It was late 1929, around the time of the stock market crash, and 13-year-old Trenwith Basford was fighting to protect his Tribune newspaper route in south Minneapolis.
"He was lucky to find work as a paperboy," said his granddaughter, Hamline University education Prof. Letitia Basford. "Jobs were hard to get, and often Tren had to fight off other boys, and sometimes grown men, who wanted his paper route."
Tren lived with his widowed mother, English teacher Clara Shepley Basford, and her elderly mother. His father, Montana dentist Clare Basford, had died at 35 from kidney disease when Tren was 4, prompting Clara to relocate near relatives in Minnesota. The teenager's newspaper delivery money augmented Clara's $150 monthly salary at the outset of the Great Depression.
One customer on Lyndale Avenue was lucky Tren was delivering the paper on Dec. 12, 1929. A.H. Warner was working on his car in the garage when he was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes, leaving him slumped over and unconscious.
Alerted by calls for help from Warner's wife, Tren put to use the skills he'd learned as a Boy Scout. He performed artificial respiration for 10 minutes until the arrival of medics, who credited him with saving Warner's life. By then, Tren had vanished.
"A 13-year-old Minneapolis boy scout ... was so bashful he slipped away unnoticed as soon as his 'good turn' was accomplished," the Tribune reported a few days later. The Warners only learned their hero's name the next afternoon when Tren returned to deliver the paper.
It would be nearly 48 years before Trenwith Basford again made the headlines.
After earning a law degree from the University of Minnesota, Basford got married in 1941 to Frances Letitia "Tish" Krey, daughter of the head of the U's history department. He joined the FBI in 1942, working on the East Coast during World War II; one of his first cases involved eight Nazi saboteurs who were captured after sailing to New York and Florida in submarines. His family moved in 1957 to Minnesota, where he investigated bank robberies and spy cases.
Since Basford's birth in 1916 amid the wilderness near Red Lodge, Mont., he had loved hunting ducks, catching walleyes, canoeing in Maine and exploring Alaska with Tish. He earned a pilot's license in the late 1960s and had his own single-engine Cessna 172 floatplane, often flying to an island home they owned on Jackfish Lake in Saskatchewan.
"My grandfather was a very soft-spoken quiet man, always doing, doing, doing," Letitia Basford said. "He wasn't the kind to sit and read a book, and my grandmother worried about that" as his retirement neared.
In August 1977 Basford was 60, poised to retire after 35 years with the FBI and ready for more fishing and hunting. While he was on assignment that month, a sudden rainstorm caught his Cessna in the gusts as he and fellow FBI agent Mark Kirkland flew above the Iron Range.
Basford radioed the tower in Hibbing, requesting an emergency landing. Shortly after 5 p.m., his plane crashed in Dewey Lake, 6 miles north of Chisholm. Authorities found the yellow-and-white plane in 12 feet of water. Basford and Kirkland, still strapped in their seat belts, had died upon impact.
FBI officials at first said the agents were on routine business, helping the Duluth office with various cases when their plane went down. But 23 years later, the truth emerged: The fatal flight in 1977 was far from routine.
In 2000, journalist David Wise's chronicle of a Cold War spy saga, "Cassidy's Run," revealed that Basford actually was tracking a University of Minnesota professor who was spying for the Russians and possibly bolting to Canada.
Known as Operation Shocker, U.S. intelligence officials had created a network of double agents posing as Russian spies dating back to 1959. Among those caught in the web was Mexican-born Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, who was hired to teach Chicano studies at the U in 1976. On the day Basford crashed, he'd been providing aerial surveillance as Lopez and his family drove toward the border.
"The bureau could not afford to divulge the truth, for the crash of the Cessna threatened to unravel the longest-running espionage case of its kind in the history of the Cold War," Wise wrote.
Lopez never crossed into Canada, returning to the Twin Cities, where FBI officials confronted him in a downtown Minneapolis hotel room in 1978. His cover blown, he disclosed his hatred of U.S. capitalism and fled to his native Mexico. He said he had spied for the Soviets in hopes that socialism would spread west.
Justice Department officials eventually lost interest in pursuing Lopez, whose antics indirectly cost Basford his life. But Tish Basford — who outlived her husband by 35 years — blamed the weather rather than the feds.
"Tren never had to face the ravages of old age, disease, and futility," she told Wise. "He died in his prime, being useful and doing what he most liked to do."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.