Alum talks FBI experiences

Former FBI Special Agent John Kelso, ’66, brought his professional experience back to Allegheny College for a few days of workshops and lectures about leadership and his time as a lead investigator.

Kelso investigated the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. With 270 fatalities, the bombing is among the worst modern terrorist attacks and is the deadliest in the United Kingdom’s history.

Kelso’s visit was part of the Center for Political Participation’s 20th anniversary celebration. The CPP invited several distinguished alumni to return to the college.

“We were looking for folks who had done something special with their careers as scholars or practitioners,” said Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the CPP Andrew Bloeser.

Within the public talk, hosted on March 15 at the Quigley Hall Auditorium, Kelso discussed the investigative process that led to the ground-breaking trials of multiple Libyan nationals and, ultimately, to Libya’s formal acknowledgment of responsibility.

Moreover, Kelso contextualized recent developments in the case, notably the December 2022 arrest of another key figure involved in the bombing.

In addition to Kelso’s public address about the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, he also led a workshop on leadership which he drew from his experience working at the FBI. He gathered a small group of students to discuss how they can use their studying or working experiences across different contexts.

Bloeser was satisfied with the students’ curiosity during the workshop as well as with the turnout of 30 instead of the 15 students planned.

“That suggests a real thirst on the part of our students to learn from the wisdom of Mr. Kelso’s experience,” Bloeser said.

During the workshop, Kelso defined seven key competencies he obtained while working at the FBI: vision, communication, people skills, character, competence, boldness and a serving heart. He advised Gators that achieving those competencies by examining themselves closely.

“I was on my way home every day from work, I would critique myself, I would go over what I had done in the office, or when I was out working on a case,” Kelso said. “And you know, sometimes I make good decisions. Sometimes I make decisions that I regret. By just critiquing myself, I think I learned an awful lot about myself, and how to improve my performance. So that’s why I was suggesting to everybody that they consider doing that once they graduated from college and went and got a job. Be honest with yourself. If you’re doing it yourself and are honest with yourself. It’s easier to accept that as a person, and you still benefit from it.”

CPP fellow Asaad Bell, ’25, had the opportunity to meet and interact with Kelso in person apart from attending the leadership workshop. He found Kelso’s speech inspirational, especially for students who still have not figured out their future careers.

“It makes a job worthwhile because I get to discover new career paths that I didn’t necessarily think about or kind of talk to him about his role in the FBI and how he got there and why he wanted to do it,” Bell said. “I’m a college student myself at the end of the day and I don’t know exactly what I want to do when I graduate college or when I finish school.”

Regardless of major, Bell sees such an event as a networking opportunity for everyone to make connections within the different fields.

Kelso credited his thirst for knowledge to the time he spent at Allegheny. Kelso keeps the habit of reading not only about the investigations, but also about leadership and related topics — something he picked up during his studies here.

“Allegheny gave me the gift of being interested in learning and not feeling that this is learning,” Kelso said. “The world is changing every day. And if you don’t keep on top of it, and keep well read about things, you’re gonna get lost, not only technically, but in terms of world affairs.”

The overall sense of community and the harmony between studying and different activities was the thing that Kelso liked about the campus. He was a part of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, which as an organization had the highest GPA, and were proud scholar-athletes.

“Getting grades and things of that sort, but also then getting away from that and doing some things in sports, makes you a well-rounded person,” Kelso said.

Kelso’s path showcased how, regardless of a history major and his expected career as an attorney, you could find yourself and be a good leader, making the world a better place.

“Yes, maybe I could have made more money as an attorney, but there were two times in the FBI — and I’ll get emotional with this — there were two times in the FBI that we solved kidnapping cases,” Kelso said. “And I was able to hand that little child over to the parents, and you look at the parents, and they have tears in their eyes, but they have a smile on their face because you have saved that little child. I got to do that twice in 32 years, and those two moments will live with me for the rest of my life. They are the sort of thing that makes you feel like this is worth it; We solved that case, we put some people in jail but I gave that baby back to the parents. It doesn’t get any better than that.”