Bill Cervenak was a legend on youth baseball fields and in the covert world of the CIA

Cervenak was a member of the CIA's Special Activities Division, officers with military experience who carry weapons and participate in covert actions.

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — Bill Cervenak coached two generation of players on the youth baseball fields of Northern Virginia, where he made such an impact on the Little League program that a baseball diamond now bears his name.

But what many in his baseball family didn't know was that Cervenak had another family, one he didn't talk much about. He was a revered veteran of the CIA's elite paramilitary arm, where he spent three decades conducting operations around the globe that remain state secrets.

Cervenak died Saturday at age 80, and he is being remembered as a man who devoted himself to his country and his community.

"Bill was a legend in two worlds — one openly in Vienna, due to his passion for baseball, and one in the shadows," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer whose sons play Vienna youth baseball.

Beth Halloran, who served with Cervenak on the board of the Vienna, Virginia, Little League, wrote: "He leaves a hole that will never be filled. He gave of himself to this community over, and over, and over again."

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Before he retired in 1999, Cervenak was a member of the CIA's Special Activities Division — sometimes shorthanded as "ground branch" — a group of agency officers with military experience who carry weapons and participate in dangerous covert actions.

Many of the agency officers who went into Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had learned their craft under his tutelage.

Bill Cervenak mentored young athletes in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and young staffers at the CIA.Jim Halling / DL Action Sports

"Bill was a mentor to generations of officers at CIA, as he was to me," Phil Reilly, a former CIA colleague, said in a text message. "He was highly respected for his operational record of service that saw him rise to the senior intelligence ranks, but also for his larger-than-life personality. He was, without question, the funniest person I have ever met. He used that humor to defuse situations, put colleagues at ease, but also to teach."

Cervenak saw combat as a Marine in Vietnam before spending 33 years at the spy agency, according to his biography.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, to parents who were immigrants from what was then Czechoslovakia, he was a high school basketball star who played defensive end on scholarship for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team.

As a Marine in the earliest days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he flew so many dangerous missions that he won the Air Medal with two Gold Stars for "meritorious achievements as an aerial observer during combat support missions in the Republic of Vietnam against insurgent communist guerrilla forces during the period of February 7 to April 17, 1964," according to a citation.

Michael Cervenak, his nephew, says he heard stories of his uncle's exploits in Honduras and Laos, among other far-flung places.

Emil Cervenak, his brother, said he never talked about his work for the CIA.

When Emil Cervenak was going through his brother's things after he died, he came across a shelf full of CIA awards.

"I'm reading these citations about the unselfish things that he did, putting his own life at risk, and I couldn't believe it," Emil Cervenak said.

Bill Cervenak coached two generations of players on the youth baseball fields of Northern Virginia, where he made such an impact on the Little League program that a baseball diamond now bears his name.Jim Halling / DL Action Sports

Former CIA officers told NBC News that in addition to Southeast Asia and Latin America, he served in Africa. In a headquarters job, he spent time in the earlier days of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, where he helped set up elite units.

Cervenak never married, and he threw himself into local sports even before he retired from the CIA, friends say. In addition to baseball, he coached football and basketball.

"He dedicated his life to the country and then to Vienna Little League and youth sports," his nephew said.

In later years, he coached the sons of men he had coached before, said Al DeFazio, vice president of the Vienna Little League board.

Filled with government workers, Northern Virginia can be a place people move into and out of rapidly, as federal administrations change or overseas assignments beckon. Until he stepped down from coaching a few years ago, Cervenak's presence on the baseball diamond, the basketball court and the football field was one thing that didn't change.

"He was a fixture in a transient community inside a transient world," DeFazio said.