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A Granbury woman discovers her father's hidden years as a G-man

GRANBURY -- Neva Sundvahl-Cruz knew enough about her father to compose a loving obituary for the 90-year-old, whose hand she held in his final hours.

Harold "Hal" Sundvahl was, in her eyes, a self-made man.

The son of a poor Swedish cobbler left Chicago at 18 and worked his way through undergraduate studies and law school at the University of Oklahoma. Later, while living in Fort Worth, he met and married a TCU student. After World War II they settled in Tulsa, where they raised three children and he enjoyed a long, successful insurance career.

Sundvahl lived his faith and took special pride in his 51 years of perfect attendance as a charter member of the Will Rogers Rotary Club, his daughter said.

Yet his biography was not entirely an open book.

Sundvahl-Cruz, the youngest child, always felt as if several pages -- an important chapter -- had been torn out or written in invisible ink.

From 1941 to 1945 the smiling, wavy-haired man pictured in old photos worked as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but he shared few details about his experiences during that era, when the FBI played a vital role in protecting the homeland and supporting the war effort.

"Did you carry a gun?" asked his daughter, born in 1950.

"Yes."

"Did you shoot anybody?"

"No," her father replied, ending the conversation.

After Sundvahl left the FBI, his daughter said, he dutifully maintained a 30-year vow of secrecy about his role with the agency.

Even years later he remained guarded about his investigative career, speaking of it reluctantly only when asked.

Sundvahl died of cancer 10 years ago this month, but his daughter never stopped wondering, wanting to know more.

A treasure trove

One early morning last month, Sundvahl-Cruz was at home in Granbury thinking again about her father when she opened a closet in her office and began rummaging through his belongings.

"Something just told me to do it," the daughter said. "It was kind of a God thing."

Among the boxed contents, which her meticulous dad kept in his desk for decades -- that desk was strictly off-limits to his family -- she spied a yellowing envelope bearing his initials and marked "Medical Records."

As she removed the items and looked them over, her heart quickened, she said.

She found a stash of papers, puzzle pieces. A Western Union telegram from the FBI dated 1941. Letters typed on Justice Department stationery, addressed to her dad and signed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the stern face of law enforcement in America for almost four decades. For hours she pored excitedly over the communications, reading, re-reading.

Answers at last, she thought. Her bright blue eyes brimmed with tears, she said.

"I found what I had wanted, what I needed," she said.

A job offer

At age 30, Sundvahl answered a patriotic call when he applied for a job with the FBI. In January 1941, after a background check, Hoover sent Sundvahl a telegram offering him an appointment as a special agent with a salary of $3,200 a year.

"If you accept," the dispatch read, "proceed to Washington at your own expense. Report to room five two five six United States Department of Justice building Pennsylvania Avenue. ... Rigid physical examination must be taken. ... Arrange personal matters that you may accept assignment where services needed. Consider this strictly confidential."

Sundvahl served with the FBI in Scranton, Pa.; Baltimore; and South America, where his daughter said he "watched the waterways" for enemies trying to enter the United States. She said he worked under the cover of scouting film locations for Hollywood.

She found a two-paragraph letter addressed to her dad and signed by Hoover, dated March 16, 1942.

Earlier that year, Sundvahl helped arrest James Gibson Trenary, who was charged with threatening to blow up a cement plant in Maryland. According to newspaper accounts, Trenary had written anonymous extortion letters demanding $5,000.

"Dear Mr. Sundvahl:" Hoover wrote, "... Your conduct under these unfavorable circumstances was in line with the best traditions of this Bureau and I desire to personally commend you on the successful accomplishment of your objective."

Sundvahl never spoke a word about it to his family.

"He was dog-loyal to the FBI and Hoover," his daughter said, gazing at a signed portrait of the former FBI director.

Hoover served as FBI director from 1935 until his death in 1972, and the two men corresponded for several years after Sundvahl returned to private life.

"My dad was so much like Hoover in a lot of ways," she said. "Things were black and white. Right or wrong. He was a patriot to the nth degree. I always knew dad was a hero familywise. Now I know he was a hero of our country."

She plans to bequeath the keepsakes to her younger son in hope that they will help him better know who his grandfather was, a hardworking dedicated Christian man who loved his family and served his country and lived the FBI motto: Fidelity. Bravery. Integrity.

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