In a time between two wars
When a slip could get you killed
A man appeared with a master plan
And they called him Wild Bill
Wild Bill, Wild Bill
The secrets that he’d hold
Wild Bill, Wild Bill
He slept out in the cold
― From Wild Bill Donovan, song lyrics by Stan Ridgway
The man President Eisenhower called “the Last Hero” has been memorialized in story, song and stone. His statue and portrait are prominently displayed at CIA headquarters near Washington, D.C. In his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., the Donovan State Office Building bears his name.
Yet, the building will soon be razed, and the life and legacy of its namesake, Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan (1883-1959), remain unknown to many.
In a new WNED production, two prominent Buffalonians share the remarkable life story of this courageous innovator. Political satirist Mark Russell and Judge Salvatore Martoche recall “Wild Bill,” a fascinating character who boldly maneuvered within the highest echelons of finance, power and international espionage. Brief, historical vignettes about the Buffalo native’s life and times also are featured.
Known as the “Father of Modern American Intelligence Gathering,” Donovan founded and directed the nation’s first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services — the WW II-era forerunner to today’s Central Intelligence Agency. But he also excelled as an influential attorney; a daring colonel on WW I battlefields; a zealous enforcer of Prohibition laws; and an assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
In a 50-year career defined by war and high-stakes intrigue, Donovan exhibited a “recklessness and fearlessness of death,” said WNED Producer Paul Lamont. In the process, this son of Irish immigrants made enemies but “stayed true to his First Ward roots.”
In 1998, the Donovan Foundation donated the general’s medals and war room maps to the CIA. During remarks at the presentation ceremony, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet spoke of Donovan’s lasting gift to the nation: “[N]o matter how much the world and our targets have changed, General Donovan’s vision of intelligence work remains fresh and inspirational to us,” he said. “His boldness, foresight, and ability to marshal the best talent and apply it creatively are still the qualities that make for success in the intelligence business to this very day.”
Donovan’s Buffalo Connections
- Niagara University alumnus, Class of 1903
- Married Ruth Rumsey, a member of a wealthy and prominent Buffalo family (1914)
- U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of New York (1922)
- Member of Saturn Club and the Country Club of Buffalo
Honors and Accomplishments
- The only American to receive the nation’s four highest awards: Medal of Honor, DistinguishedService Cross, Distinguished Service Medal and National Security Medal
- Special assistant to the U.S. Chief Prosecutor during the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal
- Candidate for governor of New York State (1932)
- Formed and led a New York Militia cavalry troop that pursued Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa
- Ambassador to Thailand (1953-1957)
- Buried at Arlington National Cemetery (1959)
Congressional Medal of Honor Citation for Bravery during WWI
“Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.”
Funding for this program has been provided, in part, by Judy and Tom Beecher.