May 9, 2013
Longtime host of “Jeopardy!” Alex Trebek, has often called game shows, “the best kind of reality television” for the way they encapsulate the American dream. On his show, he says, anyone can earn success with enough wit and skill. Now a donation from Trebek to the National Museum of American History of several items from his popular game show cements that idea in popular culture. In a new partnership with the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the museum accepted a cache of items, representing three categories of the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards–daytime dramas, game shows and children’s programming.
Trebek, who was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy Award in 2011 as well as five Daytime Emmy awards, contributed a script with handwritten notes from one of his 1984 shows. Also making a donation was the 1999 Daytime Emmy Award-winner Susan Lucci, better known as Erica Kane from the popular soap opera “All My Children;” and 2001 award-winners Kathy and Phil Parker, creators of the 1990s children’s television program, “Barney & the Backyard Gang.” Lucci’s pink gown and shoes from her cover of People magazine played colorful companion to the plush purple dinosaur that was donated along with the script from the first “Barney” video.
“Game shows have been an important part of daytime television since the 1940s,” says curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, “when the radio series, ‘Truth or Consequences,’ made its debut as a television show.” The show selected ordinary citizens as contestants to answer trivia questions and to perform zany stunts. Over time, he says, the questions got tougher and the prizes, bigger.
We talked with Trebek at the donation ceremony:
Why has the show enjoyed so much success since its debut in 1964?
It’s a quality program and it appeals to the aspects of American life that are very important to us: opportunity, we give everyone an opportunity to compete even if you’re an ordinary citizen. It doesn’t matter what your background is, you can compete on our program and do well if you have knowledge. You can fulfill one of the American dreams, which is to make a lot of money. You’re not going to be elected president just because you appear on ‘Jeopardy.’ Although we’ve had ‘Jeopardy’ winners in the past who have done very well in the public arena. One of them is the current director of our consumer affairs department, nominated by President Obama. He was a ‘Jeopardy’ winner and in fact, when he first ran for Congress in Ohio, his bumper sticker said, ‘The answer is.’
We are now part of Americana so we’re accepted, people know us, they like us, we’re familiar, we’re part of the family.
If you were a contestant what would your biographical detail be?
I’m willing to try everything once. I’m just thinking back to sky-diving, scuba-diving, running military equipment, flying in a F-16 and taking 8Gs, parachuting, it doesn’t matter. I’m a little too old now to get out and do that stuff but there are a few things on my bucket list.
You’ve been hosting since 1984. Are we getting smart or dumber?
There are bright people in all walks in life and probably in the same percentage as there have always been. We’re attracting more of them so people think America is getting smarter, I don’t know about that.
But not dumber?
Some people are.
April 19, 2013
In the spirit of Mark Twain who famously said he never let his schooling interfere with his education, Bill Drayton grew up enthusiastic at school, but not so much about school. He enjoyed a few subjects, but he admits, his energies were in things like, starting a series of newspapers or being an active member of the NAACP. Now, Drayton, who is credited with having coined the phrase “social entrepreneur,” hopes to create a network of global changemakers (empowered with skills embracing empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving) with his organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public to reshape education all together.
For more than a decade, Ashoka has partnered with young people with its Youth Venture program, but it’s only in the past year that it began partnering with schools to introduce the concept of empathy into the curriculum. Dozens of schools in the U.S. are already on board and, according to Drayton, “Last week, Scotland said, this is going to be in all of our schools and even though the Irish Ministry is cutting back, they’ve just made a huge commitment.”
Ashoka’s network of changemakers includes 3,000 fellows working more than 70 countries, who place a high premium on supporting those bringing about change in their communities. Among others, they’ve supported a Japanese girl, who founded a website to connect with other children whose parents were going through a divorce, and an activist in Calcutta, who helped to found a school for the children of factory workers. Drayton’s hope is that by teaching empathy in elementary schools we can create a generation of changemakers.
We talked with Drayton about how to teach empathy and why he thinks top-down solutions aren’t the answer.
How has the landscape of social change evolved since you founded Ashoka in 1980?
If you go to Harvard Business School you will now find more people in the social enterprise group than in the marketing or finance group, which is wildly different from even ten years ago or five years ago. That’s very satisfying. We are at a different stage.
