Mary Lahammer is a longtime political reporter for Twin Cities PBS. She followed in her father’s footsteps at the Minnesota State Capitol, where he was known as a legendary reporter after 34 years with the Associated Press. At 85 years old, he agreed to share his life story with his youngest daughter.

Gene Lahammer U.S. Army photo

“Are you in some kind of trouble? The FBI was in town asking about you – they even stopped at the barber shop,” Eugene Lahammer’s mother inquired.

“No, mother, the FBI is probably checking out my background for top secret clearance,” Eugene responded.

In July of 1953, the 20-year-old enlisted in the United States Army Security Agency (ASA). His college bunkmate had already enlisted, and they could have a choice of overseas duty by enlisting in the ASA. Lahammer gave up his teaching deferment, which would have kept him out of involuntary military service. But by signing up, his life was about to change yet again.

“Mail from Home” Okinawa sketch, Library of Congress

Mum Is the Word

Tensions were still boiling in the Korean Conflict, and Private Lahammer’s first choice was Asmara in Ethiopia, Africa. Apparently, that location was everyone’s first choice in the Security Agency, which made it virtually unattainable. He headed to the far eastern headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, his first time leaving the country. “I looked forward to it. Overseas assignment was far superior to anything stateside,” he says.

Lahammer’s rank “three up and two down”

He took an assignment on the island of Okinawa, Japan, which was still occupied by U.S. forces. He didn’t know he had already been promoted to private first class.  He would eventually attain non-commissioned officer status, “three up and two down” as sergeant first class. “I had everything to do with it and nothing to do with it,” he marvels, recalling his surprise at his promotions. Eugene, now known as Gene, earned his first promotion by passing higher levels of competency in intelligence school. “I can’t say to the public” what he did because he had to sign a lifetime non-disclosure agreement not to discuss the nature of his top-secret work.

Gene Lahammer

“Growing Up Dirt Poor Makes You Competitive”

In his free time, Gene played, coached and refereed basketball games, but his favorite pastime was playing cards. “I never played any card game other than poker overseas,” Lahammer admits. Even decades later, his photographic memory continues to stump his opponents.  In the Army in Owkinawa, he was on a base with about 600 people, and there were a few dozen poker players who had played in college and “fancied themselves as expert players,” he recalls. “Growing up dirt poor makes you competitive.” He’s uncomfortable about sharing the exact details of how much money he pocketed, but let’s just say he won enough to purchase two brand-new cars, “though I only bought one,” he admits. Lahammer played competitive cards for the rest of this life, although never for big money again. At this point, he just wanted to qualify for the GI Bill to pay for furthering his education. In 1956, he returned to the U.S. and joined the Army Reserve while attending college.

Okinawa sketch cafeteria, Library of Congress

Part one of “Gene’s American Dream: Poverty and Perseverance” can be found here. Stay tuned for more installments of this story. Next up “College & Contentment” followed by “Journalism & Justice” the story of how he became a reporter and stood up for gender, race and religious diversity in his work and community.