The Woman Who Smashed Codes. A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Jason Fagone. 444pp. Dey St.
I’ve always liked something Norman Mailer said about journalists and why he wasn’t one of them even though he had received a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Armies of the Night. In a subsequent book, he said of journalists: "They had first of all to have enormous curiosity, and therefore be unable to rest until they found out the secret behind even the smallest event."
Jason Fagone is a curious journalist and because of that, he has given us The Woman Who Smashed Codes, the story of Elizabeth Smith Friedman who with her husband spent most of their adult lives cracking codes using “pencil, papers and their brains” (to quote from the book) long before computers existed. Fagone explains that he first learned about the Friedmans in 2014 and decided to do research on Elizabeth, who seemed to be an afterthought in any of the stories written about her husband, William, in effect, the man who gave us the NSA.
Fortunately for Fagone, there existed a rich collection of his and hers personal papers, hers, though, mostly ignored. Fagone found love letters, letters to her children, handwritten diaries, a partial autobiography. The hunt was on!
From those boxes he had a good idea what Elizabeth was doing until 1940 when the records trail off. Then he wanted to know what she was doing during World War II. It took him two years to find out that during the war Elizabeth decoded messages exchanged by Nazi spies at a time when few people knew how to crack the codes. Pencil, paper and brains, not computers.

But that’s all I’m going to tell you. You have to read the book to learn about an almost forgotten American heroine. When you do you’ll also get a good overview of how codes were created and used, not just by spies but by organized crime. And you’ll read the story of the woman who cracked many of those codes and helped fight crime and win the war. This is a book worth reading.


An Enterprising Reporter

(Remarks by me at a memorial service for Terry Dalton on Feb. 19.)

Terry Dalton and I worked for the same newspaper in Centre County in the early 1970s and became fast friends. His job was to cover county and local government in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. That meant writing about anything from a boring planning commission meeting to a murder trial.

A fellow reporter recalls “Terry with phone propped between chin and shoulder typing notes as he interviewed people (some unwillingly). His desk was always heaped with papers, notes, and what-have-you--debris from news gathering and neglect. He was always intent and serious about his job, with proper measures of cynicism/realism and good humor. He worked long and hard at his craft and filled the CDT with a lot of fact and truth.  I remember he got a fair amount of ribbing about his stories being too long, something that carried over to his annual Christmas letters.”

Kathy, who as the editor of the letters shortened them every year, laughingly takes exception to that remark. But I digress.

Terry loved his job. No story was beneath him. And what made him even better was his enterprising attitude. He not only covered what he was assigned, but he came up with stories on his own. He was a self-starter.

An activist from back home remembers Terry’s in-depth and extensive coverage of an old mill about to be torn down resulted in a change of attitude in the community and on town council and saved the mill, which became the home of a very good restaurant and brewpub.

When he learned that a woman in the office where he worked had become an umpire in a male softball league, he turned that into a feature story.

When a national report revealed that female anchors on television news shows were required to be made up more heavily made up than males, he interviewed a woman who had been born in our county and was at the time a news anchor in Baltimore. He found a local angle to a national story, something he did many times.

When a local man was killed in a mining accident, he pursued the story and learned that safety in the mine was questionable and support for the widow was negligible. We had to run that story through our attorney—and he changed not a word.

Terry was dogged in pursuit of a story.

I remember when Dan Rather of CBS News spoke at Penn State. Terry covered Rather’s speech in an auditorium then walked with Rather to another venue for a news conference. Most reporters would have just gone to the venue. Terry attached himself to Rather—it looked to me as though they were joined at the hip—and interviewed him on the way, even correcting Rather when he was fuzzy on some facts. Terry had done his homework.

He loved politics regardless of party. He was “the consummate apolitical political junkie.” He had an understated aggressive style—I know that’s an oxymoron--backed up by facts, which meant the person he was interviewing couldn’t lie about something. There were no alternative facts in a Terry Dalton story.

He interviewed a lot of national and state political figures. When you go to the reception in McDaniel Lounge later, check out the photos of Terry interviewing various politicians. My favorite is Terry interviewing Jerry Brown. Talk about up close and personal. You’ll see.

Also in those photos is John Anderson, who ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1980. For Terry, it was a great story. I’m sure he would have loved covering Bernie Sanders, whom he had met when he lived in Vermont and Sanders was the mayor of Burlington.

