If you were an adolescent newshound in the late 70s or early 80s, some events probably had an outsized influence on shaping your worldview. Some were frightening and you didn’t understand, like Jonestown, John Wayne Gacy, or the crash of American Airlines Flight 191. Others, however, were heroic and inspiring, and made you think, this is what is good and right, and how men are supposed to act. At the top of that list for me are the actions of the Secret Service agents who saved Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981. I was in the 8th grade, outside Chicago, and the video on the broadcast news shows looped over and over again became an indelible image in my mind. To this day, I still watch the tape with fascination.
At the core of the heroics that day were Jerry Parr, Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protective Division, and Agent Tim McCarthy. The fact that would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. was able to fire off six shots just yards from the president as he exited the Washington Hilton represented a massive security failure, but the response of the entire team, and especially Parr and McCarthy, was textbook perfection. At the first crack of the pistol, Parr is moving, grabbing Reagan and starting to shove him into the presidential limousine. McCarthy, meanwhile, etched for himself a place in history by turning his body towards the sound of the gunshots, opening wide to shield the president, and taking a bullet in the chest (and surviving). The clip above has one of the best angles on the assassination attempt.
I’ve thought about that day, and those men, a lot over the years. Thinking about how they acted right when they needed to, how they never hesitated or wavered, how their actions were the most complete fusion of man and mission possible. It is a moment of horror, but also of almost transcendental clarity.
Thanks to social media, I recently learned that Jerry Parr is still living in the Washington, D.C., area, and I reached out to see if he would meet with me. I had no reason to do so, no article that I wanted to write. I just wanted to meet a boyhood hero. And he graciously agreed.
Jerry and his lovely wife, Carolyn, a retired U.S. Tax Court judge, asked that I keep our conversation off the record. But I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences by revealing that he is an inspiring and humble man with a great sense of humor. And for an 84-year old, he has a iron handshake that instantly reminds you why, even when he was 50 years old, he became the senior guardian for the president of the United States.
Best of all, perhaps, is that Jerry and Carolyn have told his story, and you can get (almost) all of the anecdotes he told me in his autobiography, In the Secret Service (the book’s website is here). The book gives a great snapshot of the personal side of American politics in the 1960s and 1970s, as Parr saw the private lives of America’s most public men. Yet what is perhaps most fascinating about Parr’s story is what he did after retiring in 1985. Instead of signing up for a huge salary doing security for a bank or sports team, he found his calling in God, became an ordained minister along with Carolyn, and spent years helping the poor in both Washington, D.C., and El Salvador. It is hard to know which is more inspiring, what he did as an agent or as a minister.
We still throw around the word “hero” too much, though I think we’re getting better at not pretending sports stars or celebrities deserve the title. Jerry Parr is an authentic hero, however, as were the men he served with through those years and especially that day in March. It was an honor, and a thrill, to meet him.