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Former covert agent captures Middletown color, affection

By Patti S. Borda

Monday - 9/5/2011, 8:49am  ET

Hasle (Frederick News-Post/Travis Pratt)
ist Bob Hasle sits with a couple of his watercolor paintings at the Middletown Historical Society Sunday afternoon in Middletown. (Frederick News-Post/Travis Pratt)

Artist and former covert agent Bob Hasle has captured the real, historical and idealized views of Middletown in watercolor paintings.

His paintings grace homes and businesses in and outside the town. His popularity helped the Middletown Valley Historical Society draw visitors Sunday to its museum.

Visitors and fans of his work stopped by to chat with their former neighbor and see his work, some of which already hangs in their homes.

Vibrant colors in his paintings show the character of old buildings, landscapes and farms. The paintings' subjects share nothing of Hasle's world-traveling and death-defying years with the Central Intelligence Agency.

His 23-year-career with the agency occurred almost by chance, he said, but he hired on in 1963 for one reason: The government job came with a retirement plan.

He had studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but an artist's career came with no benefits, he said. He had a growing family to support.

His wife Ann, also an artist, had put him through art school. She said the CIA was the only agency hiring when her husband needed a job with benefits.

It took a year to get the background check, she said, and she did not know he was working for the CIA; she just knew he was bringing home a paycheck.

His career took him to 33 countries. He and his family spent two four-year tours living in Germany, when the Berlin Wall was still dividing East from West.

Sometimes his cover pertained to his real art talent, but not always, he said. Different days would find him in different countries using different names, not easy to remember, he said.

Hasle recalls a night in Berlin when East and West swapped captured intelligence agents in the dark on a bridge over the wall. In silence the two agents passed one another to their home side, Hasle said.

"I'll never forget that," he said, seated in the sun-filled front parlor of the museum on Main Street in Middletown.

Hasle had several close calls with death, and stress has left its mark on his mental health, he said.

Certain smells remind him of attacks in Beirut, Lebanon. Often he feels the need to keep a door open in a small room, because of a long detention he endured under the authority of a Syrian border guard, he said.

"It was very intense," he said.

He was proud to report that his cover held.

One time he prepared for an attack in an upstairs office by peeling off a window's insulation, so he could remove the window and jump if necessary, even though he has a fear of heights. He did not have to make that jump.

Too many years in covert operations expose one's cover, he said.

"It was the point where it was getting dangerous for him," Ann Hasle said.

He retired in 1986 and took up painting more seriously than he had been able to in a long time. His family had settled in Middletown while he was still with the CIA, and Frederick had many beautiful landscapes for him to immortalize.

Health troubles have forced him and Ann to move from Middletown to Hagerstown, but old friends were glad to find him back Sunday. Anne Welch, Historical Society treasurer, said Hasle's popularity and abundance of art for sale made him a good draw.

"We all loved his art," Welch said.

Devra Boesch, president of the Historical Society, was glad to see a steady stream of foot traffic to the museum.

Jeff and Tracy Schubert shook Hasle's hand and pointed to copies of prints that already hang in their families' homes.

Tracy Schubert said Hasle's paintings reflect the real Middletown.

Before he joined the CIA, he did a detailed pencil sketch of a farm auction. Using a photograph of the event, he said he spent more than 200 hours on the sketch. He pointed to the weary, melancholy farmer resting on a fence to the right of the excited bidders.

"I'm always aware of people," Hasle said. "I'll always think about the underdog."

Copyright 2011 The Frederick News-Post. All rights reserved.