Louis W. Tordella, 84, NSA deputy chief Former math professor was with agency 41 years

January 15, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Louis W. Tordella, a former math professor who virtually ran the National Security Agency for many years as deputy director, died of leukemia on Wednesday at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He was 84.

"He was a very important force in shaping the whole destiny of the NSA," said Eugene Becker of Columbia, who began working with Dr. Tordella at NSA in 1952 and retired in 1993. "He was held in high esteem by key congressmen who dealt with intelligence. His word was accepted by them without question. If he told them something, he was right."

A native of Garrett, Ind., who grew up in Chicago and attended parochial schools there, Dr. Tordella displayed an early affinity for mathematics.

He received a bachelor's and a master's degree from Loyola University in Chicago and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Illinois in Champaign, before returning to Loyola to teach.

In 1942, Dr. Tordella joined the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade and immediately began working to help the Navy break enemy codes.

Dr. Tordella was a member of a team that broke the military codes produced by the infamous German Enigma machine. Those critical intercepts saved U.S. military ships and submarines from U-boat raids and helped ensure an Allied victory in World War II.

The NSA played a major role in monitoring the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and other global hot spots.

In the Navy, Dr. Tordella was based for several years on the West Coast, including Bainbridge Island, Wash., where he met and married Barbra Kennedy of Yakima, Wash., who survives. The Tordellas had lived in Silver Spring and Bethesda before moving to Kensington, their home for the past 25 years.

After the war, Dr. Tordella became a civilian Navy employee in Washington, designing policy for the new Armed Forces Security Agency and its successor, the NSA, founded in 1952. Dr. Tordella was an early advocate of the use of computers and other technology at the NSA, which is based at Fort Meade.

In 1958, he was appointed deputy director of the NSA and would hold that post for 16 years -- a record tenure -- retiring in 1974.

Because NSA directors are replaced every few years, Dr. Tordella became the de-facto director, making key decisions and setting policy. Even after retiring, he remained influential, keeping an office a few doors down from the NSA executive director for several years.

He is recalled by some former NSA employees as a serious man who genuinely cared for his employees. Ann Caracristi, NSA deputy director in 1980-1982, recalls Dr. Tordella helping to create "an atmosphere that was supportive of women," making sure they had an equal chance with men at important jobs.

Dr. Tordella received the National Security Medal and the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, and was named an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 1:45 p.m. Jan. 23 at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to his wife of 52 years, Dr. Tordella is survived by two sons, John M. Tordella of Kensington and David L. Tordella of Alexandria, Va.; a daughter, Anne Tordella Fields of Wilmington, Del.; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, 1599 Clifton Road N.E., Atlanta 30329.

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