Sticthing together a life after the FBI

Retire28
Judith Tyler, a retired Philadelphia FBI agent, stitched together a second career as a professional quilter. FBI agents are required to retire while they are relatively young, in an age when boomers continue working.

Judith Tyler retired from the FBI in 2010 after 31 exciting years investigating violent drug-gang squads. Finally, she could get around to her favorite pastime: "Throughout most of my career, my hobby was quilting," she recalls with a laugh.

Tyler started a quilting group, the Needle and Gun Club, while she was still with the bureau, and after her retirement that led to a part-time job at the Little Shop, a quilting store, in Haddonfield.

Unlike many a retired FBI agent, Tyler did not become a private investigator or work in corporate security. Instead, she chose a completely different path.

And that's not unusual. FBI agents must retire by age 57, often at the peak of their game - and fairly young in an era when baby boomers don't quit working until they drop.

Some - like recently retired SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams - go on to second careers, and even third.

After working as an FBI agent and then in public affairs for the public-transit agency, Williams is now launching herself as a fiction noir author.

"I always wanted to write a book. So over a six-year period, while working full time and raising a family, I wrote my debut novel, Pay to Play, a personal goal," she says.

Her book stars a female FBI agent investigating fraud and corruption in Philly strip clubs. The main character is blackmailed by a man she picks up in the clubs, and the book reveals how far she'll go to stop him from destroying her career and her marriage.

"It's not based on me, I swear," Williams says.

Her next book, Greedy Givers, is based on the New Era phony investment-charity case she worked decades ago for the FBI. Williams is seeking a publisher and blogs at jerriwilliams.com.

She also conducts podcast interviews with retired FBI agents.

"They discuss their careers and most intriguing cases. I also talk about crime fiction and crime dramas - books, movies and television shows - especially those depicting the FBI," Williams adds.

Her first interview with was retired agent Tom Cotton, who worked for the FBI from 1970 to 1995.

Cotton now runs the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, a fraternal organization with chapters nationwide.

The local group, named after an agent who was shot and killed in an undercover operation in 1996, has about 145 members from around the Philadelphia region.

"In 2011, the national allowed chapters to rename themselves in honor of a fallen special agent. Our chapter is the Charles Reed Philadelphia Chapter of Retired Special Agents," says Cotton, a native of Springfield, Delaware County.

Member get-togethers include one retired agent who is in his 90s, Cotton says. "He worked at the FBI from 1951 to 1977, the J. Edgar Hoover era."

A website devoted to former agents and analysts, FBIRetired.com, is owned and operated by James Wedick, who left the FBI in 2004.

Some onetime agents, such as Ed Hino, conduct security background investigations for the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice as contractors.

"I'm as busy as I want to be," Hino says. "I have time for golf."

On FBIRetired.com, anyone can look up retired agents, by name or by 81 specialty skill sets - including art theft, crime on the high seas, extortion, health-care fraud, organized crime, money laundering, rape, terrorism, snipers, and underwater search recovery.

The usual route for FBI retirees is corporate work, particularly in security or finance.

That was the choice for former agent J.J. Klaver. He spent 26 years working for the FBI, mostly in Philadelphia.

"I was 27 when I got in, and retiring at 57 is still relatively young for the workforce. Under federal employment rules, some agents are eligible to retire at 50, but guys like me who have kids in school need to find something else," Klaver says.

He had an MBA, so he moved into finance. He now works for Barclays bank in compliance, and commutes to New York City from Bucks County.

Tyler, for her part, likens creating a quilt to investigating a complex crime.

"It's a complete shift in lifestyle, but like building a federal case, everything has to ultimately stitch together," she says.

She still works as a consultant for the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Va., which retired agents routinely say is depicted inaccurately on television and in the movies.

Considered closest to reality was the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. show The FBI, a TV crime drama that aired between 1965 and 1974.

"For me, this is absolutely the perfect retirement," Tyler says of her new career in quilting. "I get to do art, but also do training for the FBI, so I pass the skill set to the younger agents."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund