By Cindy Carroll
As a young man, all Mike Pearson wanted was to become a police officer. No one in his family wore the badge—he simply admired those authority figures. He fulfilled that dream and went on to join the Secret Service and protect the Queen of England, Pope John Paul II, and President George H.W. Bush.
Today Pearson uses his skills to oversee development of new technologies for homeland security. He also was recently named a UT Chattanooga distinguished alumnus.
Pearson’s motivation to pursue higher education came from Ernie Campbell, then Chattanooga’s chief of police. The two got to know each other as they rode together to take classes at nearby Cleveland State Community College. After he received an associate’s degree in law enforcement, Pearson earned a bachelor’s degree at UTC by attending classes in the morning and working the evening shift in East Lake, East Chattanooga, and Highland Park. In 1972, Pearson grabbed a headline in The Chattanooga Times when he saved his partner, rookie city patrolman Doug Fisher.
“Fisher credited patrolman Mike Pearson with warning him that an alleged hit-and-run driver was about to run him down just seconds before a car streaked past the scene of a hit-and-run accident,” the account read.
When Pearson became one of the first Chattanooga police officers to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at UTC, his UTC mentor, Dr. Ken Venters, encouraged him to pursue the new Master of Science in criminal justice, with a concentration in education. Pearson became the first officer in the police department to receive a master’s degree from UTC and subsequently became a UTC adjunct professor.
In 1978, a second article about Pearson in The Chattanooga Times said he was “among a new breed of law enforcement officers who are complementing street wisdom with a university education.” He remained with the force for 8½ years, rising to the rank of sergeant.
Having degrees from UTC made a “huge difference in my career,” Pearson says. “I could not have applied for the Secret Service without a four-year degree.”
Though a United States Secret Service detail prompts visions of Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, Pearson explains his career a bit differently.
His field office work on the investigative side included protection and intelligence. A 30-day rotation for travel meant Pearson could be picked up to protect the president, foreign dignitaries, heads of state, or political candidates.
When Pope John Paul II visited New York City, Pearson was on duty. “It was like a presidential visit. He said mass at Giants Stadium, and it drew a huge crowd. During an event like that, even a place like New York comes to a standstill.”
Another high profile visitor caused less of a stir. “When Queen Elizabeth came, she had a private visit to Lexington, Kentucky,” Pearson recalls. “She stayed at a residence and made few public events. Her visit was a lot easier for security.”
His trips outside the U.S. took him to 26 foreign countries. He visited Krakow, Poland, with then vice-president George H.W. Bush. He saw Australia with then vice-president Dan Quayle. They continued on to Singapore and Indonesia before the return trip was diverted to Alaska, where they saw the infamous oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. Following the deposition of Panama’s military strongman Manuel Noriega, Pearson traveled to Panama in advance of a vice-presidential visit.
“It was both thrilling and exhausting work. You’re witnessing history some days. For instance there was the 1990 G8 summit that both President Bush and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attended. And then some days you’re in a stairwell or working a midnight shift. It’s not always glamorous,” Pearson says.
But it has become more dangerous, in Pearson’s opinion. Even though he’s been retired from the Secret Service 5 years now, he says facing an enemy willing to die for a cause continues to be a serious problem for security everywhere.
Pearson was brought in to protect Al Gore and his family and the family home in Carthage, Tennessee, in 1998 when Gore was vice-president. When Gore ran for president in 2000, the outcome was disputed. Like Gore, Pearson waited for the Supreme Court decision that ultimately led to a victory for George W. Bush.
“After the Supreme Court decided Gore lost the presidency, I protected him and his family for six months,” Pearson says. “It was a unique time—he had lost one of the closest presidential races in history. I got to know his father and his mother, a charismatic, intelligent woman.”
In a letter of support for Pearson’s nomination as a UTC distinguished alumnus, the former vice-president described Pearson as “an honorable man who distinguished himself in every assignment he undertook on my behalf.
“He is smart, down to earth, personable, and a true law enforcement professional in every regard. He was more than just an agent on my protective detail; Mike became a great friend and I immensely enjoyed my time with him.
“Mike has dedicated a great majority of his life to serving the United States and he has shone through as one of the best and brightest in his many posts.”
In 2001, about the time Congress expanded the Secret Service’s authority to investigate electronic crimes, Pearson was appointed supervisory special agent to the Chicago Field Office, where he established the Chicago Electronic Crimes Task Force. Criminal cyberactivity came under the scrutiny of this partnership of law enforcement agencies, academic and financial institutions, and prosecutors.
When he retired from the Secret Service in 2004, Pearson was resident agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service Office in Jackson, Mississippi, responsible for liaison with all local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, including Homeland Security in the state of Mississippi. Pearson used his Secret Service experience as a springboard to his current career in Chattanooga, serving as director of Tennessee operations for Radiance Technologies, a defense contractor that works closely with the Department of Homeland Security. His Chattanooga office works directly with the SimCenter: National Center for Computational Engineering to procure federal funding, grants, small-business initiatives, and other means to develop new technologies, primarily for the Department of Defense, as well as for commercial use. Two UTC computational engineering Ph.D. graduates are employed in Radiance’s Chattanooga office.
“Radiance has already worked with the SimCenter to bring in $2 million to the Chattanooga area,” wrote Dr. David Whitfield, director of the National SimCenter, in his letter to support Pearson’s nomination as UTC distinguished alumnus.
Radiance and the National SimCenter are developing computational technologies that facilitate the design of large electromagnetic systems.
How did Pearson follow his exciting life of travel and protecting government officials?
He and his wife, Liz, a high-school English teacher, switched gears to a small farm in Marion County, Tennessee, near their relatives. He says they are -growing “mostly hay right now.”
Pearson says he is honored to be among those selected as UTC distinguished alumni, especially alumnus Gene Roberts, a former fire and police commissioner and mayor of Chattanooga. Roberts called Pearson “a prize” and “always a fine ambassador for Chattanooga and UTC, making friends and gaining the confidence and appreciation of the nation’s leaders for his professionalism.”
See a list of UT Chattanooga Distinguished Alumni Award winners at www.utc.edu/Administration/Alumni/DArecipients.php.