BUTTE – When Butte native Ed McGivern joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1964, his life changed forever.
The CIA sent him to Vietnam during the escalating war for his first assignment. One night, while he was out to dinner in a small city in southern Vietnam, Vietnamese communists – Viet Cong – blew up part of his house.
Ed passed away 10 years ago at the age of 70. His son, Mike McGivern, is vice president of human resources at Montana Resources.
While Ed risked his life gathering information to help his country win the Cold War, Mike and his older brother Ed Jr. grew up not knowing their father was a spy. Ed worked for the American embassies in Vietnam, Taiwan, Burma (now Myanmar), Singapore and Hong Kong, and his family lived with him in most of those countries. He met former Gov. Ronald Reagan and Taiwan's longtime leader General Chiang Kai-shek. Mike reports that it wasn't until the 1990s when he visited his parents, who had retired to Virginia, that he learned the truth. Mike saw a framed certificate, acknowledging Ed's 31 years of service to the CIA, hanging on the wall. That was the first time he and his dad spoke about his father's true career.
"We were never told, but we had our suspicions," Mike said.
Mike and Ed Jr. uncovered their first clue while searching for stashed Christmas presents. Mike was 7 or 8 at the time when he and his older brother stumbled on some "spy gear stuff," including cameras, while digging around for hidden toys.
Mike said his father called it "a big game."
"The KGB (the former Soviet Union's spy agency) were watching us, we were watching them, and both we and the KGB were watching the Chinese, who were watching us," Mike recalled his father saying after his retirement.
Mike remembered his dad going out every morning to play tennis with some Russians. Now he knows his dad played tennis with KGB agents.
Ed's widow, Star McGivern, recalled the rounds of socializing necessary to spying.
"It was how you learned what they had to say about what was happening in their country," Star said.
But the work, and the lifestyle, wasn't all cocktails and dinner parties. Star recalled a time when Burmese students and monks took to the streets to protest the government when the McGiverns were living in the former Burmese capital of Rangoon (now called Yangon). The American government was trying to evacuate embassy families to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, but the road to the airport was shut down. American families, including the McGiverns, couldn't get out of the country and had to crawl underneath the windows to avoid being seen.
But despite the inherent peril to her husband and her family, Star said she was never afraid.
"When you're doing this, you're a political reporter," Star said. "You're talking to government officials, assessing the political climate in that country. They have to have people on the ground, what is the mood of the people, the rumors of the government."
A graduate of Butte Central, Ed was the son of "Red" McGivern, a miner who died in a mining accident on St. Patrick's Day in 1942 in the Anselmo Mine. Star cites Red's death, when Ed was only 6, as the reason Ed opted to forge a different career. Too poor to afford college, Ed joined the Navy then attended Carroll College in Helena before going on to graduate from Montana State University-Bozeman with a master's degree. It was at MSU that he met his wife, Star Quisel. They married, and he began teaching at Helena Cathedral High School when Star spotted the CIA recruitment notice on a bulletin board at MSU in the winter of 1963. Pregnant with their first child, Ed Jr., Star encouraged Ed to apply.
It was Ed's facility in languages that got him the job. He had an hour to take a test in a made-up language. He passed it and went on to become fluent in Mandarin (one of two Chinese languages) and Indonesian as part of his work for the CIA. Ed studied French while a student in Montana.
Ed's Vietnam assignment was so dangerous, Star and her growing family – Ed Jr. was a baby and Mike was on the way – were sent to Okinawa, Japan, alone. Ed made the 2,000 mile commute to visit his young family on weekends about once a month.
Later, when both Ed Jr. and Mike were in elementary school, the family relocated to Burma. The McGiverns had servants, and two of their hired help were involved in an extramarital affair. The betrayed husband stabbed the wife's lover on the McGiverns' lawn. The servant died, and the other servants were afraid to go back to work. In order to regain normalcy, Star had to hold two exorcisms and hire someone to sleep in the servants' quarters for a night to prove the lover's ghost was not haunting the McGivern house. Star also had to write a letter to appease the ghost.
"It was torn into tiny pieces and burned in the kitchen. We didn't have any hauntings. The Burmese believed in spirits in trees. Sometimes odd things happened. I was willing to go along with what they wanted to be done," Star said.
Instead of fearing other spying agencies or foreign governments, Star feared cobras when they lived in Burma.
"We learned to step carefully in the dark at night because of snakes, and some people kept geese in their yard to scare off cobras," Star said via email.
In addition to their two boys, Ed and Star added to their family while working abroad. They adopted Shana, now 46, from Thailand in 1974 and Kay, now 35, when they lived in Hong Kong in 1986.
Despite his far-flung life, Ed did not forget his roots in Butte. His mother Betty remarried Bob Koprivica, a well-known local philanthropist who gave the first $1,000 check toward the creation of the Lady of the Rockies. Ed came back for frequent visits. Ed's younger sister, Jennifer Shea, remembers Ed reliving the 1953 game when Butte Central beat Butte High for the first time in 28 years. Ed was a senior at Butte Central that year and played on the team. Jennifer said Ed loved Butte. Both of Ed's sons, Ed Jr. and Mike, attended college at Montana Tech.
Star pointed out that the memory of Red, who died because he took an extra shift in the mine to feed his growing family, may have affected even the next generation of McGiverns. Mike studied mining safety at Tech.
In recalling her life with her husband, Star, who grew up in Livingston, brought up how serendipity shaped their whole life.
"I think (Ed) would have been a teacher in a small town in Montana and that life probably would've been good there, too, if I hadn't seen that ad."