The world really has to go through this transition from being organized around efficiency and repetition, think assembly line, to a world where the real value comes from contributing to change. That requires a different way of organizing—fluid, open teams of teams. And it requires a different set of skills—empathy, teamwork, a very different type of leadership and changemaking.
How do you implement that new paradigm?
Any child who has not mastered cognitive empathy at a high level will be marginalized. Why? Because, as the rate of change accelerates and it’s an exponential curve, that means every year there is a smaller and smaller part of your life covered by “the rules.” They haven’t been invented or they’re in conflict, they’re changing. You’re going to hurt people if you don’t have this skill and you’re going to disrupt groups. You cannot be a good person, just by diligently following the rules, it’s not possible anymore.
That’s the first step in a reformulated paradigm for success in growing up. We have 700 Ashoka fellows, leading social entrepreneurs around the world, focused on young people, and so we have many different ways of doing this. I was just talking with a Canadian fellow, I was on her board actually, Roots of Empathy.
She’s able to take children, first through third grade, who did not get empathy in their schools or on the street, or in their family and if she’s given three hours a month for eight months, all the kids will have advanced empathy. Bullying rates come down and stay down. We know what to do with 8th grade girls, who lose their self confidence and become mean girls, we know how to have kids practice and play at recess and in the classroom.
How many elementary school principals do you know who have ever even thought about this? It’s not on their agenda. They are measured by information transfer on tests. And you can’t have mayhem in the hallways. Well this is perfectly designed for a world in which you’re training people to master a body of knowledge, or a set of rules. And you’re defined as a baker, or a banker, or whatever it is. And you’ll repeat that for the rest of your life. Fine, but it just is not relevant now.
So what does she do to teach empathy?
She brings an infant, two to four months old from the neighborhood at the beginning of the year. The infant wears a T-shirt labeled “The Professor.” The Professor resides on a green blanket and there’s a trainer. The teacher sits at the back and does not really engage that much. The first graders or third graders or whatever have the responsibility of figuring out; what is the professor saying, what is he or she feeling. Of course, they’re absorbing a very high empathy level.
How does this foundation of empathy inform the work that you do internationally?
They have exactly the same problem in India and in Japan, here and in Nigeria.
Any country that falls behind has just bought a one-way ticket to Detroit. It’s hard to realize that 50 years ago, Detroit was the top of our technology. Now it’s bottomed-out, in informal bankruptcy, has lost 25 percent of its population in the last ten years. Well that took 50 years. With an exponential curve, you don’t have 50 years. If India does this right and we don’t, we’re Detroit. That’s true for a family, a city, a community, a country. The key factor of success going forward is what percentage of your people are changemakers.
This is like the new literacy.
How did you learn these skills?
I didn’t realize what was going on then, but in retrospect, I’m very grateful. I had parents who had this skill. They knew it was important. And they took the trouble, not just to enforce skills, but to ask, how do you think it made him feel when you did that? I was really lucky.
I’m not particularly well-suited for football. I couldn’t imagine why I was being tortured by Latin and math and things that had no relevance at that point. I love history and geography. My energies went into starting things, which was fine for me. I had a principal, who advised my parents not to be worried, and not to show that they were worried when I was not where I was supposed to be. Because I was busy doing these other things. What a gift.
Ashoka has something called Ashoka’s Youth Venture, which is designed to do precisely this for young people. I would like to have every young person grow up in that sort of a school, community environment. We have a summit ever summer. Last summer it was at American University, four or five days.
What about huge resource inequities and people like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University who advocate the idea of a Big Push to get countries out of poverty?
You tell me whenever you can find a place that you have sustainable development if it isn’t led by people who have this sort of power. The central lesson of development is that it’s in people’s heads. As Gandhi said, India will be independent when it’s independent in our heads. There’s a classic Harvard Business Review article in the context of big American corporations: you want a change? You think the chairman’s idea is going to fly by itself? Forget it, it’s never going to happen. It has to be a team of people.
You don’t put people on it because of their position: that’s a committee and committees never get anything done. It has to be a team where everyone on the team wants it and then, you know, it’s a good thing that the chairman is with you.
