Protecting America: Altoona native retires after illustrious career with Secret Service, TSA

Former United States Secret Service Special Agent Thomas J. Wiley has protected some of the most notable people in history Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Vice Presidents George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro. Throughout his nearly four-decades-long career, the Altoona native, 68, worked his way up through the ranks of the United States Secret Service and then the Transportation Security Administration.

In that time, he rescued a president’s daughter from a runaway elephant; put in place security measures the Secret Service still uses today; dined at the Moscow Kremlin; and stepped foot in both castles and ghettos. And it all began with the foundation he received in his hometown.

His career is a reflection of where he comes from, Wiley said in a phone interview Tuesday from his home in Annapolis, Md., where he lives with his wife, Jan.

“Altoona is the greatest hometown in the world,” he said. “It enabled me to have a strong foundation in terms of having a good work ethic, family values and achieving goals. The values I learned from growing up in Altoona enabled me to be successful. I was very fortunate, and I count my blessings.”

Wiley, a one-time Altoona Mirror paperboy, said he often returns to his hometown. He grew up in Altoona with his five siblings – John, Dan, Frank, Mary Anne and Susan – to parents Joseph and Anna Wiley. Before being sworn in as a Special Agent of the United States Secret Service in January 1974, Wiley was a high school teacher and football coach at his alma mater, Bishop Guilfoyle High School. He was a member of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

His years playing sports at Bishop Guilfoyle taught him to be a team player, an attribute he says is important for a career in the Secret Service.

“It was quite an honor and a privilege to protect the leader of the free world” he said. “I had the opportunity to do a lot that most people don’t get to do. I saw the worst of the worst, and the best of the best of people and places. I have stayed in castles and have seen the poorest of living conditions throughout the world.”

Wiley received recognition for exceptional performance twice during his time protecting Carter and Reagan. Once, for saving Amy Carter from a runaway elephant during a birthday party at Robert Kennedy’s residence when the pachyderm started charging.

“Agents are trained to react quickly to immediate threats. In this case, my fellow agent, John Desmond, and I picked her up and ran in the opposite direction from Susie, the charging elephant,” Wiley said. “It ended as I shouldered through a split fence to safety for all three of us.”

Wiley then received recognition for his role as the site agent in charge of security at The George Washington University Hospital where Reagan was taken following the 1981 assassination attempt on his life.

“I am very proud of the fact that the Secret Service still uses the security measures that I initiated in securing the GW Hospital while President Reagan was recovering from the assassination attempt on his life,” he said.

As an agent, Wiley also faced angry mobs wielding tomatoes and bottles while protecting Carter in Nicaragua, and witnessed the extreme contrast between the crowds who turned out for Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro.

“The crowds for the Pope were very, very large and were there for admiration and respect,” he said. “The crowds for Castro were large, but were demonstrating against him.”

Wiley served different White House administrations during his career.

“With the inauguration coming … Monday, the important mission of the Secret Service is to provide a secure and safe environment for the President and Vice President, as they take their oaths of office and enjoy the festivities,” Wiley said. “This is one mission that ensures that our democracy continues in a peaceful transition.”

Wiley’s brother, Frank Wiley of Altoona, said his brother going into the Secret Service was not a surprise and was a direction he saw his patriotic brother taking. A cousin, Pat Miller who is originally from Altoona but now lives in Virginia, was also in the Secret Service.

Frank Wiley said he always looked up to his brother as a role model and father figure. Their father passed away when Frank was a teen.

“He’s just a very hard working family man who has accomplished a lot in his life,” he said of his brother.

Jan Wiley said she is proud of her husband. “He’s a wonderful husband,” she said. “He is the most honest and faithful man I have ever known and I love him. I’m a proud wife.”

Wiley has five children – Michele Orsino, 46; Amy Lopez, 42; Jennifer Cassidy, 40; Molly Walker, 38; and Matt Wiley, 33 – from a previous marriage. Today, three of the five work for the government.

“We are all so proud of our dad – he has worked so hard his entire life to provide for his family and we are so glad that he is now able to retire and take time for himself,” Lopez said. “Despite all his success, he remains a humble man with strong work ethics, core values and principles. We should all be so lucky to have a man of such virtues in our lives.”

“Growing up, it always filled us with pride being able to tell others what our father did for a living – he was a real life hero,” Matt Wiley said. “His family has always been extremely proud of the numerous achievements in his career. However, his biggest achievement in our eyes is being a terrific father and grandfather, instilling in his family the importance of faith, hard work, honesty, and integrity. He has much to be proud of and we are elated he is heading into much deserved retirement leaving behind an esteemed legacy.”

Cassidy said Wiley is an amazing dad and grandfather to his 10 grandchildren.

“When we were growing up, although my Dad’s career had long hours and took him on many travels he always found the time to be at our many activities, give us encouraging words and help guide us to be the people we are today,” she said. “I am proud of my Dad not only for his career but for the Dad, Grandpa and man he is today.”

Friend Tom Irwin, who went to school with Wiley and coached with him at Bishop Guilfoyle, said he remembered at a basketball game a man having a heart attack, and Wiley rushing to his aid. His reaction showed his character, he said.

He said he was an outstanding coach who the kids liked.

“Everything he did he did as well as he could. You could always count on him to do what was necessary,” he said. “His work ethic was really, really good.”

Former Bishop Guilfoyle basketball coach Tom Lane said Wiley was “very enthusiastic, very loyal,” and a “very hard worker” with a “good personality.”

Lane said he was sad when Wiley decided to leave teaching and coaching behind for a career in the Secret Service, because he saw what a great coach and teacher he was becoming. He is the “ideal person” one wants as part of their program, he said.

What made him great as a teacher and coach obviously also served him well as an agent.

“I never had a bad day at work. I was always looking forward to it because it was a challenge,” he said when asked about his career highlights. “I count it as a great opportunity. I saw it as a way to serve my country.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.

Catching up with … Thomas J. Wiley

Catching Up With is an occasional series about people who became success stories after launching from central Pa.

For suggestions, call Barb Cowan at 946-7454.