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The Tightrope Walker

While attending a conference at Columbia University last spring, I took time to visit a monument in the law school plaza dedicated to the celebrated General William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan. The bronze sculpture, 14 feet tall and set on a 7-foot pedestal, was commissioned by Donovan's friends, created by the Dutch artist Kees Verkade, and unveiled in 1979. I had completed my graduate studies at Columbia a decade earlier, and had seen the piece a few times while attending conferences there in later years. Recently, the sculpture had been featured in the Columbia alumni magazine, so I decided to take a closer look. In preparation for his work, Verkade studied Donovan's life closely, and concluded that the "controlled daring" of Donovan's life would best be expressed by a tightrope walker, in which one figure balances himself precariously on the shoulders of another as the two of them walk the length of a cable.

William J. Donovan, as many Niagarans know, was born in Buffalo to a family living a step away from poverty. He entered Niagara in 1899 and for the next three years distinguished himself as a scholar and orator, at the same time earning the captaincy of the varsity football team. Donovan transferred to Columbia College in New York to prepare for entrance to the Columbia Law School. There, he met and befriended Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who later launched him on a career that led to the creation of the Office of Strategic Services, a revolutionary new organization for gathering intelligence and waging unconventional warfare, and which served as predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. One of Donovan's young protégées at OSS was Allen Dulles, later the CIA chief under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Dulles remembered Donovan's "vast interest in the unorthodox, the novel, and the dangerous," and his success in assembling brilliant and daring minds from academe, business, and the arts -- indeed any source -- to find unique ways of discovering the mind of the enemy and sabotaging his war effort. Donovan's exploits as founder of OSS and father of the CIA are too detailed to narrate here. But his legacy continues. General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and architect of the new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, is a long-time admirer.

But it was Donovan's heroism in France during World War I that lifted him to near iconic status on the Niagara campus. He seemed the embodiment of the spirit of Old Niagara -- intelligent but possessed of character above all. His fierce individuality seemed to have no boundaries; he could rally his men as well as save them from death. He could sustain wounds but refuse to leave the battlefield. And he did it all with a sly half-smile. His decorations in France are a remarkable testimony to his courage: The Distinguished Service Cross; the Distinguished Service Medal (with oak leaf cluster); the Purple Heart (with two oak leaf clusters); and the Medal of Honor. Niagara's young stalwarts had often modeled themselves after public figures. In 1919, William Donovan was their man. His return to campus in June of that year to receive an honorary degree at commencement was an absolute triumph. When he was awarded the National Security Medal for his service in World War II, Donovan became the only American to have received our nation's four highest military decorations.

When I think of the triumphs that characterized Donovan's military and government service and the long absences and family tragedies -- the accidental deaths of a daughter and then a granddaughter -- that so marked his personal life, I am convinced that Verkade chose his design wisely. Somehow, Donovan always managed to preserve his equilibrium in the face of heart-piercing problems. And as a soldier and spymaster, few men were more calculating. Donovan was no daredevil if, by that term, we mean someone given to recklessness and chance. He disliked the nickname "Wild Bill," as it seemed to mock his arrival as both a gentleman and strategist, and he could not explain its origin. But the nickname stuck.

Law students at Columbia have been known on occasion to place a mattress below the tightrope walker inscribed with the words: "just in case." Bill Donovan would probably smile appreciatively at the gesture, knowing all the while that he would always get to the other side.