Pioneering ex-nun an agent of change, and of the FBI

September 01, 1994|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- She traded a nun's habit for a .38-caliber revolver and walked into history as one of the first two women to become an FBI agent.

Now, after 22 years as a pioneer in the FBI, Joanne Misko is hanging up her holster tomorrow to take a job with a bank.

She said her career in the FBI has been anything but dull.

Three months into her first posting in St. Louis, she was assigned to spend seven weeks in South Dakota at the Wounded Knee Indian Reservation. At one point, she found herself ducking inside an armored personnel carrier as bullets whizzed overhead and bounced off the steel sides. She and other agents were trying to mediate a dispute between two tribes.

Two years later, two FBI agents on the same reservation were fatally shot while searching for a robbery suspect.

Ms. Misko says becoming an FBI agent was a natural step in her career.

She served for 10 years in the Sisters of Mercy order, based in Buffalo, N.Y., teaching seventh and eighth grades at St. Mary's School in Olean. She also taught U.S. history and economics at Mount Mercy Academy in Buffalo and Madonna High School in Niagara Falls.

Then, in her late 20s, she decided to do something else.

"It is a wonderful life, but I just wanted to move on and have a family and get married," she said.

She was hired in 1970 as a researcher for teachers at the FBI's training academy.

It was the era of J. Edgar Hoover, who believed that the nation's top law enforcement agency should be a male-only institution, at least as far as agents were concerned.

"Probably he thought it was too dangerous a job for women," she said.

When Mr. Hoover died, L. Patrick Gray took over, and the unthinkable happened. Two women were admitted to the training class of 1972.

One was Susan Roley. She left the FBI in 1979 and now works with the Defense Investigative Service in Washington.

The other was Ms. Misko.

"We were sort of an oddity," she said. "I never experienced outright resentment. People tended to take a wait-and-see attitude."

She learned how to use a gun. Though she has never fired it in the line of duty, she said she had to draw it on occasion.

"I've been in a couple of dangerous situations, but I felt I'd been given the training to prepare me for it." She added, "You don't ever think about those things until after it is over."

Then there was the issue of dealing with public misperceptions.

She said that the first time she went on a bank investigation with a male colleague, a secretary at the bank announced their arrival to her boss, saying: "There's a couple from the FBI here to see you."

At other times, suspects and witnesses assumed that she was a traveling secretary sitting in on the investigation.

But those days are over. Today, there are 1,180 women out of a total of 9,800 agents.

Ms. Misko says women are now accepted in every position offered at the bureau, although there has never been a female FBI director and only one assistant director.

By the late 1970s, Ms. Misko had become one of the first female supervisors at FBI headquarters in Washington. She headed the unit that handled employment applications for new agents.

Ms. Misko never did have children, but she married Michael Misko, who also is an FBI agent. They have lived in South Florida for a year. They met in Pittsburgh, where they both were agents.

George Clow, chief of the FBI's Miami office, said he is sorry Ms. Misko is leaving.

He said the FBI is actively working to recruit new female and minority agents to build a more diverse agent force.

"We would like the FBI to reflect the diversity of society," Mr. Clow said.

What advice would Ms. Misko give to women considering an FBI career?

"I think you have to be strong, have a sense of conviction to prove yourself and expect that you will be recognized when you do the job just as any male agent," she said.

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