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NUN-TURNED-AGENT RECALLS HISTORIC CAREER IN FBI

NUN-TURNED-AGENT RECALLS HISTORIC CAREER IN FBI

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Joanne Pierce Misko traded her quiet life as a nun in Niagara Falls for a fast-paced, sometimes dangerous career as an FBI agent.

She also became a pioneer among women in American law enforcement.

In July 1972, she and another woman bucked a 64-year tradition and became the first two female agents in FBI history. The appointments came soon after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director, who insisted he would never allow a woman to work as an agent.

Mrs. Misko spent the next 22 years dodging bullets, tracking down fugitives, conducting surveillance, helping seize millions of dollars from Florida drug dealers, investigating bank frauds and screening FBI applicants. It was quite a change in lifestyle for a soft-spoken woman who taught at Catholic schools in Niagara Falls and Olean.

And when she retired from the agency earlier this month, Mrs. Misko, 53, was the longest-tenured woman agent in FBI history.

Now living near Boca Raton, Fla., where she works as a bank security official, Mrs. Misko said in an interview last week that she has no regrets -- even though her career ended on a bittersweet note. She recently filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, charging that the FBI, on several occasions, passed over her for promotions because she is a woman.

"Filing that lawsuit was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, because the great majority of my feelings toward the FBI, and the people I worked with, are good feelings," she said. "For the most part, it was a great experience in a tremendous law enforcement agency.

"On the other hand, I do feel I have to pursue my lawsuit, because I feel I was unfairly denied some promotional opportunities."

Mrs. Misko's career with the FBI put her in some tough situations.

A few months after her appointment, she was in the middle of a tribal war on the Wounded Knee Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Mrs. Misko and other federal agents were there as peacekeepers, but the assignment was anything but peaceful.

"One day, we were trying to settle a disturbance at a roadblock on the reservation. Snipers from one of the Indian tribes began firing on the roadblock, and we were caught in the middle," Mrs. Misko recalled. "For 45 minutes to an hour, bullets were whizzing and bouncing over our heads. One person was wounded, but fortunately it was a minor injury.

"I wasn't really scared at the time. But afterward, when I had time to think about it, it scared me a bit. But it didn't discourage me from the job."

Two years later, two FBI agents were shot to death on the same reservation while investigating a robbery.

How did a soft-spoken nun from Niagara Falls become a gun-toting FBI agent?

"It basically came about because I wanted to have a family," Mrs. Misko said. "I don't regret the time I spent in the convent, but I wanted a different life, wanted to get married."

Born and educated in the Falls, the former Joanne Pierce graduated from the former St. Mary's High School. In 1958, she joined the Sisters of Mercy, based in Buffalo, and was a nun for the next 12 years. She taught at the former Madonna High School in the Falls, Mount Mercy Academy in South Buffalo and St. Mary's School in Olean.

As she was contemplating leaving the convent, she heard a Buffalo FBI agent give a talk to high school students at a career day in Niagara Falls.

"It just sounded like interesting work. I went up and talked to the agent after his presentation," Mrs. Misko recalled. "At that time, he told me the only jobs for women were support or clerical jobs, but I told him I would like to apply."

In March 1970, she was hired as a researcher at the FBI Training Academy, then located in Washington. Instructors liked her work and encouraged her to pursue becoming an agent. But Hoover had a strict rule against hiring women agents.

"He was bound and determined not to appoint women agents. He didn't think there was a place for women. Maybe he thought the job was too dangerous for us," Mrs. Misko said.

After Hoover died in May 1972, there was a change in thinking at the FBI, and Mrs. Misko and another woman, Susan Roley, were hired. Ms. Roley, still a friend of Mrs. Misko, left the FBI in 1979 to join the Defense Investigative Service in Washington.

In her 22-year FBI career, Mrs. Misko worked in offices in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington and Miami.

She spent most of her years in Pittsburgh, where she supervised a squad of agents who investigated civil rights cases. She also ran a surveillance group and oversaw background investigations for applicants for sensitive federal jobs.

In her last assignment, from 1992 until this year, she got a close look at Miami's narcotics scene. She worked in a squad that seized mansions, luxury cars and millions of dollars from drug dealers.

While she feels she was unfairly passed over for several supervisory jobs over the years, Mrs. Misko said she was generally treated fairly by her bosses and fellow agents.

"I never had anything nasty happen to me," she said. "But you're always going to have a few pockets of resistance, men who will say, 'I'm not going to work for a woman.' "

She said her legal dispute with the FBI was not the reason for her retirement. She said she was planning to retire in a few years, anyway, but decided to get out sooner when an excellent job opportunity was offered at a large Florida bank.

Mrs. Misko's husband for the past 13 years, Michael, is an FBI agent, also stationed in Florida.

Mrs. Misko said she sees better days coming for women in the FBI. She said the present FBI director, Louis Freeh, seems committed to improving conditions for women and minorities in the agency.

"I was impressed that he named the first woman assistant director, Burdena Pasanelli," Mrs. Misko said.

According to an FBI spokesman in Washington, 1,200 of the agency's 9,858 agents now are women and recruiting more women is a priority.

"The number of women agents has risen steadily since 1972," said the spokesman, Bill Carter. "When we recruit, we're actively seeking more women and minorities."

And what does the FBI hierarchy think about Mrs. Misko and her ground-breaking career?

Because of the lawsuit, there are no tributes -- or comments of any kind -- coming out of the Washington headquarters.

"Due to Department of Justice regulations, we can have no comment on Mrs. Misko or her lawsuit," a spokesman at FBI Headquarters said.

Mrs. Misko said she has fond memories of and close family ties to Western New York. Her father, retired security guard Joseph "Howie" Pierce, 83, still lives in Niagara Falls. She has two brothers, Mark and Terry, living in Niagara Falls, and a third brother, James, in Amherst. Mark Pierce is a retired detective with the Niagara Falls police force.

"I really am happy with the career I had with the FBI. I'm privileged to know that I'm one of the first two women they ever appointed. It's something I'm really proud of," Mrs. Misko said.

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