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May 20 2019

The Trailblazing Secret Service Engineer: Liz Ten Eyck

by Charlotte Hays

It was dark as pitch and Elizabeth Ten Eyck was furtively crawling around underneath a parked car. A Secret Service engineer tasked with creating devices to track counterfeiters, Liz, you see, not only developed the bugs, she planted them, too.

Tonight's car was parked dangerously close to the suspect's  bedroom window. Mission accomplished, Liz breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to the Secret Service agent who was staked out nearby. "Glad that was you and not me out there," the agent admitted.  Why so, Liz asked.

Ten Eyck had not known beforehand that the suspect was a particularly dangerous character, who was only at home that night because he was out of jail on bail. He recently had been arrested for shooting somebody. But it was all part of the job for Liz.

"The Secret Service hired me because they were looking for engineers who could develop equipment that they couldn’t buy off the shelf and they also didn’t want their engineers to be in ivory towers, so we were trained to work operationally. "

"I worked active counterfeit investigations," Liz recalls. "When we got to the prototype stage, we would take  the tracking system out and see how well it worked. Sometimes I planted bugs on cars in shopping center parking lots, and other times it would be at two or three in the morning at the suspect's house. An undercover agent--a snitch, some would say--would let us know that so and so was going to pick up some paper and print some counterfeit money. So I would arrange to go in and put a beacon on his car."

Although we tend to think of the Secret Service mainly as the agency that protects the President and members of the first family, it was established in 1865 to suppress counterfeiting. Its mission has evolved but counterfeit investigations are still an important part of its work. Liz was never an agent--she worked as an engineer and was a civil servant at the agency before the Secret Service hired its first female agents in the early 1970s.

While at the agency, Ten Eyck pioneered several devices. One was a beacon that a grateful Mrs. Nixon and the Nixon daughters carried so that the agents would not have to accompany them into bathrooms.  People being protected by the agency often refused to wear body armor—they claimed it projected a sign of weakness. So, in addition to developing the first armor for agents to wear and other specialized ballistic resistant items,  Ten Eyck developed a protective cape that looked like an ordinary London Fog raincoat when an agent carried it over his arm. At the first sign of danger, the "raincoat" became protective armor that could be draped over the President or other VIPs.

Ten Eyck's eight year stint at the Secret Service was only one interval in a remarkable career. Long before Sheryl Sandberg urged women to "lean in," Ten Eyck's resume included high posts in the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She is a prominent authority on nuclear safeguards and transportation of nuclear materials. Her career offers many lessons for young women today. One lesson for young women: your college major is --well--major.

Liz is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where she obtained a B.S. degree in electrical engineering in 1968.  She had enjoyed math in high school, and it looked like a probable major--until she found out from a counselor that the major required German. She'd had Latin in high school and didn't want to study another language. "Have you considered engineering?" the counselor asked. Strong math skills required, but no foreign language. "So I said 'that's for me,'" she recalls.  She was one of the first female electrical engineers to graduate from Maryland.

Was it difficult to be the lone, or nearly lone, woman in most classes? Liz says she never had a problem: the key is performing well. If you do that, she says, you will be respected, by men or women." We had an engineering study room, and I was always down there. We were doing homework together and no, I never felt that I was a victim at allI felt like one of the students, one of the guys." She had also grown up in a neighborhood that included a lot of boys and was something of a tomboy herself. In an aside, she mentions, without bitterness, that her parents informed her early on that they could afford to send only one of their two children to college, and it was going to be her younger brother, Tom.

Having to work her way through college influenced her choice of a major. A good athlete, Liz had toyed with the idea of majoring in physical education.  But she realized that math, or engineering, as it happened, would be better from a financial point of view. "I thought I would be better able to support myself," she says."Economics was certainly a consideration if I was going to be working to put myself through school."

Fortunately for Liz, her boss responded, "If Liz can't go, then nobody from this office is going." Liz went. Given the ultimatum, the training planners decided that having a woman was no problem. But a supportive boss was key, as was Liz's drive and skill that attracted the support.  

