Life Stories: Dunphy in DC

The following brief summary of Humphry Dunphy’s life working in national security is taken from the book The Quiet Cold Warriors by Professor Richard York, with permission. Though records indicate Dunphy worked for the Department of Defence, Mr. York feels confident that Dunphy was on permanent loan to the NSA. He doesn’t state this in his book because he has no definitive proof.  

Mr. Dunphy Goes to Washingtonhl id

As an army bricklayer during World War II, Humphry “H.L.” Dunphy came to the attention of Jim Elliot, an army engineer. Elliot noticed that H.L. not only worked without referencing plans and without making calculations, but appeared to solve challenging structural  and architectural problems easily, as he worked.  It became clear to Elliot that whenever he attempted to review project plans with H.L. in detail, the bricklayer was only pretending to pay attention out of politeness. Elliot realized that Dunphy grasped the plans at first glance, and almost always improved on them as he worked. Soon Elliot was simply handing the plans to his expert bricklayer and offering no explanations.

By the end of the war Jim Elliot considered H.L. Dunphy a full partner on all projects, even if the army did not, and after the war they stayed in touch. H.L. returned to his hometown and resumed life as a bricklayer of growing renown. After a few failed attempts in business, Elliott took a job teaching math at a university not more than a day’s drive from Dunphy.

Even before they returned to civilian life Elliott had encouraged H.L. to pursue advanced education, to take an IQ test at least so he understood his potential. H.L. always replied that he was happy laying bricks. But in 1953 Dunphy relented. At the time and for many years he claimed he finally agreed to the IQ test, “just to get Jimmy off my back about it.” In later years he admitted he felt he had more to contribute than laying bricks, as much as he loved it, and agreeing to the IQ test was the easiest way to get started on finding out what it might be.

Although Dunphy’s IQ remains classified even after his death, Jim Elliott often claimed H.L. was “a genius among geniuses.” There are some indications that Dunphy intended to enroll in the University where Elliott taught  but it never happened. During the summer of 1954 Dunphy moved to Washington DC and went to work for the Department of Defense, at the very least. A great many friends can testify endlessly about his personal life over the next 60 years but none of them know anything about his professional life, which is not to say they did not speculate. In fact, speculating about what he did, exactly, for the government, appears to have been a favorite past-time among Dunphy’s friends.

One of his closest friends, Carol Lewis, said, “H.L. always said the same thing whenever anyone asked him what he did for the government. He would say, ‘I read the tea leaves,’ and that’s it, never anything more than that. We would hound him relentlessly about working for the CIA or some secret department we had never heard of and he always took it in good humor, smiled and shook his head. But he never revealed anything.”

Another close friend, Sam Arnold, says the only time Dunphy revealed anything at all was a few days after president Kennedy was assassinated. “We were at the funeral of Jim Elliot, who had died of cancer the same day the president was shot. Everything seemed twice as sad and we were all trying to figure out how to talk about both things at once without making one seem less important than the other. Then H.L. just says, ‘I should have seen it coming, I could have stopped it.’ Of course we all knew he was talking about Kennedy, but nobody said a word…nobody said anything.”

Whatever Dunphy’s job may have been inside the government it did not, by all accounts, keep him from an active life outside the government. H.L. appeared to maintain normal office hours, took regular vacations, and rarely travelled for work. He was, as Ms. Lewis says, “as boring as a banker and kind as a priest.”

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