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Lyman Kirkpatrick: “Hell on Wheels”

The CIA, in celebration of both the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, honored historical Agency figures who served with distinction and a disability, leaving a lasting impact on the Agency and in American history.

Lyman Kirkpatrick had been chief of operations in CIA’s clandestine service for only a few months when he returned from an overseas trip with what he thought was a bad cold. It turned out to be polio, and he spent the next several months in the hospital and then at a rehabilitation facility. Some years later, he wrote about the determination and grit that enabled him not only to return to work but to perform at a high level in two of the Agency’s most senior jobs—Inspector General and Executive Director–Comptroller. “I feel very strongly that many others can do what I am now doing but are constrained from attempting to do it by fear of the unknown and innocence of the facts,” he wrote.

A veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Kirkpatrick joined CIA when it was created in 1947. He served as a division chief and as executive assistant to a very demanding CIA Director, Walter Bedell Smith. Kirkpatrick was a man with a privileged past and a bright future—until he contracted polio while on a tour of Asia. He had played football at Princeton and survived air raids and artillery and machine-gun fire during World War II. He was, in his own words, “disdainful of the damage that could be done by a disease.” As the 36-year-old intelligence officer lay, helpless, in his hospital bed, he felt almost overwhelmed by the lack of knowledge about what his new future held for him.

On his return to work, Kirkpatrick found that the career path he had set for himself was now blocked—less because of his own self-doubt than the doubts of others about his ability to handle the workload. Although he wouldn’t be able to advance in the clandestine service as he originally intended, the Agency did accommodate his disability, and he retained posts at the top of the CIA hierarchy for the next 12 years.

His performance earned him the National Civil Service Award and the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. In tribute to his willingness to take independent and sometimes unpopular stances, his staff nicknamed him “Hell on Wheels.” He had an incredible impact on the evolution of the Agency.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of the creation of CIA, Kirkpatrick was named a Trailblazer; his citation noted that he “was instrumental in helping design and implement much of the original organization structure of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Some have called him the best director CIA never had.

After leaving CIA, Kirkpatrick taught political science at Brown University and wrote several books, including The Real CIA (1968).

Kirkpatrick’s legacy—and that of officers like him—continues to fuel the spirit of diversity and inclusion at the Agency. CIA leaders—like OSS leaders before them—recognize the importance of diversity to the success of the mission and embrace the contributions of brave individuals who feel the call to serve, regardless of disability, gender, or race. Although CIA is a unique employer with a special set of security requirements, the Agency is proud of its officers with disabilities and continues to strive to make the Agency an employer of choice for people with disabilities. To learn more about career opportunities for people with disabilities at CIA, please click here.


For related stories, please see:

Virginia Hall: The Courage and Daring of "The Limping Lady"

The Glorious Amateurs: OSS Turns 75!


Posted: Oct 30, 2015 11:42 AM
Last Updated: Jun 21, 2017 04:56 PM