A quiet anniversary passed last week, marked at a subdued gathering in a small high school conference room.

Those in attendance, mostly retired and current FBI agents, had one goal: to honor the memory of Robin Ahrens, the first female special agent killed in the line of duty.

Ahrens' death in 1985 at age 33, just four months after she completed training, was doubly tragic: She died in a friendly fire shootout in Phoenix.

Ahrens was born in St. Paul and graduated from Wisconsin's Hudson High School in 1970. She is buried in Acacia Park Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

On Oct. 3, agents presented a plaque and a check for $1,550 to Hudson High School principal Laura Love. The plaque will hang in the school's career center. The scholarship is to be awarded to a student interested in studying criminal justice in college.

The impetus for the effort comes as the FBI celebrates 40 years of female FBI agents. Eleven women were sworn in in 1972, (the first two a nun and a Marine Corps officer), and the FBI now counts more than 2,600 female special agents serving across the world.

With Oct. 5 being the 27th anniversary of Ahrens' death, "it all just seemed to come together," said Deborah Strebel Pierce, a retired agent and chairwoman of the Minnesota-Dakota Chapter of Former FBI Agents, who helped plan the event.

"Robin's memory is important to all former and current FBI agents who want to ensure that her sacrifice is not forgotten."

Many have remembered her. Wisconsin designated a Robin Ahrens Day, and she was inducted into Hudson High's Hall of Fame. But the scholarship, Pierce and others believe, is the most powerful way to keep her legacy alive. The funds were raised from former agents in the Phoenix and Minneapolis/Dakotas chapters, and at a recent national convention. They hope the scholarship will be ongoing.

"It's a story that may not be known to the kids," said principal Love. "I hope that students see they can do and be anything. They have to be passionate."

Ahrens had passion, said David Reyes, a former FBI agent and now an attorney in private practice in Edina. Reyes was in Ahrens' new-agents class and lived in the same dorm with her for 16 weeks.

"Resilience and perseverance were part of her traits," he said. "She was very enthusiastic."

Ahrens was the third of six children raised in Hudson. Older brother Jim said she joined the ski patrol in high school and was a strong swimmer. In the summer, she was a counselor for YMCA's Camp Widjiwagan, leading a trip to Hudson Bay. "That was unheard of for women then," he said.

After graduating from high school, she earned a bachelor's degree from Utah State University and was a teacher. When she joined the FBI, her parents were "worried, but proud," Jim said.

Pierce came to the FBI in 1979, and didn't know Ahrens. But they shared many experiences. Both were born in 1952 and joined the FBI after teaching school. Both understood what women could bring to the agency.

"I was very successful at undercover operations because the bad guys didn't believe there were women agents," said Pierce, the first and only female special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office. "If you had a language skill or law or accounting, the world was your oyster."

Or should have been.

On Oct. 5, 1985, Ahrens was assisting in the apprehension of a fugitive charged with armed robbery. Another agent beat her around a corner by a few seconds, which likely saved his life. When Ahrens came around behind him, two agents opened fire, mistaking her for the fugitive's girlfriend.

"It was the worst day of my life," said retired agent Steve Chenoweth, who had breakfast with Ahrens that morning. "Generally speaking, I try not to put myself in the shoes of someone who has discharged a weapon but, in this particular case, this absolutely should not have happened." The shooters, he said, were later dismissed.

"The thing I remember most was how hard she had worked to get through the Academy," Chenoweth said. "She was a tribute to the FBI."

Russ Anderson, a retired agent who winters in Arizona, has been working on the plaque and scholarship ever since hearing Ahrens' story through the Phoenix office. He was assisted by Stacey Tiedemann, Hudson High's counseling secretary, who remembers Ahrens personally.

Learning that Ahrens was joining the FBI "was a pretty big deal," said Tiedemann, whose older sister was a friend of Ahrens'. "FBI? It was just a shock that it was someone from Hudson."

Jim Ahrens is touched that his sister is still so richly remembered.

"To have this scholarship this many years later, to still be honoring her, is quite something."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350