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Border Patrol agent's career was rarely boring; South Buffalo native recalls 50-year ride

As William F. Dickman looks back on his long career in the military and law enforcement, he has a hard time trying to single out his most harrowing experience.

It could have been in 1962, when he was part of a team trying to put down a huge riot on the University of Mississippi campus, where racists were trying to prevent James Meredith from attending classes as the school's first black student.

It could have been in 1968, when bullets whizzed past his head during the Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Vietnam War.

Or it could have been in 1980, when he was chief of security at a Cuban refugee center in Pennsylvania, where assault, hostage-taking and murder occurred on almost a daily basis.

"I'd have a hard time saying what was the hairiest thing I ever went through," Dickman, 72, said during a recent interview. "As I look back, it's been a very interesting career and a good ride -- a very good ride."

A South Buffalo native who joined the U.S. Border Patrol a half century ago, Dickman recently concluded his law enforcement career. He retired from active duty as an agent in 1994, but taught classes and served as an executive mentor to Border Patrol supervisors in the Buffalo sector until retiring from that duty last month.

After shining shoes, delivering newspapers and setting pins in a bowling alley as a teenager, Dickman joined the Marines in 1956. Although he wanted to be an infantryman, the Marines trained him as a combat photographer, after learning that one of his hobbies was photography.

He spent his first tour of duty with the Marines in the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, and got out.

In 1960, he joined the Border Patrol and spent his first five years with the agency patrolling the Texas-Mexico border.

"I had a friend who got shot down there, but in those days, the job was not as dangerous as it is today," Dickman said. "When we caught illegal aliens, they would treat us with respect, and we'd treat them with respect. We'd share our lunches with them. Most of them were honorable, hard-working individuals who were looking for a better life."

In October 1962, Dickman and other Border Patrol agents were sent on an emergency assignment to Oxford, Miss., where thousands of protesters were trying to stop Meredith from breaking the color line at the University of Mississippi.

"We were given a few days of riot control techniques, deputized as deputy U.S. Marshals and deployed on campus," recalled Dickman, who was 23 at the time. "We set up a perimeter and lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder around the Lyceum [administration] building, and 5,000 thugs attacked us."

Law enforcement officers were outnumbered five to one by the demonstrators, who screamed insults and tried to goad police by dragging an American flag on the ground and having a demonstrator dressed as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wipe his feet on the flag.

"They threw lit cigarettes at us, then pebbles, stones and chunks of concrete," Dickman said. "One of the marshals went down when he was hit with a thick piece of metal pipe. Two people were killed, including a newspaper reporter. They attacked us with bricks, a bulldozer, a fire engine and gunfire."

Marshals and Border Patrol officers fought back with tear gas, and Dickman wore a gas mask during the siege.

At one point, he suffered a painful knee injury -- and could have been killed -- when someone hurled a chunk of concrete off a rooftop, hitting him in the leg.

"After that, I couldn't get up. I was hiding under a stone bench, and I thought [demonstrators] were going to kill me, but two big deputies dragged me to safety," Dickman said. "Absolutely, I was scared. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my whole life."

Later, after order was restored and Meredith was accepted as a student, Dickman and others who served during the riot received letters of thanks from then-President John F. Kennedy, and then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Dickman still treasures the letters.

Dickman remained in the Marines as a reservist for decades, but in 1967, he asked to return to active duty so he could help his comrades in the Vietnam War. Dickman felt it was his responsibility, but he said his mother was so upset with his decision that she refused to drive him to the airport.

As a combat photographer in Vietnam, he was repeatedly assigned to join whatever Marine unit was closest to the front lines at the time. He participated in hundreds of patrols and 18 major combat operations, including the Tet Offensive.

Dickman was in the thick of the fighting during the Tet Offensive, which began in January 1968 when 80,000 North Vietnamese soldiers simultaneously attacked more than 100 cities, towns and villages in South Vietnam. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in a campaign that raged on for about a month.

With bullets flying and soldiers dying all around him, Dickman took hundreds of dramatic photographs, many published in magazines and books about the war. He counted himself lucky to be alive.

"My first month in combat, I was a nervous wreck," Dickman said. "Many times, bullets missed me by inches, sometimes even closer than that. A round goes off, and you go crazy. After a while, I decided that whatever was going to be, was going to be. There was no sense worrying about it."

Back with the Border Patrol, Dickman found himself in another of history's hot spots in 1980, when 125,000 Cuban exiles -- including some who were released from prisons and mental institutions by dictator Fidel Castro -- began arriving in the U.S.

Many of the refugees were temporarily held in "cantonment facilities" overseen by the Border Patrol. Dickman was assigned to be the security director of one such facility in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and another in Bethesda, Md.

Those, too, were difficult assignments, as Cubans who came to America to find freedom were held in crowded barracks.

"There were good, decent Cuban people in these facilities, mixed in with violent mental patients and stone killers," Dickman said.

At one point, rioters took over a building in Bethesda, and Dickman was proud that the Border Patrol "was able to restore order without anyone getting hurt."

From 1984 until he retired from active duty in 1994, Dickman was the chief of Border Patrol operations in Buffalo. He helped the Border Patrol form its first tactical unit, a specially trained group of agents who are detailed to emergency and high-risk situations.

Dickman, who lives in Clarence with his wife, Fran, has taught criminal justice classes at Erie Community College. He also has taught local police agencies about special tactics, hostage negotiations and marksmanship. He still plans to do some consulting work.

He is widely respected as a role model by current Border Patrol agents, said Kevin Oaks, who now serves as chief of the Buffalo sector.

"Chief Dickman is simply an honorable and humble man who has served his country longer than I have been alive," Oaks said.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com