Speaking to an FBI agent can make even innocent people sweat.

Ball State alumnus Grant Mendenhall will put you at ease.

He will shake your hand and tell you the pleasure is his. He will crack self-deprecating jokes. He’ll ask you where you’re from, fishing for mutual friends. He will tell you how he fell in love at first sight with his wife, Jean. He will smile for the camera.

Within minutes, you will forget that he is among the most elite law enforcement officers in the country, that he spent four years in the Marines and was a SWAT sniper.

I had a great time, he’ll tell you. Call if you need anything.

Mendenhall, ’86, has spent 28 years with the FBI. In February 2018, he became special agent in charge of Indiana. From his Indianapolis office, he oversees more than 250 agents and support staff throughout the state.

He defies the humorless investigator cliché portrayed on television.

“When you think about an FBI agent, you think about him sitting across the table from a bad guy trying to get a confession,” Mendenhall said. “That’s a very small part of the job.”

The more important part is getting to know people and getting to know what those people know. The technical term is collecting intelligence. The laymen’s term is talking to people. Because relationships solve crimes, he said, and the FBI accomplishes nothing on its own.

Mendenhall’s charm is coincidental to his career, a sincere expression of Midwestern hospitality that — with some irony — dovetails perfectly with putting people behind bars.

Building relationships helps solve crimes, according to Mendenhall, who says the interpersonal skills he developed as a Ball State student have helped him succeed in the FBI. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

While his gregariousness is natural, he credits Ball State with helping him polish the interpersonal skills necessary to navigate the high-stakes worlds of violent crime and counterterrorism.

“In college, you learn how to interact with people, live in close quarters with people, and get along with people you don’t necessarily like,” Mendenhall said. “That prepares you for life in general, and it certainly prepares you for life in the FBI.”

Finding a way

Mendenhall grew up as a typical Indiana farm kid.

The family raised cattle and pigs and grew corn and beans. In high school, he showed livestock in 4-H, joined Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and played three sports, football, wrestling and baseball.

“I was always the kid who said I was going to be an FBI agent.”

The journey from the family farm to the FBI was far from a straight line. Mendenhall encountered detours and dead-ends. But, like Google Maps, he redirected with ease.

His FBI fantasy dates to his late-elementary years when he began to admire two of his father’s best friends. The men were brothers. One was a Drug Enforcement Administration officer and the other was an FBI agent.

“And then there was the TV show,” Mendenhall said.

Two, actually.

The TV series ”The FBI” starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was a childhood inspiration for Mendenhall.

“The FBI” originally aired from 1965 to 1974, portraying fictionalized versions of real cases. In 1981, ABC revamped the show, calling it “Today’s FBI.” The network scrapped it after one season, but the show left an impression.

At Ball State, Mendenhall began as an accounting major. After all, investigating corruption and fraud requires math skills.

But that path became a dead end after two quarters.

“I was working too hard to get Cs,” he said.

Mendenhall changed his major to political science. That could help him get into law school, he thought, and law school could help him get into the FBI.

He never went to law school.

At the start of his sophomore year, Mendenhall struck up a conversation with a Marine Corps recruiter outside the student center bookstore. Within a month, he had signed paperwork agreeing to attend Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, and — after graduation from Ball State — enter the Marine Corps as an officer.

Ultimately, a résumé that included a Ball State political science degree and Marine Corps experience provided the path from the farm to the FBI.

Living and learning in “The Zoo”

For his first three years on campus, Mendenhall lived in Burkhart Hall in the Wagoner Complex. That building now provides housing for high school students attending the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, students called it “The Zoo.”

The Wagoner Complex

Students called Burkhart Hall in the Wagoner Complex  (shown above) “The Zoo.” The place was a mixing pot of personalities, Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall stayed out of trouble, but he put as much effort into his social life as he did his academic life. Some ace volleyball players lived in his hall, so he went to almost every game to cheer them on. He spent a lot of time dating Jean (Geisting), ’85, the nursing student who became his wife. He played pickup basketball behind his dorm as music blasted from stereo speakers in his window.

“Back then it was Rush and Asia. Remember Asia? Van Halen. AC/DC. Led Zeppelin.”

Mendenhall did apply himself in his political science courses. He credits Professors Tom Sargent and Joe Menez with being motivators. Sargent is a professor emeritus; Menez taught from 1968 to 1988 and died in 1996.

“We wrote case briefs in his constitutional law class,” he said of Menez. “It was like going to law school.”

But when Mendenhall reflects on the connection between his law enforcement career and his education, the conversation usually comes back to his love for The Zoo. The place was a mixing pot of personalities.

“Fortunately, in the FBI, you deal with a lot more good guys than bad guys,” he said. “You have to learn to get along with people, have effective interpersonal skills, be a collaborator.”

Back home again

After four years in the Marines, Mendenhall became an FBI agent in spring 1990 and was assigned to the Milwaukee Field Office, where he worked violent crime and gang investigations.

He then worked in Salt Lake City, where he led the interagency counterterrorism intelligence section in support of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He’s also served in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and in Baghdad, Iraq; and recently in Washington, D.C.

Mendenhall is 54. FBI policy requires him to retire at 57.

He said he is thankful to end his career in Indiana, although it means he is further from his two grown daughters and 6-year-old granddaughter in Virginia. He and his wife live in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood of Indianapolis and can walk to Butler University basketball games at Hinkle Fieldhouse. But, most of all, he appreciates being near his parents and extended family.

“You can only be from one place,” he said.

Mendenhall is one of at least four people from Hagerstown, population 1,700, who have become federal agents. Perhaps there’s something about small town life that prepares you to tackle big city problems.

“The best FBI agents are the ones who don’t know a stranger,” he said. “If you don’t trust us, you aren’t going to tell us anything, let alone your deepest, darkest secrets.”