My FBI Story
By Randy Tyree

Why Director Hoover glared at me when I shook his hand. (Circa 1959)

“Is Randy in some kind of trouble?”

That question was posed to my mom and dad by Mr. Lowe Apple, a farming neighbor in the Spring of 1958 at our home in Gordonsville (pop. 249 in 1958; 1,520 in 2018), Smith County, Tennessee. My mom’s purported response was “not as far as I know” and my dad’s was “probably”. Mr. Apple then, with his southern drawl and in the vernacular of the region explained to my folks what had happened that afternoon when “an FBI man” came to visit him. According to Mr. Apple, “I was plowing and I heard this car come roaring out the road, stirring up dust like I’d never seed afore. It was a big, black four door thing and must have been air conditioned because the windows were all rolled up. When the driver saw me out plowing, he locked up his cassions, skidded to a stop, jumped out in a big hurry and headed my way. My mules were acting up with all the commotion and wouldn’t gee and haw no matter how loud I yelled at ‘em. It didn’t help that this fellar was dressed like an undertaker with a black suit, black tie and white shirt. As he got closer, he unbuttoned his coat, reached in and pulled out a big, black wallet. That’s when I spied a pistol on his hip! Oh, Lordy, I said to myself, now what do I do? He then opened the wallet and showed me, in big, black letters – FBI and a gold badge. He then asked me a bunch of questions about Randy after explaining that he was investigating him because he wanted to go to work for the FBI. He wanted to know Randy’s reputation for “truth and veracity” (Mr. Apple pronounced it very city) in the community.”

According to family and friends, Mr. Apple’s FBI story was retold many times until it reached epic proportions in the community with me getting on the short list as the next J. Edgar Hoover. After our small community’s excitement over “the FBI investigating the Tyree boy” blew over, I was graduated from Gordonsville High School, traveled to Washington D.C. and reported for duty at the Identification Building as an Administrative Clerk. I was assigned this position because of my typing ability acquired in high school as a result of typing being the only class available that enabled me to play football. I had been selected co-captain of the team, we had a new coach but had been picked to finish last in the Upper Cumberland Valley Conference. The coach successfully lobbied the school principal on the merits of my taking typing even though a majority of the students were co-eds. I certainly didn’t mind that, and we shocked the sports community by winning the conference championship that fall.  

After boredom captured me regarding my typing duties, I transferred to evening shift, working as a courier, delivering files between the various Bureau entities in downtown Washington. My delivery vehicle was an unmarked panel truck and the traffic was considerably more challenging than driving the rural roads of Smith County. As I recall, I generated a good amount of road rage with my driving, but never had a wreck. I did, however, according to partners who occasionally rode “shotgun” with me, set new records for the number of drivers waving at me with only one digit!

One duty I had involved working in the mail room, which gave me the opportunity to keep up with most everyone’s business. One day I spotted a request from the San Juan, Puerto Rico field office to fill a vacant Security Patrol position. I successfully applied for the position and shortly thereafter took my first plane ride, arriving in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 82° balmy weather. I was met when I deplaned by an attractive young woman offering me a Bacardi rum and coke. In retrospect, I should have said “no, thank you” and asked for her phone number. Instead, I blurted out, “I’m only nineteen (19) years old and I’m not allowed to drink.” (Legal age then – 21) The young woman suddenly seemed to lose interest and it was a learning moment for me.

My family was concerned about my safety at first because the Cuban Revolution was occurring, but after I assured them our relatives in Florida were in more danger, being within ninety (90) miles of Cuba, while I was nearly eight hundred (800) miles away, so they became less antsy. There was an Independent Party active in Puerto Rico at the time, who occasionally would set some sugar cane fields on fire or bomb some vacant properties without injury, but our biggest danger was getting run over by a “publico” (taxi), which seemed to number in hundreds. Puerto Rico is a small island, only 100 miles in length and 35 miles in width with a current population of 3.7 million people. (When serving there in 1960-1962, the population was 2.4 million.) It truly is a beautiful island, primarily mountainous, with a stable political system as a Commonwealth with the U.S., an outstanding amount of cultural diversity in its people and exceptional pristine coastal beaches, which were a major tourist mecca.
Today in Puerto Rico, it’s heart-rending to see the tragic results wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Notwithstanding the financial challenges faced by the island prior to the hurricanes, perhaps its leadership can use this tragedy of nature to rebound, which it appears currently to be doing. The island’s rich history and its ability to maintain a democratic government in the face of an assassination attempt (President Truman – 1950) to communist efforts for regime change speaks volumes about its people’s grit and determination.  

