Isadore Zack; intelligence work led to fight for justice

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 11, 2011

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World War II assignments for spy catchers in the Subversive Squad could be as simple as slipping into a Boston bar and listening to soldiers and sailors who were drinking and saying too much.

Armed with fake dishonorable discharge papers to provide a cover story, Isadore Zack and colleagues in the US Army Counterintelligence Corps passed themselves off as embittered former servicemen while keeping tabs on those who might feed information to the enemy.

“Our job was to catch the other guy’s spies,’’ he told the Globe in 2000.

Mr. Zack, who went from being a teenage newspaper reporter to spying on spies to directing investigations for the Anti-Defamation League in New England, died of congestive heart failure in the NewBridge on the Charles long-term care facility in Dedham on Jan. 8, two days after celebrating his 65th wedding anniversary. He was 98.

Working for a while out of what had been the Hoover vacuum cleaner offices in Brookline, Mr. Zack and a select group of agents in the organization had as their jurisdiction the security of US military operations.

“For 15 months, no one knew we were there,’’ Mr. Zack told the Globe in 2001, “not even the Brookline police.’’

From security for the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons, to combating espionage and sabotage, the agents ranged widely.

“At first, they included only lawyers, but after Pearl Harbor they went right into the ranks,’’ Mr. Zack said in a 2002 interview with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette about the agents recruited for the intelligence corps. “Those with experience in languages, newspaper reporters, writers, anyone who was considered a trained observer was swept in.’’

Drafted into the Army just before the United States entered World War II, Mr. Zack was in his late 20s and an experienced reporter. He started covering sports in his native Quincy while still in high school, studied journalism briefly at Boston University, and had worked at newspapers in Quincy.

The Counterintelligence Corps experience was transformative, however, providing the foundation for his later work in the ADL and giving him a lasting social network.

“The men that he met in the Army stayed his friends for the rest of his life,’’ said his daughter Ellen of Boston.

For decades after the war, Mr. Zack was secretary of the Military Intelligence Association of New England, a veterans organization that, in 1999, named him the group’s man of the century.

“He has held this organization together,’’ Dan Halpin of Bedford, N.H., then president of the group, told the Globe in 2000.

Born in Quincy, where he lived nearly his entire life, Mr. Zack was one of four children whose parents were Russian immigrants. He was 11 when his father died in an automobile accident. His mother, who spoke little English, started selling items door to door and opened the A. Zack & Sons dry goods and home furnishings business in Quincy Point.

At Quincy High School, from which he graduated in 1928, Mr. Zack pitched a no-hitter against Weymouth when he was 15 and a junior.

“That was the highlight of his high school career, and 83 years after he pitched that no-hitter, he could still tell you the name of each batter he faced and which pitches he threw,’’ his daughter said.

When Mr. Zack was in his 80s, he went into the hospital for an MRI, and medical personnel wondered if he would feel claustrophobic in the confined space of the imagining equipment. Afterward, his daughter recalled, “he said, ‘No problem, I just re-pitched that game. I faced each batter and threw the pitches. I closed my eyes, and then it was over.’ ’’

Through mutual friends, he met Ruth Bennett during outings to Nantasket Beach. They married in 1946, just after Mr. Zack finished his service in the Counterintelligence Corps.

In the Army, “he was thrown in with people of all backgrounds . . . and got to see what teamwork really meant, and I think that translated in his work with the Anti-Defamation League,’’ his daughter said.

Though Mr. Zack helped teach police officers and FBI agents as part of his work with the Anti-Defamation League and worked with law enforcement on hate crime investigations, he also went into schools and spoke to classes about anti-Semitism.

“It wasn’t so much about the Jewish faith or Jewish ethnicity; it was about civil rights — that’s how he viewed it,’’ his daughter said. “He tried to be an educator in his work, not only with schoolchildren, but with troopers and agents.’’

From his war years, Mr. Zack kept as much of his intelligence paperwork as he was allowed, even the fake dishonorable discharge papers he used during undercover work, in case he needed to persuade someone that he was a disgruntled former serviceman, rather than a spy.

“I remember him telling me that if he was to die, the real honorable discharge papers were in the safe deposit box at the bank; they weren’t the fake ones downstairs in the cellar,’’ his daughter said.

In 1997, most of what Mr. Zack had kept was declassified, and he donated about 500 pages of documents to the University of New Hampshire, which keeps them in a special collections library.

Wearing civilian clothes to cloak their roles, Mr. Zack and his colleagues “were very busy because there were a number of ports, Army Air Force bases, and Army camps in New England during the war,’’ he said in the interview. “And we were the rumor clinic and checked out all reports involving potential submarine and plane landings, and flashing lights at sea.’’

A service has been held for Mr. Zack, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves another daughter, Joan Swansburg of Beverly; a sister, Bertha Lapon of Dedham; and two grandchildren.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at