Natalie Gore, trailblazing FBI agent, dies at 77

Natalie Sabin Gore, one of the first female special agents in the FBI, died Wednesday at her home in Mission Hills after a four-year battle with colon cancer. She was 77.

Her stint with the bureau included important counterintelligence work battling spies—including Jerry Whitworth, a Navy cryptographer convicted of feeding secrets to the Soviets—but she is mostly remembered for the path she paved.

“She wanted to be the best agent she could be, but it wasn’t about pride,” said Jan Caldwell, a former agent. “She knew if she did a good job, it would make it easier for the women who came after her. So she did.”

Ten years into her career, Gore resigned to take care of a son she had with husband Bill Gore, a fellow agent who later became San Diego sheriff. She expected to rejoin the bureau in a year or two. But when she applied, she ran afoul of an FBI rule concerning radial keratotomy, a corrective eye surgery for near-sightedness.

Agents in the field could get the surgery, which Gore had done while she was with the bureau in Hawaii. But the FBI considered it too risky in new hires — and Gore, despite her experience with her, was considered a new hire. She got turned down.

“That was a true and utter heartbreak,” she told the Union-Tribune in a 2010 interview. “I fully expected to retire with the bureau.”

Natalie Gore, one of the country’s first female FBI agents, holds a photo from her academy training days in 2010. She is in the front row, third from right.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune)

She channeled her energy into other pursuits, including painting and volunteer work with Voices of Women, the San Diego Zoo, and other organizations.

Born May 4, 1945, Gore grew up in Chester, a small lumber town in Northern California. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her stepfather ran a grocery store.

At UC Davis, she majored in zoology. After graduation, she worked as an elementary school teacher in San Francisco for six years. Then, to be closer to family, she moved to Sacramento — where a surplus of teachers made it hard to find work.

But the FBI was looking for female agents. She flew to Quantico, Va., in April 1976 for the academy. On her first night in a dorm with three other women, a male classmate popped his head in de ella and taunted them about the difficulty of the physical training.

That only made them more determined, Gore later recalled in interviews. She became the group’s leader, pushing them through pushups, pullups and rope climbs. All four graduated and became among the first 50 women hired as agents.

Gore was sent to the Seattle office, the first-ever female agent there. Without any role models, “I didn’t know how to dress,” Gore told the Union-Tribune in a 2012 interview. “I didn’t really know how to act, so I acted like I knew what I was doing.”

Bill Gore worked on the floor above her, supervising a different team. “There were a lot of men in the bureau who didn’t want women, didn’t think they could do the job,” he said. “But the agent in charge there was supportive and included her in everything.”

He remembered one day at the firearms range when Natalie Gore realized that none of the other agents would stand in the lanes next to her. “Are they afraid I’m going to shoot them”? she asked Bill Gore, who was the instructor.

“No,” he told her, “they know you’re a better shot than they are and they don’t want you to see that when they pull in their targets.”

The two began dating and were married in 1978. A year later, they moved to Washington, DC, where Bill Gore was assigned to bureau headquarters and Natalie Gore worked counterintelligence.

They took assignments in Hawaii in 1985, shortly after the arrival of their son, Ryan. Finding childcare was difficult and Natalie Gore resigned to assume those duties full-time, figuring she would re-apply when they returned to the mainland.

Then came the eye-surgery hiring restriction. “The bureau lost a phenomenal agent,” Caldwell said. “She was a powerhouse who had mastered her craft from her. But Natalie being Natalie, she poured herself into other things.”

Those other passions included artwork — portraits, animals, landscapes — and travel. She combined both on a trip eight years ago to Kenya.

She went with Jenni Prisk, founder of the non-profit Voices of Women, to spend a week at a girl’s school outside Nanyuki, teaching business development. Gore helped them design logos for their fledging ventures and also taught them to tie-dye T-shirts.

“She literally left an indelible mark on the academy,” Prisk said. After Gore returned home, she continued to sponsor one of the students.

Bill Gore rose in the FBI to assistant director before deciding in 1997 to take a job running the bureau’s office in San Diego, where he grew up. At age 55, he took mandatory retirement in 2003 and moved to the District Attorney’s Office before joining the Sheriff’s Department.

After running the department for more than 12 years, he retired in February, several months earlier than expected, to care for his wife.

In addition to her husband and son, both of San Diego, Natalie Gore is survived by a sister, Marlette Clark of Sacramento, and a stepsister, Maryann Gwinn of Phoenix.

A celebration of life is being planned.

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