April 16, 2013
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke major league baseball’s color barrier, the world was still 16 years away from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as just getting organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was eight years away and housing discrimination based on race would remain legal until 1968. In his first season with the MLB, Robinson would win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He was a perpetual All-Star. And in 1955, he helped his team secure the championship. Robinson’s success was, by no means, inevitable and in fact he earned it in a society that sought to make it altogether impossible.
Unsurprisingly, his story seemed bound for Hollywood and in 1950, still in the midst of his career, he starred as himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Now Robinson’s story returns to the screen in the new film “42,” this time played by Howard University graduate, Chadwick Boseman, who was at the American History Museum Monday evening for a special screening for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught up with him there.
Are you happy to be back in D.C.?
I’m excited, you know, this room got me a little hyped. It’s fun coming here after having been here a few weeks ago after meeting the First Lady and the President for the screening at the White House. I went to college here and you always think, oh, I’m never going to get to go in that building, I’m never going to get to do this or that so coming here and doing it, it’s like wow, it’s a whole new world.
You said you can’t remember ever not knowing who Jackie Robinson was, but that it was important not to play him as just a hero. How did you get all those details? Did speaking with his wife, Rachel Robinson, play a big part?
The first thing that I did was, I went to meet her at her office on Varick Street. She sat me down on a couch, just like this, she just talked to me very frankly and told me the reasons why she was attracted to him, what she thought of him before she met him, what attracted her once they actually started conversing, how they dated, how shy he was, everything you could possibly imagine. She just went through who they were.
I think she sort of just started me on the research process as well because at the foundation, they have all the books that have been written about him. It was just a matter of hearing that firsthand information.
Then I met her again with children and grandchildren and in that case, they were sort of examining me physically, prodding and poking and measuring and asking me questions: Are you married, why aren’t you married? You know, anything that you could imagine. Actually, before they ever spoke to me, they were prodding and poking and measuring me and I was like, who are these people? And they said, you’re playing my granddad, we gotta check you out. It was as much them investigating me as it was me investigating him.
So they gave you a seal of approval?
They did not give me a seal of approval, but they didn’t not give it. They were willing to gamble, I guess.
What were they looking for, what did they want to make sure you got right?
She was adamant about the fact that she didn’t want him to be portrayed as angry. That’s a stereotype that is often used, just untrue and one-dimensional with black characters and it was something that he had been accused of, of having a temper. In some senses, he did have a temper but it wasn’t in a negative sense.
I, on the other hand, after reading the script knew that it was necessary to not show him as being passive or a victim, which is another stereotype that’s often used in movies. I didn’t want him to be inactive, because if he’s passive, he’s inactive and you run the risk of doing another story that’s supposed to be about a black character, but there’s the white guy, there, who is the savior. There’s a point where you have to be active and you have to have this fire and passion. I view it more as competitive passion as Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns said to me today, that he had a competitive passion, competitive temper that any great athlete, whether it be Larry Bird or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they all have that passion. That’s what he brought to the table. . . .My grandmother probably would call it holy anger.
Was that dynamic something you were able to talk about with Harrison Ford, who plays the team executive Branch Rickey, and the writer?
First of all yes. But they already had really advanced and progressive points of view about it anyway and were very aware. Harrison was also very clear, even in our first conversations about it, that he was playing a character and I was playing the lead and that there are differences in the two.
There were instances where I might voice, this is what we need to do, and everybody listened to it and that’s definitely not always the case, definitely not always what you experience on the set. But I think everybody wanted to get it right. I can’t really think of a moment, I know that they came up where it was like, well I’m black so I understand this in a different way, but they do happen and everybody was very receptive to it.
Was there any story that Mrs. Robinson told you about him that stuck in the back of your head during the process?
She just talked about how he adapted after very difficult scenes where he was being abused verbally or threatened. She said he would go hit golf balls because he would never bring that into the house. The question that I asked that brought her to that was: Did he ever have moments where he secluded himself at home, or where he was depressed, or you saw it weighing on him? And she said: ‘No, when he came into our space, he did whatever he needed to do to get rid of it, so that our space could be a safe haven, and he could refuel, and could get back out into the world and be the man he had to be.’
