The Fascinating Life of Kathryn Childers

"The Fascinating Life of Kathryn Childers" sounds like the title of a hit blockbuster movie — and rightfully so.

Portrait by: Lillian Reitz

Born in 1947, Childers, known as Kathryn Clark at the time, was thrust into the “no girls allowed” generation of America. As a young child, she was acutely aware of the lack of opportunity for women and their inability to “do what men do.” The ’50s and ’60s were defined by laws that were made to exclude women, which bled into the social and cultural fabric all across the country.

Under the circumstances — she valued athletics, but women’s sports teams were nonexistent — Childers fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming Annie Oakley by accompanying her father while bird hunting. She loved the precision and skill bird hunting required, as well as the athleticism. At the time she had no way of knowing these skills would come in handy for her history-making role as one of the first females to be hired as a federal agent in the Secret Service; making her one of the “First Five,” alongside Phyllis Shantz, Sue Ann Baker, Holly Hufschmidt and Laurie Anderson. 

But as it was happening — both hunting with her father and later being hired into the Secret Service in 1970 — Childers didn’t identify with the magnitude of these major life events or the influence she would ultimately have on her generation in all the years to come. “At the time, I wasn’t aware of the historical impact,” Childers said.

Kathryn was the only woman in her Executive Protective Service training class, which included course work in police procedures, firearms, psychology, criminal law, international treaties and protocols and more.

In the years between child huntress and becoming one of the first female secret agents, Childers gravitated toward volunteerism in college. She found herself leading other groups of women in organized efforts to advocate for various social groups, and accepting speaking opportunities on the University of Colorado campus. “People called us the ‘women’s lib-ers,’” Childers recalls about her student activism. 

The women’s movement of the 1960s was rising, and especially palpable on college campuses. Still, there were many unknowns for women seeking equal rights and opportunities — in the classroom and in the workforce. “We were knocking on the door of independence without a way to pay the rent,” she explained.

By now, Childers’ “backpack of experiences and skills was bulging,” as she put it, and when the Secret Service became the first federal agency to hire female agents, Childers felt the dots of her experiences connecting. “It is a remarkable challenge to be the first,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean you’ll be the best.” 

Childers’ history-making legacy comes with a powerful slogan — it is said that she “shot holes through the glass ceiling,” and while Childers is fond of this recognition, she is graceful in her assertion that while she may have been one of the first, her contribution to history lies deeply in making way for more dynamic women to cross the same threshold.

“First Five” Swearing-In Day (from left to right): Phyllis F. Shantz, Holly Kathryn Clark Childers, Holly Hufschmidt, Sue Ann Baker and Laurie B. Anderson

We were knocking on the door of independence without a way to pay the rent,” Childers explained.

Her many agency assignments included protecting the President and world leaders, including Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, investigating counterfeiting, working undercover alongside New York City law enforcement and most notably protecting the Kennedy children — Caroline and John Jr. — while traveling with Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Childers maintains that it was these experiences that taught her how to be comfortable in any situation. “Including the courage to explore other careers,” she said. Her work in the Secret Service gave her everything she could ever want in a fulfilling career, but her life was missing the family aspect. Traveling the globe charged with some of the most dangerous assignments wasn’t conducive to having a marriage and starting a family. 

When the time came, Childers found herself in the Coastal Bend, where she pursued a new life and love. She traded her pistol for a podium and found herself in the anchor’s chair of her own morning television show, “Morning Magazine” on Channel 3, where she spent 18 years on-air. Childers interviewed a plethora of high-profile celebrities and local icons, often with very little notice or time to prepare. What she loved about television was the fast-paced, unpredictable environment that kept her on her toes. In many ways, Childers found the newsroom to be much like being in the field as a federal agent. 

After moving on from television, Childers started a media/publishing company, and sold 10,000 copies of a children’s book which she wrote based on a fluke Christmas Eve snowstorm — Snow: The South Texas Christmas Miracle 2004. Later, the book became a series when Childers co-wrote More Snow for Kids with her son, Clark L. Childers. It was illustrated by a legendary local potter, William Wilhelmi. 

Each endeavor Childers has embarked upon contains a common thread of humanitarianism and her passion for people. She has always had a deep connection to volunteering and offering her time, resources and skillset to bettering the community and giving a voice to causes that matter. “Volunteering was my ticket into the city,” explained Childers. When she was new to town, Childers joined the Corpus Christi Arts Council and the Junior League of Corpus Christi. These non-profit organizations allowed her to meet the movers and shakers, and identify areas of opportunity where she could lend her experiences. 

Portrait by: Lillian Reitz

It should come as no surprise that Kathryn Clark Childers’ debut novel, Scared Fearless, is about the journey she calls her life. The title was influenced by her favorite motto provided to her by her father — “Do it scared” — and the book takes readers on an in-depth journey of the places she’s been, the people she’s protected and the world around her that she has made extraordinarily fascinating.

In the book, Childers writes that the sharing of her story isn’t so much a retrospective of policy change inviting women into the Secret Service, but more a way to look back at a time when the playing field for women was dismal. She poses the question, “Why, some fifty years ago, did the Secret Service decide to bring women into the fold of one of the most elite, highly trained cadres of men to protect some of the most important places and people in the world?” 

Her answer to that question, she writes, is merely speculation, but it speaks to the idea that the need for change was recognized by the men in charge, and that she was one of the first five young women lucky enough to be brought into the ranks and give it a try. 

Although it was unlikely at the time, having the chance to rock the boat and pioneer a new line of thought regarding what roles women should play and what they’re capable of bringing to the table makes the fascinating life of Kathryn Childers all the more remarkable, and remains an important chapter in the history book of women and their extraordinary abilities and accomplishments.