As a Secret Service agent from 1976 to 2001, Denny Schlindwein protected seven presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. Now he is an English teacher at West Johnston High School. He also teaches protection classes at Wake Technical Community College and Durham Technical Community College.
Q: How did you get interested in being a Secret Sservice agent?
I was raised in Illinois, but my wife Sally and I had moved to Miami. I was an English teacher there. One of the guys who was in charge of Nixon’s Key Biscayne White House, the White House away from the White House, his parents lived next door to me. He befriended me, and we hung out and played golf. One day he said, “Why don’t you make some money and travel and get away from teaching school?” So I did. That started my career in the Secret Service. I worked there from 1976 until about a month before the (Sept. 11 terrorist attacks). It really bummed me out that I had retired. It would have been really good to get to work on that. But with the Secret Service, once you retire they don’t call you back.
Q: What was the process like of joining the secret service?
The process back then was a little bit looser than the process now, with all the terrorist activities and such. But back then, they grilled you and asked you a lot of questions, but they didn’t polygraph you. They do now. You also have to take the Treasury Enforcement Exam and have a personal interview. They also spoke to about every neighbor I had ever had. The background check takes about a year.
After the year-long background check, they offer you a position, and if you accept it, they tell you where you are going to be stationed. That move, the first one is at the agents’ expense. They don’t want to invest a lot of money and have the agent back out after a month or two.
The training was about 15 weeks of going to U.S. Treasury school in Georgia, followed by about 15 weeks at the Secret Service School in D.C. That’s where you learn criminal investigations and protections.
Q: People think of the Secret service as guarding the president and vice president. So what are agents doing spread around the nation and globe?
In essence, the majority of the normal agent’s work is criminal work. It was part of the U.S. Treasury until 2003. We dealt with counterfeit money and primarily investigated stolen U.S. Treasury checks, stolen Social Security checks, income tax checks. That’s what you did for the first part of your career. My first position was in Charlotte. I was assigned to investigate primarily those two offenses. Now we would also protect the president or vice president or their families if they were traveling close to our locations.
Once you’re in the field office for three to five years, you are then assigned to protection. You are assigned to the president, vice president or former president’s detail. Those would include their family. They give you choices. You spend three to five years doing that. When they travel, the field-office guys get there a couple days ahead of time to secure the locations.
The other people we are assigned to protect are foreign dignitaries from all over the world. Every four years, we also are assigned to state and national campaigns. When you are working those, you’re home for three weeks, then on the road for three weeks. It’s really hard on the agents’ families. I was with Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and maybe the most interesting of all and the least well known was Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, who ran with Ross Perot. He was a really fascinating person.
You wear two hats. If you get tired of doing criminal work, you have an opportunity to do protection work and travel around the world.
After you finish your career in protection, you can decide if you want to go back into criminal work or stay in D.C. and work in training or some other capacity like that. With me, I chose to be with former President Jimmy Carter and his family for four years. My family and I moved to Georgia, and I would go to Plains every day to work with him. A lot of people don’t know what he’s really all about. He’s the best person I’ve ever met in my life. You can’t help but get close to someone when you work next to them every day for four years. We are still friends to this day. One of the neatest things is that he and I took three days to build Sally a butcher block. After we built, it he presented it to Sally. It’s still with us today. He did it because of our relationship and because I had a really good relationship with his daughter, Amy.
Q: What are some of your other memories of the presidents you protected?
I remember being in an elevator one time with Ronald Reagan when he was a former president, and I said to him, “Mr. President, I have to tell you something. I lived in Tampico, Illinois, too.” He had lived there for a time when he was young. It was a tiny town. He replied, “That makes two great Americans from there then.” I was really impressed by that.
Q: What do you miss most about the Secret Service?
I really miss the camaraderie. We were a very close-knit group of law-enforcement agents. We had to be a team at all times, because if someone dropped the ball, a person could be shot. We know just about everyone in the agency.
Other than being a professional athlete – golf or baseball – I can’t think of another job I would rather have had than being a Secret Service agent. I really loved it. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.
Correspondent Holly Lock