And she’s going through it just as much as he is. She’s literally in the crowd. People are yelling right over, calling him names right over her or calling her names because they know who she is. That’s something people don’t really think about, that she was actually in the crowd. She has to hold that so she doesn’t bring that home to him and give him more to worry about and that’s a phenomenal thing to hold and to be strong. I love finding what those unspoken things were that are underneath what’s actually being said.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of who he really is. I think what’s interesting about it is that he played himself in that original 1949-1950 version. . .What I found is that him having to use the Hollywood script of that time does not allow him to tell his own story because he couldn’t really be Jackie Robinson in that version.
It wasn’t his exact story, if you look at the version it says all he ever wanted to do was play baseball and he didn’t. Baseball was his worst sport, he was a better football player, better basketball player, better at track and field. He had a tennis championship, he played golf, horse back riding, baseball was the worst thing he did. I’m not saying that he wasn’t good at it, I’m saying that it’s not the truth. He was a second lieutenant in the army, he was All-American, he led his conference in scoring in basketball and he could have been playing in the NFL, but he had to go to Hawaii and play instead.
So what is that? Why did he end up playing baseball? Because baseball was where he could actualize his greatness, it wasn’t the only thing that he was great at and so just that little untruth in the script skips all of the struggle that he had getting to the point of being in the minor leagues. He’s doing this because it’s one more thing that he’s trying to do in that United States at that time that maybe will allow him to be the man that he wants to be. He could have done any of those other things, it just wasn’t an avenue for him to actualize his full humanity, his full manhood and so that version doesn’t allow him to be Jackie Robinson.
When I look at this version, we live in a different time where you can tell the story more honestly. Ultimately I think that’s what you should take away from the film, I get to see who he is now because we’re more ready to see it.
April 2, 2013
Dave Brubeck. The legendary jazz pianist, composer, and cultural diplomat’s name inspires awe and reverence. Call him the “quintessential American.” Reared in the West, born into a tight knit, musical family, by age 14 he was a cowboy working a 45,000 acre cattle ranch at the foothills of the Sierras with his father and brothers. A musical innovator, Brubeck captivated the world over six decades with his love for youth, all humanity, and the cross-cultural musical rhythms that jazz and culture inspire. In 2009, as a Kennedy Center Honoree he was feted by President Barack Obama who said “you can’t understand America without understanding jazz. And you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”
In 2012, Dave Brubeck passed away a day before his 92nd birthday, surrounded by his wife of 70 years, Iola , his son Darius and Darius’ wife Cathy. To understand Brubeck’s legacy one must know him as a musician, a son, husband, father and friend. In tribute to Dave Brubeck during the Smithsonian’s 12th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, his eldest son, Darius, offers a birds-eye view into life with his famous father and family and how their influences shaped his personal worldview and career as a jazz pianist, composer, educator, and cultural activist, using music to foster intercultural understanding and social equity. A Fulbright Senior Specialist in Jazz Studies, Darius Brubeck has taught jazz history and composition in Turkey, Romania, and South Africa, among other nations. He has created various ground breaking commissions such as one for Jazz at Lincoln Center that set music he composed with Zim Ngqawana to extracts of speeches from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, read by actor Morgan Freeman.
What did you learn from your father as a musician and cultural ambassador that guides and inspires you today?
Nearly everything. But here is what I think relates to JAM and this UNESCO celebration. Dave combined being as American as you can get—raised as a cowboy, former GI, always in touch with his rural California roots—with being internationalist in his outlook. People in many countries regard him as one of their own, because he touched their lives as much as their own artists did. If it were possible to explain this with precision, music would be redundant. Of course it isn’t.
He was always curious, interested in people, intrigued rather than repelled by difference, and quick to see what people had in common. I realize, now especially, that I absorbed these attitudes and have lived accordingly, without really thinking about where they came from.
How was it growing up with a famous jazz musician father who had friends like Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis?
In retrospect, the most important thing was seeing what remarkable human beings these musicians were. They had their individual hang-ups and struggles, but in company they were witty, perceptive, self-aware, informed, and, above all, ‘cool.’ I learned that humor and adaptability help you stay sane and survive the endless oscillation between exaltation and frustration— getting a standing ovation one moment and not being able to find a place to eat the next. Dave and Paul (Desmond) were extremely different people but their very difference worked musically. You learn perspective because your own vantage point is always changing.
