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No beer, no balls, great evening

April 10, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce/Herald-Star Concert and Lecture Series proved something very important and uplifting to me on Tuesday evening: It is possible to hold an event in Steubenville involving neither beer nor balls and still nearly fill the Big Red auditorium.

The speakers were Jonna and Antonio Mendez, both of whom were chief masters of disguise for the Central Intelligence Agency during their careers. Antonio Mendez was the agent who masterminded the rescue of six hostages from hostile Iran in 1980.

Mendez role has been declassified, though his partner on the “exfiltration mission still is only known by something other than his real name. Indeed, the couple, now senior citizens who spend more of their time as artists on their Maryland farm, speak in generalities about parts of their career.

One gets a sense that they know a lot of stuff none of us regular citizens ever will know.

And it’s amazing to look at them and think they once plied the dangerous fronts of the Cold War, doing all the exotic kind of spy stuff we can only dream about. Because now, they look like a couple of retired college professors, or the retired accountants next door. If they’d backed out of the parking lot in a white 10-year-old Buick Park Avenue and headed off for mimosas at the club, they wouldn’t look out of place. Think more "Murder She Wrote" than "Burn Notice," though they certainly seem to be the model for the CIA couple Mary Pat and Ed Foley in the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan series.

A really cool part of the evening came when the audience had the opportunity to thank them for their service. Spies dont often get thanked. Indeed, the couple noted that when the six Americans were delivered out of Tehran to neutral Switzerland, they were whisked away by the State Department literally on the tarmac at the bottom of the airstairs at the end of the Swissair airline flight. The spies who rescued them, Mendez and his partner, weren’t thanked, recognized or otherwise honored at that point. They, as Mr. Mendez said, went off for a cup of coffee and went back to work.

So, it felt good to give a big round of applause for a couple of our nations successful Cold Warriors. We’ve messed up the spoils of winning that war a bit, but these folks anonymously did their jobs, and were among countless others we’ll probably never know.

As for their thoughts about Steubenville, it is good to hear a visitor say that “Steubenville is so not New York” in a good way. Jonna Mendez said it was great to spend a sunny spring morning sitting on the porch at the Bayberry House Bed and Breakfast and recall what it meant to be in a neighborhood. Lord knows after the national beating we've taken (some deservedly, some just mean spirited), we needed the uplift.

Yes, the city needs a lot of work, and a lot of recovery. But its got a prototype there in the North End of what can work. And there is apparently a core of people interested in events beyond the diamond, the court and the gridiron.

The lecture and concert series will continue with a summer concert (beer in a football stadium, but it is a summer celebration after all), and plans are to continue the lecture series next fall.

And I’ve been to the Robert Morris Lecture Series in Pittsburgh. Ours is every bit as professionally handled as any of those.

While we probably won’t see Netanyahu or Dan Rather here, I’d say a master spy whose work was the topic of an Oscar-winning film, and an agent from JFK’s fateful Secret Service detail are a darned good caliber of speakers for our area.

Here’s to more non-beer, non-ball events.


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