Obama triggers memories for former agent
Arnold Lau served five U.S. presidents
Arnold J. Lau, 85, retired U.S. Secret Service agent, served from 1952 until 1979 in field offices around the eastern United States.
Rita Borden, Special to The Chapel Hill News
CHAPEL HILL – The inauguration of President Barack Obama brought back many memories for Arnold Lau, retired assistant director of the United States Secret Service, now living in Carolina Meadows.
In his 27 years with the Service he participated in the inaugurations of five presidents: Gen. Dwight D, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
“There’s an incredible amount of research and planning that goes into providing security for such a large event,” Lau said. “The men you see walking beside the president’s car are just the tip of the iceberg. Every agent is involved, regardless of where they are stationed.
“While I was agent in charge of various field offices, we were constantly researching who might have an unusual interest in the president and keeping tabs on their whereabouts,” he said. “At the event itself, we were stationed at posts throughout the area, usually before dawn, and usually in frigid conditions. Needless to say, I really enjoyed the time I was assigned to the inside of the parade reviewing stand!”
Lau didn’t set out to become a Secret Service agent when he graduated with an education degree from Montclair State University in 1948. He taught physical education and coached high school football, basketball and baseball in New Jersey.
“After four years, I was only making $2,800 a year and I couldn’t see supporting a family on that,” he said. “So after I married Mary Louise Roy, a fellow teacher, I started job hunting. While walking down the street in Newark, I bumped into a fellow I’d been in the Navy with during WWII. He’d just applied to the Secret Service and1 suggested I apply, too. So I did and was appointed in 1952.”
One of Lau’s first assignments was in the White House where he guarded Harry Truman until Eisenhower was inaugurated.
“I’d walk at a discrete distance behind President Truman as he went from his office to his quarters,” he said. “I’d also accompany him in the car when he went to play cards with his cronies.”
Lau was assigned to protect Eisenhower when the president took office in 1953.
“I went everywhere with him, including to the 1955 Summit Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, for the historic meeting of President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom, Premier Nikolai Bulganin of the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Edgar Faure of France,” Lau said. “We scoured every inch of Eisenhower’s villa on Lake Geneva for bombs, eavesdropping devices and anything electronic.”
A bittersweet moment came when Lau visited Eisenhower at Walter Reed Hospital just before he died. “Mamie was there and said, ‘Ike, say hello to Mr. Lau — he’s one of the old timers.'”
Another memorable experience was on election night of 1960.
“Some of us registered at a Hyannis Port motel as ‘The Savings Bond Division.” As soon as it was clear that John F. Kennedy had been elected, we were authorized to move into the Kennedy compound.”
“Bobby Kennedy came out and offered us a cold drink. A fellow agent requested coffee instead. Shortly, JFK himself came out with the coffee and some cake. We all really liked him, he was more of a contemporary of ours.”
Kennedy was the first president inaugurated who didn’t wear a hat — and that changed the Secret Service agents’ dress, too. “Up until then we all wore suits, white shirts, ties and fedoras. Now we wore whatever the president wore so we would blend in.”
The assassination of President Kennedy and then Bobby Kennedy brought major changes in the Secret Service. Protection was extended to presidential and vice presidential candidates and their families. Lau, for example, was temporarily assigned to President Lyndon Johnson during the election campaign and often accompanied him to the LBJ ranch in Texas.
Lau was tapped to set up a new comprehensive training program for new recruits and experienced agents. He created dozens of new and advanced courses, developed an expanded and professionalized instructor staff, and established a Counter-Sniper team. “My early teaching experience came in handy after all,” he said.
Lau ended his 27-year Secret Service career as assistant director for protective research, overseeing the vital and sensitive protective intelligence needs of the Service.
Since then the authority of the Secret Service has expanded to include the investigation of financial institution fraud, access device fraud, computer crimes, fraudulent government and commercial securities, fictitious financial instruments, telecommunications fraud, false identification and identity theft. In 2003, the Secret Service was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security where it has made nearly 29,000 criminal arrests for counterfeiting, and other financial crimes, 98 percent of which resulted in convictions.
The Laus retired to Chapel Hill from the Washington, D.C., area in 1980; their children soon followed. Their son, John Lau, a lieutenant with the Carboro Police Department, and wife Lisa live in Hillsborough. Their daughter, Nancy and husband Charles Prescott run Prescott Stone Fabricators Ltd. in Durham.