For your family music, and jazz in particular, is the family business. How did that shape you as a person and your family as a unit?
It made us a very close family. People in the ‘jazz-life’ really understand that playing the music is the easiest part. The rest of it can be pretty unrewarding. My mother worked constantly throughout my father’s career, and still does. Many people contact her about Dave’s life and music. In addition to writing lyrics, she contributed so much to the overall organization of our lives. We were very fortunate because this created extra special bonds between family members as colleagues, and as relatives.
Performing together as a family is special. It’s also fun. We all know the score, so to speak. We all know that the worst things that happen make the best stories later. And so we never blame or undermine each other. There have been big celebratory events that have involved us all. Dave being honored at the Kennedy Center in 2009 must count as the best. All four musician brothers were surprise guest performers, and both my parents were thrilled.
During the seventies, my brothers Chris and Dan and I toured the world with Dave in “Two Generations of Brubeck” and the “New Brubeck Quartet.” Starting in 2010, the three of us have given performances every year as “Brubecks Play Brubeck.” We lead very different lives in different countries the rest of the time. The professional connection keeps us close.
The Jazz Appreciation Month theme for 2013 is “The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz.” How does your father’s legacy express this theme?
I know you’re looking for something essential about jazz itself but, first, I’ll answer your question very literally. Dave wrote a large number of ‘spiritual’ works, including a mass commissioned for Pope John Paul’s visit to the U.S. in 1987. His legacy as a composer, of course, includes jazz standards like In Your Own Sweet Way. But there is a large body of liturgical and concert pieces in which he shows people how he felt about social justice, ecology, and his faith.
The ‘spirit of jazz’ in Dave’s music, as he performed it, is an unqualified belief in improvisation as the highest, most inspired , ‘spiritual’ musical process of all.
Cultural and rhythmic diversity is what he is most famous for because of hits like “Take Five,” “Unsquare Dance” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” The cultural diversity of jazz is well illustrated by his adaptation of rhythms common in Asia, but new to jazz. He heard these during his Quartet’s State Department tour in 1958.
You were a Fulbright scholar in jazz studies in Turkey. Your father composed “Blue Rondo” after touring the country. How did Turkey inspire him? What did you learn from your time in Turkey and touring there with your father?
Dave first heard the rhythm that became the basis of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in Izmir, played by street musicians. I was actually with him in 1958, as an 11-year-old boy. He transcribed the 9/8 rhythm and when he went to do a radio interview, he described what he heard to one of the radio orchestra musicians who spoke English. The musician explained that this rhythm was very natural for them, “like blues is for you.” The juxtaposition of a Turkish folk rhythm with American blues is what became “Blue Rondo.”
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s music encounter with Indian classical musicians at All-India Radio was also very significant. Dave didn’t perform the music of other cultures, but he saw the creative potential of moving in that direction as a jazz musician, especially when it came to rhythm.
Jazz is open-ended. It always was fusion music, but that doesn’t mean that it is just a nebulous collection of influences.
When I was in Istanbul as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in 2007, my first thought was to encourage what musicologists call hybridity, the mixing of musical traditions. This was met with some resistance from students and I had to re-think my approach. In effect, they were saying, ‘No! We’re not interested in going on a cross-cultural journey with you during your short time here. We want to learn what you know.’
They were right. When, and if, they want to combine jazz and Turkish music, they’ll do it themselves, and vice versa. Jazz is world music. It’s not ‘World Music’ in the sense of ‘Celtic fiddler jams with Flamenco guitarist and tabla player.’ Rather it is a language used everywhere. Anywhere you go you’ll find musicians who play the blues and probably some ‘standards’ like “Take the A-Train” or “All the Things You Are.” The other side of this is that local music becomes international through jazz. Think about the spread of Brazilian, South African and Nordic jazz.
In the eighties in South Africa, you initiated the first degree course in jazz studies offered by an African university. Jazz is known globally as ‘freedom’s music.’ South African was under apartheid when you did this. Why was it important for you to do this on that continent, in that country, at that time?
Before I answer, I have to say that my wife, Catherine, is South African. Her political and music connections led to my going to Durban in 1983 to teach at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal).
