Tom Ridge

May 24, 2013 - 4:01 AM

The official portrait of the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was unveiled yesterday at the Department headquarters on Nebraska Avenue, in Washington, DC.

Tom Ridge left that post in 2005 and it is now 2013 but that is, as we say here, close enough for government work.

DHS was conceived out of the emotional, as well as the physical rubble of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Ridge was the Governor of Pennsylvania at the time and went to Shanksville, the site of the wreckage of Flight 93. As Mayors and Governors and Presidents do, he gave solace to the people of his state and to the first responders responsible for investigating and cleaning up the site.

Shortly after the attacks, Ridge got a call from Chief of Staff, Andy Card, telling him that President George W. Bush would like him to, effectively, drop everything including his office, and come to Washington to head of a yet-to-be-formed Office of Homeland Security operating out of the White House.

As Ridge told the story yesterday, "I asked Andy how big a staff I would have. He said 'oh, 12 to15; we'll work out the details.'

"When we finished 'working out the details' my 12-15 person staff became 180,000 people at the Department of Homeland Security."

Current Secretary Janet Napolitano described the task that Ridge faced to get federal employees from different departments and agencies on different payrolls, with different email systems and different phone systems operating as one unit, "The equivalent of building a ship and sailing it at the same time."

Tom Ridge's bio is standard American. From Erie, Pennsylvania (which is not known as a center of sophistication among the elites of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), he won a scholarship to Harvard.

He graduated and entered law school, but was drafted after his first year and went to Viet Nam where he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, and was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor.

He left a good deal of his hearing behind, but came back to the States and finished law school. He became an assistant county prosecutor then ran successfully for Congress where he served for 12 years. He was the first enlisted Viet Nam vet to serve in the U.S. Congress.

He was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1994 and won reelection four years later.

Then 9/11 happened and he ended up the first Secretary of Homeland Security.

Just your average Tom.

The hall in which the ceremony took place was crowded with many of the men and women who were there in those first days. They talked about things like Operation Liberty Shield that was deemed necessary to erect on the eve of our entry into Iraq.

They talked about putting together the plan to protect bridges and tunnels: "The Department of Transportation said they'd do it; we said 'That's our job, now'."

They talked about stockpiling emergency supplies of all types around the country. "HHS said they'd coordinate that effort; we said, 'We do that, now'."

And so on.

The color code was raised to Orange, the Shield was established, and nothing - and no one - slipped through.

The systems - now far more sophisticated - that were set up by Tom Ridge and those early DHS employees protected us until April 15, 2013 when two brothers slipped through the system and lit off their bombs in Boston.

So, the portrait was unveiled at a ceremony yesterday. Ridge was reported to have said that he would be just as happy if they threw a happy hour somewhere and invited all the DHS alums to see it there.

Typical of Tom Ridge.

Here's another.

Last year when you helped me raise money to build an accessible home in Marietta, Ohio for PFC Kyle Hockenberry (who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan), almost as I was walking on stage to present an oversized check to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation on your behalf, I got a call from Gov. Ridge's office.

He made the last donation of our little effort and all he wanted in return, was for me to tell PFC Hockenberry on his behalf, "Thanks for your service."

Back at you, SSGT Ridge.

Thank you for your service.

On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to Tom Ridge's bio, to Operation Liberty Shield, and to the official history of DHS. Also the Department-supplied photo of Tom Ridge's official portrait.