This is a part of our series about CIA employees who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Here we will look at the lives of the men and women who have died while serving their country.
Currently, there are 89 stars carved into the marble of the CIA Memorial Wall. The wall stands as a silent, simple memorial to those employees “who gave their lives in the service of their country.” The CIA has released the names of 54 employees; the names of the remaining 35 officers must remain secret, even in death.
Early in his career as an analyst, John Celli’s superiors tagged him as a leader with exceptional interpersonal skills. During his four years at the Central Intelligence Agency, he did not disappoint. In November 1996, John died in a traffic accident while overseas on a temporary duty assignment.
From Honors to the CIA
John was born in the Bronx district of New York City. He grew up in New Milford, Connecticut. At New Milford High School, John was known as a strong leader and was elected National Honor Society president. In 1987, he graduated with honors.
In the fall of 1987, John began his college career at Georgetown University. He majored in international economics with a concentration in finance and commerce. At Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, John was considered a class leader. In 1989, he spent a semester overseas at the University of Spain. In addition to his studies, John also was involved in many service organizations. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in 1991. John was the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
John joined the CIA in January 1992 and was selected for the Agency’s Career Training Program. The program was entry-level training for both Directorate of Operations (now the National Clandestine Service) and Directorate of Intelligence (DI) officers. John completed the program in 1993 and was assigned to the DI where he worked in the Office of Resources, Trade and Technology (which later became the Office of Transnational Security and Technology Issues) as an economic analyst. He quickly earned a reputation for being an intelligent, hardworking and friendly analyst. John was always more than willing to volunteer for temporary duty stints or extra duties.
Beyond the Job
While John liked to work hard, he also liked to play hard. He was an avid outdoorsman. Hiking, skiing and basketball were among a few of his favorite outdoor activities.
One of John’s colleagues recalled seeing a picture of John jumping center against NBA player Dikembe Mutembo when he played intramural basketball at Georgetown.
“John wasn’t a tall guy,” his colleague said. “His team knew that it didn’t matter who they put against Mutembo. That was the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor John had.”
John also had a love for martial arts. He earned a third-degree black belt and instructor’s certificate in Tang Soo Do. At the time of his death, John was head instructor and proprietor of two Tang Soo Do studios—one in Virginia and one in Maryland. He frequently made trips to Philadelphia to study with Chuck Norris’ trainer. John was also a stamp and coin collector.
Leaving a Lasting Impression
During John’s brief time with the Agency, he made a lasting impression on his colleagues. After speaking with many of John’s friends and colleagues about the 12th anniversary of his death, it is clear that he is still missed and thought of fondly.
“He had an uncontainable enthusiasm about him,” said a colleague and lifelong friend. “He would wake up in the morning with a smile on his face and go to bed with smile on his face.”
At the Agency’s 1997 annual memorial ceremony, then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet spoke about how John lived his life in abundance:
“And the greatest thing he did was to give all he had, not just to his job, but to all those around him. He genuinely cared for people, loved working with people, and helped others at every opportunity. He lived a life in full abundance; and we could learn from how he lived a great lesson on how we ourselves should live. That lesson is love: love of truth and goodness, love for country, love for this Agency’s family.”
Remembering a Hero
In March 1997, John was posthumously awarded the Exceptional Service Medallion and the Intelligence Commendation Medal for his distinguished service to the Agency.
John’s memory is honored with a star on the Agency’s Memorial Wall. His name also appears in the CIA Book of Honor. John is survived by his parents, brother and sister.