Who Stole Feminism author Christina Hoff Sommers once joked,  "Want to close wage gap? Step one: Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering. " Liz picked electrical engineering over physical education, and says she never thought she was paid less than her male colleagues who did comparable work. 

Nor did Liz regard entry level jobs as beneath her dignity. Liz worked as a long distance operator for the C&P Bell Telephone Company starting around the age of seventeen. In the summers, she worked downtown at the company's Washington, D. C. engineering department and had been expected to work at the Bell Labs when she graduated from college.

Liz, however,  landed a summer job as a junior engineer at Westinghouse Aerospace at the old Friendship Airport (now BWI), working on the cockpit TV display for the “Walleye Missile,” that was launched by the Phantom jet.. So instead of focusing on communications with the telephone company, I began working on defense military systems." She next took a job with the old Bunker Ramo Company, which manufactured advanced electronic systems for the military and digital computers. "I got to work on the jamming system that flew in the EA-6A Intruder jet that jammed the SAM missile sites located on the ground in Vietnam," she says. "

After Bunker Ramo, she worked for Braddock, Dunn & McDonald. She worked on something called an EMP, which stands for electromagnetic pulse. "It's an electromagnetic pulse effect that can wipe out electronic components," Ten Eyck explains, "and it can happen as a result of a nuclear blast.  It’s something that the U.S. is a still very concerned about.  We want our equipment to survive and be capable of operating after a nuclear blast."

Sounds complicated. What exactly did Liz do?

"Well, we had a Pershing missile,” she explains, “and they set it up in a field down in Florida, the Martin Marietta site, where they would zap the missile with a pulse, and then we  were able to find out what components were damaged by the blast.  We would put different components in it to try to minimize the effect of the pulse, and so, what we did was through field testing determine what equipment and  what components, needed to be protected so that the missile would survive an EMP attack."

She was building a stellar resume in the defense industry,  and then her brother called. He  was an agent with the  Secret Service, and learned that the agency was looking for engineers. That sounded interesting, too.

"This was before they had women agents," Liz says, "but because of my chosen career of being an engineer, I was hired – and I was actually the first operational woman in the Secret Service.  When they later expanded their personnel to include women, I was already pretty senior.  They were hiring women agents, I think, as GS 5s, and I was already like a GS 12 or 13, so I wasn’t interested in dropping back. I already  thought had the best job of all, because I got to do such interesting stuff."

Ten Eyck urges young women to be aware of the salary scale in their chosen professions and negotiate for the best arrangements possible. But she worries that the Me Too movement might ultimately lead to "regression in the progress that women have made."  She fears that men will be afraid to be in certain situations with women coworkers.

"The Secret Service hired me because they were looking for engineers who could develop equipment that they couldn’t buy off the shelf and they also didn’t want their engineers to be in ivory towers, so we were trained to work operationally.  As Dan Rather once said on TV, we were the technical security group that looked for bombs and bugs. As we worked operationally, we also looked to see where technology could help the Service do their jobs better. “I identified that, to my surprise, that unlike comic strip character, Dick Tracy, the Secret Service didn’t have any vehicle tracking equipment."

Ten Eyck set about remedying this by helping to develop vehicle tracking equipment for the Secret Service--and that is why we met her crawling under a car in the dark of night to place a bugging device.

Liz was working in a professional world that was much more masculine than today. What was her secret for success?  

"Basically, I think you have to earn the respect of the men that you work with by doing the task as well as they can do it, she says. But you need the opportunity to demonstrate that, and when I was in the Secret Service, I worked for a boss who was always willing to give me the opportunity."

Despite Liz's positive attitude and refusal to characterize herself as a victim, it's clear that being a woman created hurdles men did not encounter. Once when there was an opportunity to be training in bomb disposal by another agency, Liz's boss was informed that there could be no women in the training program. There never had been a woman at this facility. Nobody knew what they would do about bathrooms if women were to show up for bomb disposal training. It simply had not been done.

Fortunately for Liz, her boss responded, "If Liz can't go, then nobody from this office is going." Liz went. Given the ultimatum, the training planners decided that having a woman was no problem. But a supportive boss was key, as was Liz's drive and skill that attracted the support.  

