‘A pretty awesome career’: EIU honoring Secret Service director as Distinguished Alumni

Chicago
By Chicago 10 Min Read

CHARLESTON — When her brother was killed in a car accident in 1988, Kimberly Cheatle had no idea what would become of her life.

At the time, she was a freshman at Eastern Illinois University, experiencing life away from home for the first time after graduating from Schlarman High School in Danville the previous spring.

By the time Cheatle took office as director of the Secret Service in September 2022, her brother had been gone for 34 years. But in a way, she has him to thank for a career that has surpassed her wildest expectations.

“I probably am in law enforcement today as a direct result of my brother,” she said.

At the time of his death, Cheatle’s brother was in the early stages of becoming a state trooper. The two had discussed his possible career choice in recent months, and their conversations planted a seed.

She eventually decided to major in sociology, a field of study that would give her the option of going into law enforcement and social work, and by the time she graduated in 1992, she had already applied for a job as a Secret Service agent.

Next weekend, Cheatle will return to the EIU campus for the first time since she graduated, to be honored with a Distinguished Alumni award. She’ll also take part in a recruiting event, where she’ll share her story in hopes of planting a seed in the minds of the students who might not realize a career in the Secret Service is possible for them.

“I use that when I speak to students and new recruits that we have now, that I did not come from a family that was in law enforcement or the military,” she said. “I was hired by the service and trained, and I think that’s one of the things the agency does very well.”

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Two years after she thought she had retired from a 27-year career with the Secret Service, Cheatle was out to dinner with her parents last fall when a call came in from a member of President Joe Biden’s staff, asking if she was available to take a call from the commander in chief.

“Because I was at a public place, I didn’t want to take a call right then and there,” she said. “I said, ‘Can I take 15 minutes so I can take the call in a more private setting?’ Which, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have told the president to wait to call me.

“I told my parents to hurry up and eat, and we paid the check, and I took the call a few minutes later.”

Cheatle had been chosen to lead the agency, Biden told her.

Two years earlier, Cheatle thought she had left the Secret Service behind. After serving as assistant director for protective operations, in which she oversaw all protective details, she traded her career in public service for the private sector, taking a job as PepsiCo’s senior director in global security.

“I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career,” she said, “and I thought I had done everything in the agency.”

When a member of Biden’s staff called to see if she was interested in the job, though, she was immediately intrigued. Cheatle had a previous working relationship with Biden, serving on his security detail when he was vice president, just as she’d served on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s security detail before him.

Her first job with the agency, though, was far away from the White House. Cheatle was initially turned down by the Secret Service when she applied in college, but two years later, she accepted a job at a field office in Detroit.

In addition to its role protecting current and former presidents, vice presidents, their families and those in the line of succession for president of the United States, the Secret Service is also charged with safeguarding the country’s payment and financial systems. Cheatle began her career by working investigations of financial crimes, including bank fraud and counterfeit cases.

“I was handling my own investigations from the moment I got out of training,” she said.

She would also provide protection when the president was visiting the Michigan area. During the 1996 election, President Bill Clinton took a train trip through the state. Cheatle was charged with securing the tracks from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Michigan City, Ind., working with every local police agency along the way to make sure the president was safe.

After four-and-a-half years in Detroit, she was assigned to Cheney’s detail. Cheatle was in the Executive Building while Cheney was in the West Wing of the White House on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when she watched the first of two planes crash into the World Trade Center on television. Shortly after, she received a call on her radio notifying her and her team that another plane looked as if it may be headed to the White House.

Along with other agents, Cheatle rushed to the West Wing to shuttle the vice president to a security bunker.

“If you talk to any law-enforcement agency, they will tell you that when crises occur, they fall back on their training,” she said. “During an event like that, that’s what I’ve always done. That sort of calmness sets in and you fall back on your training, and you think about it later. For us, that’s very important.”

While her training was enough to fall back on in that critical moment on Sept. 11, Cheatle was never able to train in a facility that mimicked the White House. The Secret Service’s 500-acre training facility in Maryland includes numerous buildings, but none similar to the president’s residence.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “We are able to conduct some small-scale training at the White House on the grounds. We don’t really do training in the facility itself, because it’s their residence and their place of work.”

That’s something Cheatle would like to change in her time in charge. She’s made a push for a replica White House to be built, even going so far as to visit the one producer Tyler Perry built at his studios in Atlanta.

“You look at military agencies or other agencies, they all are able to simulate in a real-life environment,” she said, “so that’s what we’re looking to accomplish by building this facility out in Maryland.”

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Leading the Secret Service, of course, is different than the job she left. While she still occasionally takes overseas trips, she said the diversity of her day-to-day interactions with employees in the field is one of the aspects of the job that attracted her to it.

During her decades on the job, her experience as an agent has changed as well.

From the time she met Clinton on that train trip as a young officer to now, the interactions with various presidents and vice presidents have normalized in Cheatle’s mind. And while she’s built working relationships with presidents and their families, they’re always professional.

“With everyone I’ve worked with, from President Clinton to President Carter to President Biden to President Trump, they understand that we are there to do a job, and the job is to ensure the safety and security of them and their families,” Cheatle said.

“While you do get to know them and there is a familiarity, it’s still a working relationship. You do know their family members, and you may joke when you’re in the vehicle together, but you’re there to do a job, they’re there to do a job, and I think everybody respects those lines.”

As she prepares to head back to her alma mater for the first time since she joined the agency, though, Cheatle hopes to use her story to let students know what’s possible.

“When you have time to step back and really think about it, it really is a pretty awesome career,” Cheatle said. “You’re exposed to some amazing things on the job, you get to travel to some amazing places, and you get to take a back seat to history, and there’s not many people who can say that.”

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