Plains, GA. When word broke that the hostages were going to be released, President Reagan sent an aircraft to pick up Former President Carter. We flew with Carter to Germany.”
Why were the hostages released so quickly after Reagan became President? I have always wanted to know. This is Dwight’s explanation.
“When the hostages were taken, Carter was still in the White House. He had been trying to negotiate their release for close to a year. On his watch, an attempt had been made to rescue them, but the attempt had failed. When Reagan took office, his message to the Ayatollah was, if you don’t release the hostages, I will come over and make where you live a parking lot. The Iranians took his threat seriously because they didn’t hesitate to release the hostages.
“We saw all that up close and personal. We were a part of history,” said Dwight.
Dwight was on the plane that flew the hostages home.
After that, a quiet life away from Washington looked very attractive. Dwight volunteered for the former President’s detail, “And then,” said Dwight, “we left and moved to Albany, Georgia, and set up homestead there. We loved it. We were there for three years.”
But the peaceful life didn’t last. Dwight and Kathy returned to Atlanta where he was promoted to squad supervisor. More promotions followed, and another Presidential Protection assignment.
“In 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for President, I was in charge of his detail,” said Dwight.
“We had just moved into a house in Lithonia when he got a call,” said Kathy. “We hadn’t been there two weeks. And I knew, when Jesse said he was going to run, I just knew that’s what they had called about. We had just moved in, and Dwight was gone. Within two days.”
“Jesse and I hadn’t met before that,” said Dwight. “He wasn’t used to the agents and did not fully understand our mission. He was busy doing his own thing. We had to have a couple of come-to-Jesus conversations. But we got to be pretty close after a while.”
“He told me I had the meanest husband he’d ever seen,” said Kathy. “I told him, you do as he says because I want him to come home! And Jackie wants you to come home.“
Because of Jesse, Kathy very nearly made the cover of the National Inquirer.
“We went to meet him for the first time at the Fulton County Airport. I had my back to the press. I spoke to him, and as he hugged me, I could hear a sound like cattle running. It was the press. I was there with two little girls who just kind of appeared, and they had never seen me before. They were looking for a story!”
Dwight’s next promotion was to the Office of Inspection back in DC. Not long thereafter, he was assigned to Secret Service Headquarters with another promotion to the Senior Executive Service. That is as high as you can go in the Secret Service.
“I was Deputy Assistant Director for a little over a year when the position of Special Agent in Charge in the Atlanta office came vacant. My former boss there had retired. He called and told me he was leaving and wanted to know if I was interested in the job. I said, ‘Are you kidding? I want to get home.’ So we went back to Atlanta for the third time, and this time I was the boss. I spent my last year and a half on the job there.”
About six months before he was eligible to retire, Dwight got a call from Turner Broadcasting. “They wanted me to come to work right away,” he said. “I couldn’t do that because I would lose my opportunity to retire outright in twenty years and get an annuity.”
So, one day a week, for about two months, Dwight spent unpaid time at Turner learning his new job. Although he had planned to stay with the Secret Service another two or three years, he retired on June 28, 1991, after twenty years and one day. The Monday following retirement from the Secret Service, he went to work for Turner Broadcasting, where he would spend the next eleven and a half years as Corporate Director of Security.
Now he faced a new set of challenges.
“Security wasn’t exactly at the top of their list of priorities,” he said. “I had to introduce to them the need for security, especially living and working in CNN Center. Everything is wide open: the public entrance to the facility, that whole first floor lobby area, with private vendors, food service, a fitness center, a sports store and the CNN tours. High profile people on television who receive threats every day faced exposure as they were coming and going.”
The women were especially vulnerable and received the most threats. They all wanted their own security escorts. Though that wasn’t possible, Dwight or one of his employees surveyed their homes, screened their mail and calls, recommended specific security measures, and gave advice about their travel habits. They were given prioritized parking where a security officer was stationed and an escort to and from their cars.
So, using what he had learned in the Secret Service and a large dose of common sense, Dwight became the “security guru” for all of Turner, worldwide, and shared his expertise with other corporations in Atlanta. He retired from Turner Broadcasting in January of 2002 after eleven and a half years.
“I started a little private investigative business. I got a few jobs, made a few dollars, but the rewards failed to measure up to the efforts and time required.”
So Dwight accepted full retirement. “Except for taking care of the baby,” said Kathy.
I asked Dwight how the Secret Service today compares with what it was like when he was an Agent.
“The Service was founded to suppress counterfeiting,” said Dwight. “That is still one of the top investigative priorities, but cyber-crime is now on top of everything else. Counterfeiting is probably still in second place. Today, they investigate a lot of computer crime. In fact, the Service heads a number of inter-agency cyber-crime units. They have participation from the local police, the GBI, the FBI, and maybe one other Justice Department inter-agency is involved on those task forces. They do a lot of preventive work. They find out what is going on, such as bank fraud. But more than anything else now is cyber-crime. We didn’t know anything about that in my day. Then the big deal was counterfeiting and check forgery.”
“I wouldn’t do it today. Everybody’s crazy. Everybody has a gun: eighteen, seventeen, sixteen-year-olds have guns, and they think it’s a rite of passage to shoot somebody. To get into these gangs, you have to shoot or rob somebody or break into somebody’s car, home or business. The majority of the car thefts you see on TV are gang initiations, as are local store break-ins. That’s what you have to do to show that you’re ‘worthy’ of being a member of one of these gangs.”
Though it is not generally known among today’s parish family, Dwight is a member of the St Paul’s Security Committee. He comes with an excellent resume!
Kathy and Dwight joined St. Paul’s in 1991. They had attended church in Atlanta until they realized there was a St. Paul’s in Newnan not far from where they lived. They gave it a try. They received such a warm welcome they decided to stay. And, in so many ways, we are glad they did!