Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Philip Hanssen: The Spy who Stayed out in the Cold

The Spawning of A Spy

Robert Philip Hanssen was born April 18, 1944, in Chicago. His father, Howard,  was away in the Navy when he was born and his mother, Vivian, was alone. Both parents were in their 30s when their son, and only child, was born.

Howard Hanssen was a Chicago cop before going into the Navy. After World War II he rejoined the police force and made a 30-year career of it. The Hanssen family bought its first and only Chicago house in the Norwood Park section of the city. It was a modest two-bedroom bungalow on North Neva Avenue and considered a safe, cop neighborhood. Soon after the family began living there, Howard's mother moved in with them. Bob Hanssen, called Bobby in his childhood, was fussed over by the two women, with his father behaving somewhat coldly toward his son. Bobby Hanssen was remembered as a silent, non-talkative child, who was eager to please.

"He would say hello," recalled neighbor Pauline Rutledge, "but he was so quiet. He wouldn't say much else."

Bob's passion was reading the satirical magazine "Mad" and comic books that featured action heroes. His subscription to "Mad," which had a regular back-page feature called Spy vs. Spy, continued through college.

Was he beaten by his father?

"Oh, no," Vivian Hanssen said. "Of course his father {was} strict. I was always the easy one. But aren't most families like that?"

In the early 1950s, Howard Hanssen became part of the Chicago Police Department's famed "Red Unit." It was the McCarthy era, and Howard's mission was to uncover politicians inside the city government who had communist leanings. Some neighbors viewed the Hanssens as secretive.

"They were a real policeman's family," neighbor Ruth Kremske remembered. "I don't think they wanted anyone nosing around in their business."

Following high school, where he was remembered as "a bit of a geek," Hanssennow going by Bobwent off to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. He matriculated in chemistry. As a requirement of graduation he had to take a foreign language for two years. Bob chose Russian, a popular choice among college students in the mid-1960s. The Cold War had many of them believing that the language could come in handy if a shooting war broke out with the Soviet Union. Bob also studied the masters of Russian writing: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

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