Now the plot thickens regarding my meet-up with Director Hoover and his omnipresent secretary, Ms. Gandy, and why they were unhappy campers when we met. The Bureau annually fielded an intramural football team, competing with other governmental entities such as the Government Printing Office (GPO), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), et al. We won the D.C. championship and our reward was a personal meet-up, a photo op and an autographed picture with the Director. Our supervisor called a team meeting, advised us on what to wear, not to think about growing a beard, sporting long hair, or not having your shoes shined. As the day for the meeting arrived, the team lined up in the hallway outside the Director’s office, looking neat and tapped out on adrenaline. I had on new leather soled shoes and a new suit, which our supervisor pointed out to me that he knew the suit was new since I had not removed the tags on the sleeve!

The door to the Director’s office was opened by an aide and we were ushered into what was known to us as the “Inner Sanctum” of the Bureau. The office was modestly furnished with various awards, photos of presidents (Hoover served a total of eleven (11) presidents over a forty-eight (48) year period). I did notice a relatively new shag rug and I rue till this day that I got a D in physics in high school (a passing grade that kept me eligible for football). I was totally ignorant of what mischief can occur with static electricity. The protocol was for our names to be called in alphabetical order, for us to walk across the room, shake hands, receive a trophy and return to the group. Having Tyree (T) as a last name, I was next to last in the alphabetical lineup. While waiting, I nervously kept shuffling my feet on the shag rug and when called, proudly walked toward the Director to shake hands while maintaining strong eye contact with him. Another bummer event, because by the time I reached out to take the Director’s hand, I had become a walking chunk of static electricity. The ensuing loud “pop” resulting when I took the Director’s hand caused him to jerk his hand back, caused Ms. Gandy to pull my trophy back, convincing me that a letter of censor would be appearing in my personnel file shortly.

As I recall, both the Director and Ms. Gandy recovered quickly, and with wary expressions, presented my trophy/photo to me. I returned to the team, wondering what all a letter of censor contains, with the team stifling laughter and subtle catcalls.

Being from a family with a strong military and law enforcement tradition, two career objectives evolved for me as a teen. First, to serve as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and post-military, become a Special Agent with the FBI. Both required a BS degree, with the Bureau requiring a law or accounting degree. A third pathway to becoming a Special Agent existed and that was to have a BS degree and having worked for three (3) years as a Bureau employee. That option became my choice and for the next four years, I acquired college credits from George Washington University (while in D.C.) and Florida State (while in Puerto Rico). After four years with the Bureau, in order to expedite my degree effort, I resigned from the Bureau, returned to Nashville and enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University and was graduated with my BS degree in 1965.

At that point, having served two (2) years in Army ROTC and with the Vietnam War heating up, I joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Quantico, Virginia for officer training. Much to my dismay, a short time later, the medical staff determined I was not physically qualified (NPQ) because of a damaged vertebra in my low back. With the political assistance of Senator Al Gore, Sr., I appealed the decision to the Commandant’s Office but to no avail. Since I now educationally and time in service met the qualifications for a Special Agent, I meandered over the FBI headquarters, which also happened to be at Quantico, to sign up as a Special Agent. Another bummer – the Bureau basically said, NPQ to be a marine; NPQ to be a Special Agent.

Feeling as though I had been turned down more than my momma’s bedspread, I went back to Knoxville, hunkered down, entered law school and went to work as a patrol officer in the Knoxville Police Department.

After being graduated from U.T. School of Law and passing the bar in 1967, I joined the Tennessee Law Enforcement Planning Agency (TLEPA) as Assistant Director, served two years in Nashville and then was named Police and Fire Commissioner for the City of Knoxville. I subsequently went into private law practice and ran successfully for Mayor in 1975 (a historical footnote – that election in 1975 still holds the record for voter turnout which exceeded fifty percent (50%) of the registered voters in the City of Knoxville. In excess of 50,000 voters cast a ballot with my winning margin being .007 of a percentage point, earning me the nickname “Landslide Randy”). To summarize, I consider myself fortunate to travel from being a “farm boy” to a passion requited position in society that included working a decade in law enforcement plus two decades of public service, including serving two terms as Mayor of Knoxville, which included the successful effort to host the 1982 World’s Fair. Whenever I got excited by reading my press clippings and listening about my “bootstrap” achievements, my family/community value system would kick in to remind me that there were many folks that had no boots, so I should just chill out and settle for being the proverbial legend in my own mind.

To this day, I’m able to appreciate the values of what the Bureau instilled in me from that early dream of becoming a Special Agent. The friendships, camaraderie and patriotism that I gleaned from those formative years I spent with the Bureau was the proverbial gift that has kept on giving. The initials F.B.I. – reflecting fidelity – bravery – integrity – continues, even in this technology age of partisan politics, to be the essence of the call that the thousands of women and men answer when they take the oath of office. Our stories of success are not particularly special – what’s special is living in America where such success is possible.

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