There wasn’t a university degree in jazz studies in the whole of Africa. It is somewhat ironic that the first one should be taught by a white foreigner in apartheid South Africa. The ANC in exile was in favor of my going or we wouldn’t have gone. They knew they would be in government sooner or later and saw that transforming important institutions from the inside was a positive step.
There was already an established jazz scene in South Africa that had produced great artists like Hugh Masakela and Abdullah Ibrahim, but they couldn’t work in their own country. So this was a crucial choice for me at the time and an opportunity to do something that mattered. Local musicians didn’t have the training for the academic world; working in a university certainly isn’t the same as gigging and giving music lessons. A lot of ‘improvisation’ made it work. For example, changing entrance requirements so that African students and players could join the program.
How we progressed is too long a story to go into here, but the new opportunities and, eventually, the especially created Centre for Jazz & Popular Music visibly and joyfully changed the cultural landscape on campus, in Durban, and also had an impact on higher education generally. Today, 30 years later, there are numerous universities and schools that offer jazz.
What are your aspirations as a jazz musician and educator? What impact do you want to have on the world?
I’ve just described the biggest thing I’ve done in my life. It took up almost 25 years and I’m in my sixties now. So that might be it, but who knows? I’m back to playing music full-time because I love doing it, not just the music but the life-long friendships and connections that develop in the jazz world.
Also the travel, the especially strange and wonderful opportunities like playing in Israel and Saudi Arabia within a few months of each other. I secretly hope that in some instances my concerts and compositions help people see beyond the barriers of race, nationalism and ideology. That’s what I try to do, anyway.
I don’t have particular career aspirations, except the desire to continue improving as a musician. When I feel I’ve gone as far as I can, I’ll quit. Meanwhile I enjoy having my own quartet, touring sometimes with my brothers, and also lecturing and teaching when the occasions arise.
What’s on the horizon for the Brubeck Institute and your career that most people don’t know?
I hope the Brubeck Institute will take on an even more international role. While it is historically fitting that the Institute and the Brubeck Collection be located at the University of the Pacific in California where my parents studied and met, the true mission is global.
At the start of this conversation I said my father was instinctively internationalist. I think the Brubeck Institute should carry this spirit of cooperation and ecumenism into the future. I will certainly help where I can.
This year I’m hoping to play in far flung Kathmandu, where they have a jazz festival, also to return to South Africa for some reunion performances. I really appreciate that although I live in London, the university where I taught for 25 years has made me an Honorary Professor.
JAM 2013 explores jazz and world culture with Smithsonian museums and community partners in a series of events. April 9, free onstage discussion/workshop with Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez at American history; free Latin Jazz JAM! concert with Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo and Latin jazz stars at GWU Lisner Auditorium; April 10, Randy Weston and African Rhythms in concert w. guest Candido Camero/onstage discussion with Robin Kelley and Wayne Chandler ; April 12 Hugh Masakela at GWU.
March 20, 2013
Though the long-running CBS television show, “NCIS,” is based on the real-life activities of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Lou Eliopulos, NCIS division chief of forensic sciences, would rather compare his work to another show: “Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.”
“If you ever watch, Ramsay in the kitchen where he comes in and analyzes a restaurant, we’ll do the same thing,” he says of the organization’s case work.
The job is a bit more complicated than inattentive wait staff and messy prep stations. A team of 1,876 special agents travel the world solving everything from violent crimes to espionage plots. Though they are specifically tasked with working with the Navy, the group’s global reach and special technological expertise means law enforcement agencies often ask NCIS to partner with them on difficult investigations. Unlike other military investigative branches, NCIS is almost entirely civilian, meaning they’re able to operate in the civilian world of law enforcement much more freely.
Occasionally, NCIS calls on the Smithsonian to help crack a case. “If we have a tough case or a tough question, we go to the best,” says Eliopulos. In particular he says, the Institution’s anthropological expertise aids in identifying skeletal remains, a critical part of the investigation that helps agents understand the timeline of and activities surrounding the crime.
Eliopulos and special agent David Lobb stopped by the Institution for a sold-out Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday, but we spoke with them by phone to bring you the behind-the-scenes story about the job’s challenges and rewards.
What are the challenges of the job?
