DATE: Tuesday, November 4, 1997             TAG: 9711040277

SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B5   EDITION: FINAL 


DATELINE: HAMPDEN-SYDNEY                    LENGTH:  104 lines


By day, Aaron Foldenauer is a bespectacled economics major at a small private college for men. By night, he assumes the role of E.T. Backpaddle, secret agent.

Foldenauer is enrolled in the most popular class at Hampden-Sydney College this year, Introduction to Intelligence (informally called How to Be a Spy). More than 100 students applied for the seniors-only class, and only 20 made the cut.

The class is taught by the college president, Sam Wilson, a retired Army lieutenant general who is one of the most highly decorated intelligence officers in U.S. history.

``We're basically hearing military history from a guy who helped make it,'' said Mark Finelli, 21, of Rye, N.Y. ``He runs his class as if we are sitting in CIA headquarters. He was in the same room, and you can't get that, the real thing, in a book.''

During a recent night class, Backpaddle was decoding a fictional cable that described how Russians have exported illegal technology that could allow Iran to build nuclear missiles.

Backpaddle and his role-playing classmates came up with a plan for subverting the operation: An agent will pose as a Russian arms dealer and sell missile parts imbedded with sensors that will allow the United States to track the trade route.

While the role playing is fun, Foldenauer, 21, of Richmond said the most captivating moments in Wilson's class are those that never appear in their notes.

``Pencils down,'' Wilson, 74, said halfway into an anecdote about his early days as a spy. You can hear the clatter of pens and pencils dropping on the long table around which the students sit. What he tells them was classified, and not to be written. When he finishes with the secret stuff, Wilson says, ``OK, pencils up.''

But all of Wilson's ``war stories,'' as he calls them, are intriguing. His life is the stuff of secret agent novels, and author James Pollack has used some of Wilson's tales in his spy books.

Wilson grew up on a farm near Hampden-Sydney and spent many hours hunting deer, running coon dogs and stalking wild turkey, skills that he would use later as an infantry scout.

At 16, Wilson was listening to the radio when Winston Churchill gave his famous speech rallying his countrymen during the Nazi bombing of Britain. Wilson was so inspired that he hiked to the Army recruiting office the next day, lied about his age and became a soldier.

In 1944, he became the chief reconnaissance officer for a unit that operated well behind enemy lines in north Burma. They became known as Merrill's Marauders, and their exploits were turned into a popular movie.

Wilson was wounded when a hand grenade glanced off his shoulder and rolled away before exploding, giving him a severe concussion. Another time his helmet was shot off and his backpack was riddled with bullets. Other close calls followed.

Wilson became fluent in Russian and was posted in West Berlin as an interpreter with the State Department Diplomatic Pouch and Courier Service. That allowed him to travel behind the Iron Curtain and was good cover for his real job as a spy.

He was nearly captured several times when he was wearing a disguise and traveling in unauthorized areas. Twice, he was shot at while fleeing Russian soldiers. ``They missed,'' he said matter-of-factly.

Wilson later went to work at CIA headquarters in Langley and eventually was promoted to deputy director and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He also commanded a Special Forces Group and helped form the elite Delta group.

He retired in 1977, although he has continued to serve as a consultant on Russian and East European affairs related to intelligence. Last year, Wilson was awarded the William Oliver Baker Award, sort of the Heisman Trophy of spy work.

He began teaching at Hampden-Sydney, an all-male private college about 70 miles southwest of Richmond, in 1986 and he became school president six years later.

Wilson said he recounts his experiences primarily to give him legitimacy as he teaches the nuts and bolts of foreign intelligence - gathering and analyzing information used by military and political policy-makers.

He hopes his students can apply the skills in civilian jobs. Finelli, for example, plans to be a stock broker and thinks the lessons will give him an edge in predicting market trends.

``Ninety percent of intelligence comes from open sources,'' Wilson tells his students. ``The other 10 percent, the clandestine work, is just the most dramatic. The real intelligence hero is Sherlock Holmes, not James Bond.''

But the students are quick to call Wilson a hero, and he loves ``gassing'' with them after class. He often invites them to watch sports on television in his den, filled with medals, plaques and autographed pictures of generals and former presidents, including Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Bush.

Some of his former students went to work for the CIA, including two agents who invited a current student to the headquarters this fall when he sought help in his role-playing project.

Now, Foldenauer wants to be a CIA analyst despite planning for years to be an economist. It took less than a semester in Wilson's class to change his mind.

``I'm an old warhorse trying to tell these kids all I know,'' Wilson said. ``I'm a creature of the 20th century and these guys are creatures of the 21st century.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo


Hampden-Sydney College President Sam Wilson teaches one of the most

popular classes on campus, commonly called ``How to Be a Spy.''

Wilson is a retired Army lieutenant general and is one of the most

highly decorated intelligence officers in U.S. history.

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