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Morning Pointe of Franklin’s Don Birdwell – the Life of an FBI Agent

photo of Don Birdwell

It’s no secret that Morning Pointe of Franklin, Tennessee, is home to a former FBI agent.

Despite having what one might consider a glamorous career, however, Don Birdwell had a rather less glamorous childhood. He was raised on a farm near Gallatin, Tennessee.

He attended Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, to study law, and in 1950, he married his wife, Betty.

“Betty was a classmate all the way through school,” Don said. “There was never any question in my mind who was going to be my wife someday.”

Don was a newlywed still in school when the Korean War interrupted his studies. He joined the Tennessee National Guard in 1951 and ended up ordered into active duty one month later. His knowledge of the law made him a great fit for a criminal investigative division (CID) agent, and he served in the military for three years.

At first, Don was stationed stateside, in Fort Meade, Maryland, then in Georgia. He and his wife had their first son, Don Junior, during this time. After that, the family spent a memorable 18 months at the American Embassy in Rome, Italy.

“We had a nice apartment in Rome,” Don shared, “and we visited all of the tourist attractions.”

Returning to the U.S., Don completed his law degree. But he had enjoyed his experience in criminal investigations while he was in the Army and decided to pursue a job in the FBI.

Photo of Don with Greg A. Vital, Co-Founder and President of Morning Pointe Senior Living, with Don’s photo of J. Edgar Hoover
Don with Greg A. Vital, Co-Founder and President of Morning Pointe Senior Living, with Don’s photo of J. Edgar Hoover

Don remembers the final test for joining the FBI was to meet J. Edgar Hoover and do a quick interview with Clyde Tolson, assistant director of the FBI. The men judged the candidates based on how they presented themselves.

“We were all standing in line, and we were counseled, ‘Now, Mr. Hoover does not like to shake hands with people with sweaty palms,’” Don said.

Needless to say, the men made sure their hands were dry. All of those in Don’s class got in.

Don officially began his 23-year career with the Bureau in January 1955, starting in Chicago.

“I worked a variety of things there – applicant work, then criminal cases, including extortion, kidnappings and other cases,” Don remembered.

He worked in several locations for the FBI, including Indianapolis, then in Fort Wayne, Indiana, before he made his final move to Clarksville, Tennessee, near Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

“My mother and mother-in-law were both widows then,” Don explained. “I wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover asking to move closer to them, and he granted my request.”

Don still has a great level of respect for Hoover and has his picture hanging in his apartment at Morning Pointe.

“I will forever be indebted to Mr. Hoover for my good job,” he said. So, what did Don like about his job?

“You never got bored,” Don said. “There were 20-25 cases that you worked on regularly, and you never knew what was going to come up. Generally, it was typical bank robbery, theft of government property, etc.”

Don recalled one man who he arrested for bank robbery five times.

“He would usually go off to California and gamble and lose the money, then come back to the Clarksville area and rob another bank,” Don recounted. “Even after I retired and he had lost a leg to diabetes, he did it again. A one-legged man on crutches robbed a bank.”

photo of Don’s FBI memorabilia
Don’s FBI memorabilia

Another case Don remembers clearly was a jailbreak. “I was in the FBI car doing routine work when I got a call,” Don said. “‘Don,’ they said, ‘They need you in Dixon, Tennessee. The prisoners have escaped from the bowling alley.’”

The prisoners at the local state prison had maintained good behavior, allowing them to earn a trip to the bowling alley. An accomplice had hidden guns in the bathroom ceiling, and four of the prisoners shot their way out, stole a bowling alley employee’s car, drove to the airport, forced the airport owner at gunpoint to fly them to Arkansas, landed on a road and carjacked a car to escape.

“One of those men hid for a long time and got on the 10 Most Wanted list,” Don remembered.

At one point, Don tried out a stint as an inspector but decided the role wasn’t for him.

“I couldn’t tell my wife where I was, and I missed some important social occasions,” Don said.

Family came first, after all. Following Don, Jr., the couple had three more children: Clay, David, and Steve. Now, the family includes seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

photo of Don and Betty
Don and Betty

Don and Betty moved to Morning Pointe when Betty developed Alzheimer’s and needed more care. Don praises the staff for the dedicated care they provided her before she passed away in May 2022.

“At 93 years of age, I feel very fortunate to be a resident of Morning Pointe of Franklin, Tennessee,” Don said. “I am able to stay active by participating in the many activities offered daily. The food is excellent here. It is great to have my clothes washed and put back in place by the staff. My bed is made up each day, and the apartment is cleaned regularly, at least weekly. I can recommend Morning Pointe to anyone needing to move to a retirement home.”

Don enjoys golfing and playing card games, especially bridge. He still belongs to the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and enjoys attending their monthly meetings in Brentwood, Tennessee.

But his favorite is spending time with his family.

When Don was asked what he is most proud of in his life, he shared, “Marrying my wife, Betty, having our four wonderful sons, and being a Christian.”

His advice to others?

“Live a good Christian life, get an education, and go out and get a reputable job.”

Thank you, Don, for setting an example and for serving others.

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