LE: The entire job is a challenge, it’s unique. When you talk about cold cases, for example, those are cases no one else has solved. If they were easy, they would have been solved. So you’re working cases that are difficult to resolve, that have resisted solving for years and years. You have problems associated with witnesses memories and evidence, so that presents a challenge yet we’ve been tremendously successful not only in our own cases involving 64 cases since we started the cold case program but we go out and train three times a year for local law enforcement and stage agencies. And they’ve been successful using our methods. That’s one of the great benefits of working for NCIS, our job is different, and it’s very challenging, and that’s one of the reasons that drew me here to begin with.
DL: I agree. The expectation that’s levied on our agents and our professional staff is great. You talk about taking a special agent and dropping them in a foreign country, where they’re working and they’re there to support a Navy ship or an exercise that’s taking place in that country, and their job is to meet the local law enforcement, the mayor or the local governor of that region or that country and ensure the safety of the personnel coming into that country and making a call if they think it’s not safe.
Most common misconception?
DL: The biggest eye-opener is how much writing you do. For all the fun stuff you see on TV and for all the fun stuff you get to do in the field, there’s paperwork and other things that go with that, which is an important part of documenting your cases and seeing them through to prosecution.
LE: For me, it’s having everything readily available. . .It’s a little bit more work involved. We are not really permitted to tap into the CIA databases and other databases like that to obtain information.
Do you have a favorite case?
LE: I’ve never won a Super Bowl, I’ve never won a World Series, but when you solve a case it’s got to rival that feeling. That’s like trying to decide which child you like best.
Any one of us that has ever stood over a dead body or put a body into a body bag, that’s ever made the notification of next of kin and heard that primal scream that you can’t hear or duplicate anywhere else, it literally stands that hair up on the back of your neck and to be able to sit there and unravel that mystery and put the case together. . .being able to get the conviction, it would be hard to rival.
We just had a recent case; 28 years unsolved of a ten-year-old that was abducted, a Navy dependent. While her family was moving and her dad is deployed, someone comes and abducts this child and rapes and murders her and we literally had no suspects. Since 1999 we’ve worked the case as a cold case and waited for our first break, knowing that we were due one. Through the different forms of DNA testing and latest technology, we were able to resolve that and going to tell the parents that we made an arrest on the case, all of those are tremendous achievements for our agency.
What was their reaction?
LE: When I came in to talk with them, it had been ten years since we had spoken last. I had already known an arrest was made about 30 minutes before. I went through the process of everything we did in the past ten years, it took about 20 to 25 minutes to go through that. I could see the parents listening to all this, like, here’s the excuses and more excuses and 28 years and it’s still unsolved. Then I told them we did Y-STR [DNA analysis] and we identified the killer, and he was just arrested, and literally you saw the mom’s jaw just drop to her chest and you could see their eyes welling up with tears.
They made me repeat the news and I went into the details. They spoke to me about this person that was arrested and that they knew them. The dad actually has cancer now and I asked if they had any questions and the mom said, “I just have one.” I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Can I hug you?” I said, “Absolutely and I want the big guy over there to hug me too.”
And your favorite case?
DL: One that stands out for me was a terrorism case that I worked. . .This was an interesting case because it was an insider situation where we had a Muslim convert on one of our Navy ships, who had been turned to extremism. We’re not sure exactly why. He began giving and selling classified information about the movement of the ship and its vulnerabilities to two al-Qaeda financiers and operators in London, with the hope that they would be able to use that to plan an attack on one of our Navy vessels. . .Through years of work and joint work with the FBI we were able to, in 2007, arrest the individual and have him sentenced a year later. He’s serving ten years in federal prison on an espionage charge in New York.
He hasn’t told us much about why he joined the Navy in the first place, that’s one of the things that we continue to monitor as we look at the threat of an insider, and what they can do to damage and bring down our own military. It was an eye-opener for a lot of folks.
When the captain of the ship. . .learned about this, his immediate concern was: ‘How many other people do I have that are trying to do this?’ And the Navy’s concern is: “How many people in the Navy are trying to do this?” You can imagine the pressure that that, then, puts on our agency to make sure that we’re watching those things, and covering those gaps, and it’s a difficult thing to do.