A celebration of a local war hero and cryptanalyst took place on Thursday, Aug. 26, at Memorial Park, and was marked by the special unveiling of a state historical marker honoring the hero cryptanalyst, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, on what would have been her 129th birthday.
Friedman, who is often referred to as America’s first female cryptanalyst, was born and raised in Huntington. She attended Wooster College in Ohio for a short time before attending and graduating from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a major in English literature. She married William Friedman in May 1917 and, according to the National Security Agency, they worked together in the only cyptologic laboratory in the U.S. for four years. In 1921, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the War Department.
She was known to have broken codes during World War II, destroying the plans of Nazi spy rings located in South America. She also broke codes during prohibition in America, cracking cyphers of bootleggers and mobsters that would eventually break up their operations.
Several speakers were present at the special unveiling of the historical marker. They spoke of her great work that helped this country, as well as the fact that her story was nearly forgotten because of historical error and oversight.
Vice President of Research at Indiana University Fred King made it clear just how important it was that this event happened in Friedman’s hometown and at Memorial Park, where dozens of other local war heroes are celebrated for their work and sacrifices.
King explained that the process of recognizing Friedman for her work began three years ago when cryptographer Justin Troutman reached out to him, saying that something had to be done “to honor this woman.” To which King replied, “what woman?”
That was Troutman’s entire point - people didn’t know who Friedman was and that needed to change. And so, through research and teamwork with a variety of agencies, the historical marker was finally able to be created and brought to Huntington to be unveiled.
Mayor Richard Strick spoke to those present at the event about how important it is to “remember (her) service to her nation and to the world.”
“Elizebeth demonstrates to all of us the tremendous accomplishments when passion and aptitude meet the problems facing the world,” Strick said. “And we recognize her willingness and her humility to sacrifice the credit and thereby, accomplished so much more as an example and role model to us, an example that we would all do well to remember these days in the challenges that we face.”
Strick called Friedman a “favored daughter of Huntington” and stated that it was “good and right” that she be honored for her legacy and achievements.
One very special speaker for the day was the grandson of Friedman. While most of the speakers at the special event focused on Friedman’s work for her country and dedication to her craft, grandson Chris Atchison spoke of his life experience growing up around her and who she was as a person. Atchison lived with his grandmother and grandfather for a time during his childhood years. He was born in San Francisco, CA, in 1963, to Barbara Friedman. He came to live with his grandparents in early 1968.
“Being very young, I had no idea who they were and what they had done,” Atchison said. “To me, they were just Grammy and Grampy.”
Atchison said that the first thing he noticed is that Friedman was always perfectly dressed and proper.
“She had an air about her that I had never seen in anyone else,” Atchison said. “Of the utmost importance was dinner. It was formal - every time. I was to wash and dress for dinner every night. That was the rule. They always used the good china, the good silver and the good crystal.”
Atchison also said that his grandmother was always “cool as a cucumber” and never let anything bother her. He then shared the story of the time that he discovered that hairspray and matches made a homemade flame thrower - and in doing so, “turned the powder room into a blazing inferno.”
Rather than screaming about it or panicking, Friedman simply grabbed the fabric that had caught fire and put it out - cool, calm and using correct action.
“She told me to go back to the dinner table, finish dinner and then go to my room,” Atchison said. “There was no scolding, no yelling or punishment. The next morning, I woke up and the powder room was immaculate.”
Atchison also spoke of how men in uniform would often come to the house for long conversations in the upstairs study, or how he would be directed to get dressed and they would then walk to the Capitol together.
After sharing other anecdotes of his life with Friedman, it was time to direct the crowd to the historical marker, which is located near the walking path at Memorial Park that leads to Sunken Gardens. Together, Strick and Atchison took off the grand cover so that those present at the event could see the historic marker completed.