The same boss gave Liz another break some years later. He went onto a senior executive job at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and was heading up their security program. He had a job opening and asked Liz to consider applying. "He said we need some people who have operational experience," she remembers. "We have people writing rules and determining what’s going to be required for the security at our nuclear facilities and they’ve never installed a system. They’ve never looked at the problem of what it’s going to take to circumvent the system, or what it has to do. So, I applied for the job and I got it."

Like her previous job, this was not an ivory tower position. "I developed teams that would go out and evaluate any vulnerabilities of installed security equipment at nuclear power plants and at our other commercial nuclear facilities," she recalls. Ten Eyck was a member of the Senior Executive Service and went on to serve as director of the Division of Fuel Cycle Safety and Safeguards for the NRC.  During her career at NRC, she oversaw transportation, and safeguards for nuclear power reactors, their fuel production facilities and facilities that produce nuclear weapons useable material. She also held a senior position  at the Department of Energy. One of the things she disliked at DOE: interfacing with Congressional oversight committees. " I stayed at DOE for a couple years and basically kind of got tired of having to go up to the Hill and explain to Senator Dingell every time some security officer stubbed their toe out in the field at a Department of Energy facility.  They were really beating up on the DOE security at the time. So, I got a call one day from my boss and I told him and 'I’m not enjoying it over here as much as I wished that I was.'  Then he called me one day and said  the guy who had taken my place as deputy division director was retiring and he was going to be posting the job again.  So, I  applied for it.  I got it.  I went back to NRC. I loved it there. Eventually, I became Director and stayed there until I retired in 2000." 

Ten Eyck and her husband had a fulfilling marriage, but they didn't talk about everything. "We both were involved with classified programs and we never discussed them," she says.

Along the way, Liz married William Ten Eyck--he was military and they met doing inter-agency projects on protective systems.  She was 39 when they married. Liz had come to the conclusion that she probably would not marry. "I used to say that I would not marry until somebody persuaded me that being married was better than being single and my husband was the silver-tongued devil who  did that." They loved doing projects together and had a fulfilling marriage. But they didn't talk together about everything. "He worked on a black program for the Air Force, and I was responsible for threat assessment for the commercial nuclear industry when I was at NRC, and I was involved with highly classified activities at the Department of Energy. We both were involved with classified programs and we never discussed them." William Ten Eyck had two sons from a previous marriage. He died eleven years ago.

A trailblazer who worked in fields where women were often missing in the past, Liz attended one of her step son's graduation at Virginia Tech in 1993 and was delighted to see the number of young women in his engineering class. "I thought how great that women were not being intimidated by something like engineering," she says. "It’s kind of like what my mother told me.  She gave me a little crystal paperweight when I graduated from high school,  inscribed with  “What You Dare To Dream, Dare To Do.”  And that’s kind of been my motto through my life."

Ten Eyck urges young women to be aware of the salary scale in their chosen professions and negotiate for the best arrangements possible. But she worries that the Me Too movement might ultimately lead to "regression in the progress that women have made."  She fears that men will be afraid to be in certain situations with women coworkers. "I traveled with men and worked with men all my life," she recalls. Although Liz has never believed in shutting her eyes to bad behavior from colleagues, Liz believes that some can be headed off by always behaving in a professional manner.

And she deplores the sense of entitlement she sees in some young women. "I’m all for giving women opportunities, but not to the extent of an entitlement," she says. " I once had a vacancy announcement for a technical assistant, and I looked at all the candidates and  picked the person that I thought would be the best. One of the candidates was a woman, and personnel came to me and said "You missed an opportunity to promote a woman.' And I said, 'Yes, but I was looking for the most qualified candidate, not a token woman.' I may be old school, but I still think that if you want to get the job you’ve got to be the best candidate.

"I’m all for giving women all the opportunities," she continues. "And I had women on all kinds of my teams going out and evaluating nuclear facilities, doing all kinds of training that you normally wouldn't expect for  women.  But I still expected them to be the best candidate."

Liz knows first-hand that this is the time-honored way of succeeding, for men or women--even if it takes being willing to do some odd jobs, such as crawling under the occasional automobile.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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