From cotton fields to the top of federal law enforcement

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 8, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

My first introduction to classical music was Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”  It wasn’t because Rossini was a favorite on our living room “Victrola,” or because my parents had tickets to the Lafayette (Indiana) Symphony Orchestra.

I came to appreciate Rossini and his spirited overture because, in the late 1940s, it was the prelude to the nightly episode of “The Lone Ranger,” my favorite after-school radio program.

First, came a cut from Rossini’s overture and then the animated words, “From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse, Silver.  The Lone Ranger rides again!”

You knew it was going to be good.  Even if the Lone Ranger got in trouble, his Native American sidekick, Tonto, would bail him out.

Though I was a fan, I didn’t know the Lone Ranger story was based on the life of former US Marshal, Bass Reeves.  Reeves, an African-American, was one of many well-known American lawmen who were also US marshals – such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.

I learned this history only recently, after meeting another exemplary US marshal, Louie McKinney.

McKinney is not from the Wild West.  He lives in Arnold, Maryland.

McKinney never starred in a TV series, like Bat Masterson, or in a movie, such as Wyatt Earp in “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”  But Maryland’s McKinney is famous in his own right – a gentle man of remarkable achievement.

Like Bass Reeves, Louie McKinney is also an African American – and the first in the history of the US marshals to rise through the ranks from an entry-level deputy to Acting Director of the US Marshals Service.

Born in Walhalla, South Carolina, in 1936, McKinney was one of nine children, the son of a sharecropper.  He grew up in the segregated South, milking cows and picking cotton.  “At night,” he said, “I would gaze down the long road, feeling bewildered and unfulfilled, wondering where my life’s journey would lead.”

In his stirring 2009 memoir, “One Marshal’s Badge,” McKinney wrote, “Nothing about my early life in Walhalla, SC, offered a single clue about my professional future…at the top of a leading law-enforcement agency.  Whenever I look back on my childhood, I’m still surprised at the path my life has taken.”

Halfway through our conversation, I asked Louie, “What was the turning point in your life?”

He responded without hesitation, “When I quit school in the 11th grade and joined the Navy.  The Navy changed my life.  It showed me new horizons and the importance of completing my education – and it taught me that anything is possible if you prepare yourself.”

One of the primary duties of the Marshals Service, established by the Judiciary Act of 1789, is managing fugitives – including responsibility for prisoner transport and for the operation of the federal witness protection program, a mission made famous by the 2008-2012 TV series, “In Plain Sight.”

During his career as a marshal, McKinney was chief of the enforcement division at headquarters. He also served three terms as marshal to the US Virgin Islands, where Louie met, Judy, his wife of 41 years. Judy also worked in the witness protection program.

McKinney said, “We are blessed with two children, both in law enforcement – a daughter, Magen (who is a contract employee with the FBI) and son, Louie Jr. (also deputy US Marshal) – and one beautiful granddaughter named Molly.”

Prior to his promotion to the top job, McKinney was eyewitness to most of the social turbulence that defined the history of late twentieth century America.

Louie personally worked to enforce the integration of Southern public schools as a black deputy marshal.  Who can forget the Norman Rockwell portrait of four deputy marshals escorting six-year-old Ruby Bridges, a lovely, courageous and determined African-American girl, to attend an all-white school in New Orleans?

He also helped restore order to the skies after a rash of airline hijackings in the early 1970s. He participated in restoring peace at Wounded Knee following the Oglala Lakota Indian uprising at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973.

McKinney guarded Mafia chief Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno and other high-ranking organized crime members – including Frank Lucas, portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film “American Gangsters.”

He also spent more than a year securing prisoner John Hinckley, the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

When he took on the Hinckley assignment, his boss said, “Keep him close.  I’ll get fired if we lose him, but I will fire you first.  I promise!”

A three-time Presidential appointee, McKinney “retired” in 1994 to spend his bonus years serving other law enforcement agencies, including INTERPOL, where he was chief inspector for this network of police forces of 190 countries who work together to solve crimes that cross borders.

In 2001, McKinney joined MVM, a private security firm, which provides everything from personal and facilities security to language services, such as interpreters.

But the love of his bonus years’ work is serving as president of the US Marshals Service Association where he is focused on the construction of the US Marshals museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

McKinney’s palpable love of his work reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that “…the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

From the cotton fields of South Carolina into his bonus years Louie McKinney continues to work, using his many gifts to make the world a safer – and better – place.  In another venue, one might exclaim, “Who was that masked man?”

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