High clearance | PostIndependent.com

High clearance

Post Independent/Kelley Cox Even though Oscar McCollum has lived in this area for about 30 years, some people may not recognize him sporting his new beard.

Even at 84, Oscar McCollum still has the solid, wiry look of a Missouri farm boy. Maybe it’s his Scottish heritage, maybe it’s simply a stubborn streak, but the steel that saw him through 25 years in the Central Intelligence Agency as a spy trainer and three recalls from public office in Marble, is with him yet.Nor does McCollum seem to tire, not just of talking about his life, but of living it. These days he’s diligently documenting the history and tangled connections of Clan MacCallum, of which he is the vice president and official genealogist, and a very proud member.He’s cut down some on his volunteer work with the Frontier Museum and the Glenwood Railroad Museum and the city Historic Preservation Commission. In fact, the HPC, formed seven years ago and headed up by McCollum for its first year, has given him its Volunteer of the Year award for the endless time and energy given to preserving historic homes and sites in Glenwood Springs.McCollum, who seems to be as much a fixture of the city as the hot springs pool itself, came here via Marble, where he lived for 13 years. But originally, he was from Missouri.Born in 1921 in Kansas City, Mo., McCollum did not start out as a farm boy. However, his attorney father, who was born on a farm, longed to move out of the city and back to the country. He bought a farm and moved the family there when Oscar was 10. “I really enjoyed growing up on a farm. I think every boy should spend some time on one because you learn to work hard,” McCollum said.After graduating from Lee’s Summit High School, McCollum went on to the University of Kansas City, now part of the University of Missouri.Initially he was determined to follow his father into law, but after taking a geography course, he found a true calling and switched majors. He graduated in 1943, signed up for the Army and was sent to Ft. Belvoir, Va., then on to the Army Engineering corps where he made maps, quite beautifully, by hand.In 1946, the intelligence-gathering arm of government, the Strategic Services Unit, was looking for college-educated men. McCollum was recruited and signed up.

“A Colonel gave me 80 cents bus fare” – Belvoir was only 20 minutes south of D.C. – and he was off to Washington. Initially, he was employed to teach spies how to read maps.SSU evolved into the CIA in 1947, and McCollum was assigned to the Office of Training at a place outside Washington called “The Farm.”In 1955, McCollum’s life took a couple of sharp turns. He met Lois Ann that year – she also worked at the CIA – and they married.”I told my boss I was getting married,” he said. Wives had to have a security clearance. If they couldn’t get one for some reason, and the agent went through with the marriage, he lost his job. He told his boss, “She already has a top-secret clearance.”Shortly after they married they shipped out to Saipan. They were in Saipan until 1961. There the training base was like something out of a James Bond movie. “Saipan had a secret training base,” McCollum said, that was used to train spys for America’s intelligence gathering in Communist countries.Would-be spies trained on European-style fortified borders, Asian-type villages and Japanese bunkers. These men “were highly motivated,” he said. “During the Cold War you couldn’t make many mistakes.”McCollum had also moved on from teaching map reading to the finer techniques of spying such as recruiting foreign agents, clandestine communication and interrogation techniques.During his time on Saipan, McCollum made a number of trips to Asian countries, including Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, all on secret work for the CIA.McCollum continued to work for the agency until the 1970s when the Senate began an investigation of government intelligence organizations and decided to downsize the CIA. McCollum was offered early retirement and took it.The McCollums picked up stakes and went about as far from D.C. as you can get, at least philosophically. Marble in the 1970s was a far cry from conservative D.C.

McCollum had fallen in love with Marble as a college student. In 1941, his geography class made an eight-week field trip to Marble, where they created topographic maps of the nearby ghost town of Crystal City.”When I got back, I said, ‘When I retire, I will move out there,'” he said.And so he did.So intent on this plan was he that in 1953 he bought land in Marble, and in 1955 he and his father built a 3,000-square-foot “cabin” there. Lois Ann and Oscar moved there full time in 1975.McCollum lost no time and soon was elected to the town board and served as mayor for a time. He also organized the Marble Historical Society and helped open the Marble Museum in 1978.Politics in Marble were contentious for McCollum. A supporter of thoughtful growth, he ran up against the laissez-faire attitude of many of the residents.”Most people (in Marble) were hippies running away from society. I had the honor to be recalled three times. It only took three people to sign a recall petition then,” he laughed. But sooner or later, he’d get re-elected.As Lois Ann and Oscar grew older, life in remote Marble grew tougher. In 1988, they decided to move to Glenwood Springs. “Eight thousand feet is not a good place for old people,” he quipped.That same year, McCollum got a call from a book publisher who urged him write about historic Marble. He’d been gathering material about the town and its marble quarry that produced the stone for the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.He published “Marble: A Town Built on Dreams,” in two volumes, illustrated with historic photos spanning the town’s life from 1905 to the 1940s.

Now, life continues to be rich for McCollum. He and Lois Ann have their own computers in a small office in their home in Glenwood. McCollum continues to research branches of the McCollum clan and the couple continue to attend Scottish games, a gathering of like-minded folks of Scottish heritage, with traditional games like caber (pole)-throwing.”I’ve found 56,000 McCollums,” McCollum said proudly. He’s traced his lineage back to 600 A.D. and established links to such illustrious figures of history as Charlemagne.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.comName: Oscar McCollumHome: Glenwood SpringsAge: 84Something Interesting About Him: Wants to live to be 100 and beat out his father who lived to 97. And since his doctor says he’s in good health, he has a good chance of doing so.

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