Susan Wynkoop died last night, of pancreatic cancer. She was 60 years old.
Susan was a special Westporter: one of those passionate, always-ready-to-help, very effective yet down-to-earth people who quietly (and in so many ways) make this town special.
Susan had a fascinating life story. She was past president of the Westport Historical Society, a deacon at Southport Congregational Church, and among the 1st 200 women hired by the FBI. After 12 years with the agency, she became director of the FBI Foundation’s Oral History Project.
From 1990 until yesterday, she lived in the oldest house in Westport. Built around 1683, it’s the only pre-1700 structure in the entire town.
Passionate about preservation, she gained WHS “local landmark” certification for the home. As a result, it can never be torn down.
Susan Wynkoop did many things in her too-short life. That may be her greatest legacy of all.
The Wynkoops’ home: 187 Long Lots Road. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)
(To read about Susan’s FBI career, click here. For a story on her historic Westport house, click here.)
Ground-breaking women have been in the news lately. Sally Ride — the first American woman to enter low earth orbit — died recently. Olympic announcers mention that this year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that opened the way to mass participation in sports by girls.
2012 is also the 40th anniversary of the year women became FBI agents. Susan Wynkoop — a long-time Westporter, and president of the Westport Historical Society — was one of the 1st 200 hires. She left the agency in 1991, after a 12-year career, but remains involved as director of the FBI Foundation’s oral history project.
Susan Wynkoop, with members of her FBI training class.
Next month, Susan travels to San Diego. Sandra Day O’Connor — the 1st woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court — will lead ceremonies lauding the pioneering female FBI agents.
Three women killed in the line of duty will be specially honored. Susan knew one of them well.
Susan did not grow up dreaming of being a G-man (or woman). She was raised in Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. After college she joined Wachovia — at the time, a small Southern bank.
As a manager, she hired young graduates. At a recruiting fair in 1979, an FBI agent at an adjacent booth convinced her to switch careers. Seven years earlier — soon after J. Edgar Hoover died — the agency allowed women to apply. (In those years, “allowed” was a better verb than “invited” or “welcomed.”)
Susan Wynkoop (right) at a firing range, with retirees. The men are reloading; she’s already done that, and is on to her next round.
It took 9 months for her appointment to go through. Then came 18 months of training at Quantico. Susan’s class of 36 included 8 women. Two women — and 5 men — did not make it through.
Assigned to the Charlotte office, she worked on a variety of cases. Most were white collar crimes. There were also bank robberies, prostitution rings, and a Hell’s Angels investigation.
After going undercover for a Miami pornography case, Susan was transferred to the New York office. Though many agents called it a hardship — the pay was the same as in, say, Mississippi — she was thrilled.
“I was 27 years old. We worked in every borough, on every kind of criminal case,” Susan recalls.
She became the 1st woman ever assigned to the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force. 15 FBI agents handled armed hold-ups; 12 New York City detectives took care of robbers who used only a note. One of her 1st cases, in October 1981, was the $1.6 million Brink’s robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., in which 2 police officers were killed.
“As the only woman, and with my Southern accent, I had to work probably harder than the men,” she says. “People watched every move I made.”
With 5 to 8 bank robberies a day, the squad was quite active. Each agent handled 25 to 30 cases at a time. Susan learned a lot, very quickly.
Susan Wynkoop, her husband and daughter with FBI director Louis Freeh (right). They worked together closely in the New York office.
The task force solved 97% of the crimes. “The word got out on the street: ‘Don’t rob banks!'” Susan says proudly.
Decades later, women are finally seen as “full members of the FBI team,” Susan says. “They have skills and experiences to contribute. Women have helped the agency become better, and more productive.”
Today, approximately 2,800 of the FBI’s 14,000 agents are female.
“It’s not a job for everyone,” she warns. “For me, it was challenging and exciting — though not every day. And the opportunity to serve the public, and my country, was very rewarding.”
In 1991, after her daughter was born, Susan retired. “Working day and night, I felt I couldn’t be good at both roles,” she says.
Even today, “many of the women at the top of the FBI are either unmarried or don’t have kids.” Though agents are transferred less frequently than in the past, the hours are still long. The job remains difficult.
It also remains dear to her heart. In Susan’s role with the Society of Former Special Agents, she interviews with ex-FBI men — and women. The histories are housed in Washington, DC.
“Those pioneering women had a lot of gumption,” she says admiringly. “They were not always fully accepted.”
Today, she notes, the agency recruits men and women of every background, from every facet of life. “There’s no major they don’t like,” she says.
Susan Wynkoop does more than just walk the talk. She sprints it.
Since 1990 the new president — she takes over from Dorothy Curran this Sunday (January 29) — has lived in a house built around 1683. It’s not only the oldest house in Westport — it’s the only pre-1700 structure in the entire town.
The Wynkoops' home: 187 Long Lots Road. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)
Though she’s a native Virginian, Susan is not one of those I-always-wanted-to-live-in-the-past people. As a child, she says, “I visited Williamsburg. But there weren’t a lot of pre-Revolutionary houses where I grew up.”
She worked first for Wachovia, then the FBI. (There’s a connection: While she represented the bank at a recruiting fair, an FBI agent at an adjacent booth convinced her to switch careers.)
Serving in the agency’s New York office, she met her future husband, Morgan (aka “Dutch”). After they were married, he inherited his mother’s home — the oldest structure, at 187 Long Lots Road. He asked Susan if she’d like to live there.
The rest is history (ho ho).
Susan, Katherine and "Dutch" Wynkoop.
Over the years, she’s become passionate about preservation. “It’s hard not to let an antique home get in your blood,” she says.
Two years ago, the Wynkoops embarked on the long process of gaining WHS “local landmark” certification for their home. As a result, she says, “it can never be torn down.”
Voluminous research by the Historical Society’s Bob Weingarten revealed that the house was nearly a century older than previously thought. The dating process included examination of wood beams (possibly from ships sailing to America), and the foundation. Susan has “no idea how it survived all these years.”
Her mother-in-law bought the house in 1971, saying, “It’s stood for hundreds of years. It won’t come down now.” It’s so well built, in fact, there are almost no water leaks into the basement.
The original home consisted of 2 rooms downstairs, 2 above them. More rooms and baths were added in the 1800s, but the house has remained essentially the same. The Wynkoops have done some work — “you could see daylight through a few beams,” Susan says; they’ve modernized the upstairs, and re-insulated — but the outside looks the same.
An upstairs bedroom in the Wynkoop home. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)
Inside, the exposed chestnut beams and original dining room pine flooring look just as they did in 1683.
“It’s not for everyone,” Susan admits. The ceilings are low, the stairs steep. But she wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“It’s been my home for 22 years — longer than anywhere else,” Susan says. “I find it very warm and welcoming. I can’t imagine a new house, where all the lines are straight and everything is perfectly plumb.”
Her involvement with the Westport Historical Society is, however, relatively recent. She’d always been a member, but not until the landmark designation process did she realize how important the organization is.
She went on the 2010 Holiday House tour, met many interesting people, and was drawn in.
Her job as president will involve fundraising and education — including raising awareness of the importance of historical preservation.
Another challenge will be increasing the Historical Society’s membership. There are many new young families in town. The WHS needs to reach them to grow.
Some live in large new homes — built on the sites of torn-down older ones. Susan Wynkoop — owner and proud resident of a 329-year-old home — will gladly invite them in.
Downstairs in the Wynkoop home. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)
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