On an early winter evening in 1978, I and Lynn Gossett, one of the first friends I made at Ohio University, trudged through the weather to Memorial Auditorium to hear a speaker invited by the university to discuss matters of then-current importance.
Both of us little realized as we entered the building that we would meet the man of the hour the same night, and while said meeting was more of a casual hobnob of little consequence in anyone’s life, I never forgot it. And that was because this individual was so much a part of U.S. history and its more shadowy efforts on the world stage.
The man was William Egan Colby, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was still hot copy because his 1976 departure from the job, coming after a year of Congressional probes that pierced the culture of secrecy surrounding the agency, was still shrouded in controversy. In Athens almost two years to the day after he was replaced as CIA chief by George H.W. Bush, Colby would no doubt discuss his experiences in espionage that began as an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative in World War II.
I was interested in that stuff at the time, although to be truthful I didn’t know a great deal about it all, including the more recent events that had led to Colby’s dismissal in the final year of the Ford administration. But I did know that even under a new president and director, the CIA was still a topic of interest. As I recall, Colby’s speech to the university crowd was respectful and thought-provoking about the role of intelligence in shaping policy. If he was at all bitter over his treatment after serving his country for three decades, you wouldn’t know it, because he was the kind of patriot who preferred discussing the failings of the system in a calm and rational manner, which in the coming years he became known for doing.
It occurred to me there may be a reception for Colby in the upper level of Memorial Auditorium following his talk, so Lynn and I hustled upstairs and hovered in the hallway near an open door to a room where OU faculty, administrators and friends would greet the speaker. We were actually quite alone when from the other end of the hallway came Colby, unaccompanied and perhaps a bit unsure of where he was supposed to be. He had retrieved his overcoat, and for all the world resembled a bespectacled attorney (which was his profession at the time) or teacher with a pleasant demeanor who approached the only souls around, a pair of non-threatening college students, offering a humorous remark about being either too early or too late.
With the ice broken, we shook hands and asked Colby if he was planning a book about his experiences. He replied in the affirmative (“Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA” appeared a few months later) and chatted a bit more with us when a university staffer came to collect him for the reception.
It took a little while to sink in with us that we’d been speaking with a man who held so much responsibility during the Cold War that had been tempered some by the detente that Henry Kissinger, who emerged as one of Colby’s White House opponents during his CIA directorship, engineered during the ’70s.
What struck us was Colby’s openness as a person and participant in some of the major events of the time. This transparency ultimately led to his downfall at the CIA as he advocated reformation of the agency’s cloak-and-dagger image and willingness to speak with Congress about its failings. Yet he also seemed unaffected by it all and certainly not cowed by recent experiences, even serene in his belief he was right. I soon wrote an account of Colby’s visit for a one-off student-produced political journal, but its mastermind wasn’t impressed by my viewpoint and reduced the piece to a headline and paragraph before it saw print.
Fast forward several months to summer break back in New York State. With a night off from my seasonal job, I hung out at home with an old high school friend, Peter Masella. As we went into the living room, we found my father, as was his habit, watching Merv Griffin’s syndicated talk/variety show on local television (it led into the 10 p.m. news, always Dad’s real objective when it came to TV). I glanced at the screen and there was Colby, responding to the host’s questions and plugging his book. I alerted Peter to the fact, and his response, marinaded in that twisted sense of humor we both enjoyed, was thus: “Just think, Kevin. That’s the man, who only a few years ago, could have ordered your death!”
We chuckled at the absurdity of our government wanting to eliminate me, a know-nothing gentleman and scholar working the graveyard shift at Howard Johnson’s, but it underscored the public perception of the CIA’s misdeeds that came to light during the rocky 2-1/2 years Colby served as its director.
While I remembered our meeting, I didn’t think much about Colby again until late April 1996, when reports surfaced that, at 76, he’d gone missing while canoeing alone near Rock Point, Md., in a tributary of the Potomac River. His body was found a week later, with his passing ruled accidental. Almost immediately, conspiracy theorists had him pegged as a victim of foul play connected to his lengthy past with the CIA, which included a 12-years stint in South Vietnam. It was, however, revealed he suffered from heart disease, a suggested cause of death which satisfied all but the diehards.
In 2011, Colby’s son Carl released the documentary “The Man Nobody Knew,” a feature-length study of his father and his times in which Carl, trying to resolve some obvious resentment toward the man over family issues, suggested that he committed suicide, guilt-ridden over his career with the CIA and what it brought to reality. I can’t speak to that belief, since a son should know his father and what he was like. But I do believe William Colby, convinced he was right in his position, never wavered from that stance. Or was particularly doubtful about his actions.
People will disagree with me, I’m sure. But that determination was also a hallmark of the generation of which he was a part that fought for a better world, one to be enjoyed by the likes of you and me.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.