One of the criticisms of the press is that it covers elections like horse races, even when the ballots are being counted and the results are already determined but not yet public and are made public after they are logged in and counted. Sensitive to that, Terry turned the criticism on its head and covered one election from the point of view of how the candidate was reacting to the returns as they slowly arrived at his campaign headquarters and the outcome kept changing. It was a horse race for the candidate even though the polls had closed.

Kathy told me the other day about a self-deprecating story Terry used to tell, that he had learned in ROTC how to take a rifle apart but he never could reassemble it. Maybe not, but he certainly knew how to assemble a set of facts into a good story.
He was a very good deductive thinker. When he was growing up in New Jersey, the family TV went on the blink. This was in the day of vacuum tubes and expensive repair visits. Instead of calling someone, Terry turned on the TV, let the tubes warm up and touched each one—carefully, of course. When he found the tube that was cold, he went to the TV store and bought a new one and replaced the cold one. Problem solved. Repair bill avoided.

Even when he was fighting Alzheimer’s, he continued to be a deductive thinker. About two years ago we had lunch with the family, and Terry and I were reminiscing about people we had worked with 40 years ago. Suddenly, he was stuck for a name. He started going through her attributes: Live wire. Journ student. Italian. And then he said her name. As it was, she wasn’t Italian but her name did end in a vowel. He was not to be denied.

Let me share some comments that others have posted on Facebook or shared with me via email.

Brian Weakland: I'll remember Terry for his passion and joy.  He enjoyed life and enriched those around him.

Robert L. Frick A good man who took the time to help me during my CDT internship, when it wasn't his job. You never forget mentors like that.

Diana Griffith … Terry was my first mentor from the time I was in high school. He was one of my instructors in the Penn State J-school and took the time to write a note of praise while I was writing for The Daily Collegian (student newspaper at Penn State). ... He was a wonderful person.

Bill Wallace … Terry was not much older than the rest of us, but he was always the grown-up in the room. He led by example, although I doubt he realized it. Most of us learned to be better journalists by watching him work, and reading his work. He was a respected colleague and a good man.

Rosa: … As a Collegian reporter, I had covered (a local politician) at the same time Terry covered him for the CDT. I learned so much from asking questions while sitting beside a great reporter. Before I left for Chicago I gave Terry an illustrated copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" ... I told Terry that, like Whitman, he was a scribe of democracy.

(I love that description.) a scribe of democracy

David Morris … Terry and I both arrived in Harrisburg for our respective papers at the same time in 1983. We bonded over baseball and politics. Fittingly, the last time I saw him was a chance meeting in Cooperstown.

Speaking of Cooperstown, Terry and Kathy were married there in 1981. For those of you who don’t follow Terry’s favorite sport, Cooperstown is the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But, wait, it gets better. Ever the sports junkie, on their honeymoon in the Bahamas, they met and interviewed Muhammad Ali who was there training for the final fight of his career


Let me close by borrowing a couple of lines from W.H. Auden.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
Terrence Dalton is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

And so, Terry, from all of your friends, farewell and thank you for being you.


Inauguration Day

When is this country most vulnerable? About the time on Inauguration Day when the president-elect puts his hand on the Bible and raises his right hand. I’m trying to imagine what could go wrong on this Inauguration Day, especially given the bellicosity of candidate and now President-elect Trump.

Trump has made a lot of noise about China. No problem. But then he doubled down by taking a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan. A week later he doubled down again on that by saying the United States isn’t bound by the one-China policy, a policy that for decades says with a wink and a nod that there’s only one China and its capital is in Beijing.

China considers Taiwan a rogue state. It considers Taiwan part of China. Trump seems to have cast that aside. How might China react?

First, a time zone lesson. When it’s noon in Washington, it’s midnight in Beijing.

I solemnly swear …

If I were the president of China, I’d move an armada around Taiwan and at the stroke of midnight sail into its main port and declare that Taiwan is part of China, hands down. I’d have my missiles locked and loaded should there be resistance. In other words, I’d show Trump that there is a one-China policy.

But, wait, there’s more than just China.

The boy despot in North Korea is ready to show off his nuclear capability. What if he lobbed some missiles on South Korea? Even if the missiles are not nuclear, consider the reaction? Our current secretary of defense said on Meet the Press that the United States would shoot down any missile aimed at it or an ally. Well, South Korea’s an ally.

Are we going to go to war with China over Taiwan? Are we going to go to war with North Korea over South Korea?

will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

And where do you think the Russians will come down on all of this? Why, such a move by China alone would play into Putin’s hand. Throw in North Korea and it’s game on.

Of course, I hope none of this happens, but I do believe Trump is in addition to becoming the commander-in-chief may also become the enabler-in-chief.