Timing is everything.
The agency Jim Spinden helped pioneer in 2002 as Idaho Falls first federal security director (FSD) is the same mission-driven TSA where Robert, his son, now works as the FSD of Georgia. But both men are fast to say, the job and the agency have evolved with time.
Yet, each man joined TSA at exactly the right time in their careers; Robert, as a young, eager beginner and Jim, as a mature, seasoned professional.
“The funny part about this is I actually recruited him to TSA,” said Robert. “I knew he was considering retirement from his law enforcement career, and I had seen news coverage that TSA was looking for over 50 thousand employees.”
For Jim Spinden, the senior member of TSA’s first FSD parent-child duo, the agency was his third act following distinguished military and law enforcement careers.
“Having retired as a colonel in the Army Reserve and as the elected sheriff of an urban county in Oregon, I was familiar with building an organization from nothing,” recalled Spinden. “I learned to anticipate problems and seek solutions quickly to meet the established schedule.”
Ninety days after Jim began establishing operations in Idaho Falls - a city he’d never known was on the map until then - his son Robert, age 20, began his professional career as a supervisory officer with the Mobile Screening Force before his 2003 arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) in Seattle, Washington, 772 miles northwest of his dad’s new location.
“We spoke every day for a long time, usually on the commute home, talking about what was happening within TSA and all of the different locations TSA was sending him around to,” said Robert.
The father-son pair have always shared a tight relationship.
“Growing up, I was always very close to my Dad,” said Robert. “With him being in law enforcement some of my earliest memories were going with him on patrol when he was a lieutenant on the overnight shift. Even as sheriff he would go out on patrol once per year, usually on New Year’s Eve, and I was always right there in the passenger seat. We had to be home at the stroke of midnight for him to give my mom a midnight kiss, then we were back out on patrol until 3 a.m.”
The two shared only one brief TSA work experience at the same airport. Jim was on temporary duty at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and Robert, by then a respected SEA scheduling operations officer, was sent on temporary duty to help with a particularly difficult scheduling issue.
“I called headquarters and reminded them what this might look like,” said Jim of the appearance of nepotism. “They said Robert was the best one to straighten out the problems, so he came to Phoenix.”
“For many years, when someone saw my last name it was always ‘You’re Jim’s son?’” said Robert. “Then years later, for him, it turned into ‘You’re Robert’s dad?’”
The two followed their respective career paths, taking them to a total of eight airports between them, with Jim landing as FSD at Spokane International Airport, which would eventually become their family retirement home, and then finally as the FSD of SEA before retiring in 2012.
“When he turned 60, he started talking about retirement,” said Robert. “It was really strange when he told me a date that he was retiring because I had always known him as a working adult. When he turned 62 he kept his retirement date never going back to work again, except for landscaping around their house in Spokane.
“I have always been so proud of all the things he accomplished whether it was serving in the Army, his tour during the Vietnam War, a long career in law enforcement and then finally serving as one of the original FSDs. I still kept calling just about every day to share TSA war stories.”
The war stories may have changed over time, but the admiration Jim feels for his son hasn’t.
“As a retired federal security director, I realize the hard work, dedication and hard decisions Robert must and does make,” said Jim. “The issues come rapidly, and he handles them well. He has gained the respect of so many TSA employees and stakeholders.”
Jim offers advice sparingly, but if pressed, he tells his son to remember his roots and keep a smart work-life balance.
“Robert makes our family very proud because he is living proof that TSA has unlimited opportunities and by working hard and a willingness to relocate, he has risen to his current employment as federal security director for Georgia,” said Jim.
When asked to reflect on his Guinness Book worthy accomplishment of the first parent-child combo to hold the FSD position, Robert acknowledged although he and his dad might be the first, they certainly won’t be the last.
“I remember thinking that these types of stories will come up more and more. If you look at a lot of the senior leadership within TSA, you’ll find a lot of former military, police, (former employees of) airlines, private sector etc. My background is TSA. This was essentially my first real job and in the coming years there will be more and more people who don’t have prior careers, just TSA.”
Could one of Robert’s three children become the third generation Spinden FSD? He says anything is possible, and they are certainly capable, but at the moment none have expressed an interest. But then again, timing is everything.
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs