William Eldridge Odom, three-star general, former leader of the National Security Agency and Yale faculty member — a man who challenged preconceptions and defied expectations — died suddenly on Friday, May 30. He was 75.
“We all remember the last time we saw him,” said political-science professor David Cameron, Odom’s colleague at Yale. “He was, as always, enthusiastic about something and had an idea he wanted to talk about.”
Odom died of an apparent heart attack in his Vermont home. An autopsy will be performed to determine the exact cause of death.
“I think this is a great loss, and not just for Yale,” said political-science professor Keith Darden, who shared the general’s interest in Russia. “We really do not have anyone who can give us the insight he can, and he is one of those rare combined thinkers and doers.”
After humble beginnings in Tennessee, where he was born on June 23,1932, Odom attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and became interested in the former Soviet Union. After serving as an infantry and armor officer, he learned to speak Russian and earned a graduate degree from Columbia in 1962 before being posted to East Germany.
“He had a unique combination of gifts,” Steven Smith, the master of Branford College and a political-science professor, said. “Academic, practical and worldly.”
But despite an extensive and impressive career, at Yale, the adjunct professor of political science, who taught “American National Security Policy” and “Dynamics of Russian Politics,” had one request — that his students refer to him simply as Professor Odom.
“Odom offered his students an astute and realistic insight into international politics,” former student Derrick Sutter ’09 said. “Rank never went to his head, and he was always willing to share meals, stories and ideas.”
Smith, who often met with Odom to discuss subjects both inside and outside of academia, said, “When I first met Bill, I don’t think I had every met a general before. He defied all of my assumptions and prejudices of what a general would be like. He was funny, he was gregarious, and he had a great sense of humor.”
Smith and other Yale faculty members said they enjoyed talking with Odom about his strong, and sometimes controversial, ideas.
“Most conversations started with him saying ‘I have a question for you,’ and then he would go on with his own views,” Smith said. “But for some reason I did not mind that, because he always had something interesting to say.”
Smith said Odom brought a unique combination of experience and academia to Yale, leaving behind a void that may be impossible to fill.
After receiving a doctorate in comparative politics from Columbia University, he joined the U.S. embassy in Moscow as the military attaché.
His long list of accomplishments includes stints as an army officer in Vietnam; the military assistant for Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter; a senior military and intelligence official for the Carter and Reagan administrations; and director of the National Security Agency under Reagan.
Odom was one of the first leading military officials to voice opposition to the American invasion of Iraq, and in typical form, he spoke about his opposition with confidence and vigor.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Odom said of the increase in troops in Iraq, “Providing funding and sources to give an embattled regime more ‘time’ to gain adequate strength is like asking a drunk to drink whiskey in order to sober up.”
Darden said, “There is no one else out there like Odom. It is a tragedy.”
Sutter agreed. “He seemed like a man who would never surrender his position — even to death.”
Odom is survived by his wife Anne, his son Mark, his brother, sister and granddaughter.