By Kimberly Parr
Forty years ago, John Hinckley shot and wounded four men outside the Washington Hilton Hotel while trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. My father, Jerry Parr, was the Secret Service agent standing behind the president when Hinckley opened fire. He heaved Reagan head-first into the waiting limousine while agent Tim McCarthy reflexively widened his stance, taking a bullet to the liver. Three seconds after the first shot was fired, the limo peeled out.
Hours would pass before the world learned that the president had been much closer to death than first reported. What most people didn’t know was that Reagan’s fate had hinged on a snap decision by a man with blue-collar roots, an unusual nickname, and the memory of a B-film from childhood.
Jerry Parr grew up in Miami during the Great Depression, the only child of two alcoholics, both high school dropouts. They loved their son, and each other, but couldn’t live together. By the time he was 12, his mother had been married three times to unstable or violent men. My grandfather, Oliver Parr, was a World War I veteran who’d wake up during thunderstorms screaming, “Shells! Shells!” The second husband, Everett, kicked Dad in the face, giving him a scar he carried for life.
The third husband, Jack, would snap and go berserk, flipping over tables, smashing furniture, and threatening to kill my grandmother. Dad began sleeping with a knife under his pillow in case he had to kill Jack first.
Dad didn’t know it, but he was quickly learning that danger could come from anywhere, anytime. It was a lesson that would serve him well as a lineman for Florida Power & Light where he managed to survive several near-death experiences. The guys on the bull gang started calling him Spider because of his fast reflexes, lean physique, and ability to quickly scale poles.
By the time he sat down with a recruiter from the Secret Service, Dad had been a pallbearer at funerals for eight linemen. When asked why he wanted to be an agent, he said, “Well, it’s safer than what I’ve been doing!” He reported for duty in the fall of 1962. At 32, he was the most senior rookie in the field office.
By 1981, Dad was 50 and head of the Presidential Protective Division at the White House. He no longer had the reflexes of his youth but was still fast enough to save Reagan from being shot in the head that day outside the Hilton. As the limo raced back to the White House, Dad examined the president for bullet wounds. He ran his hands under Reagan’s jacket, along his sides and through his hair, looking for blood. No blood. The president himself did not believe he’d been hit. Dad radioed, “Rawhide is okay”, using the Secret Service code name for the president.
But then bright red, frothy blood suddenly appeared on Reagan’s lips. Dad knew instantly this was oxygenated blood from a lung injury. Maybe he had broken the president’s ribs and punctured a lung when he threw him onto the floor of the limo. For a split-second, he weighed the consequences of diverting the motorcade to a hospital. If the assassination attempt was a coordinated attack, the White House was the safest place to be. Yet here was a 70-year-old president with a possible lung injury, turning ashen, fighting to breathe. The trauma center at George Washington University Hospital was a mile away.
“Go to George Washington fast!” he told the driver.
No one knew it at the time, but the sixth and final bullet had ricocheted off the armored car, through the gap between the door and the frame, and hit the president under his left armpit at the moment Dad was shoving him into the limo. It tore through his left lung, bounced off a rib, and lodged an inch from his heart. By the time he arrived at GW Hospital, Reagan’s pulse was barely detectable. Trauma and surgical teams managed to stabilize him and remove the bullet in a grueling, three-hour operation.
Dad often said March 30, 1981, was both the worst and best day of his life. Nothing is worse than the president getting shot on your watch. But Reagan survived, and Dad was widely credited with helping save his life.
Jerry Parr didn’t have the kind of upbringing suited to an elite special agent charged with protecting heads of state, working at the White House, traveling the world. He wasn’t destined to become a gentle and dedicated family man, married to the same woman for 57 years. But he did have two parents who each loved him unconditionally and tried to keep him safe. They didn’t always succeed, but Dad never blamed them. He said his parents’ love sustained him through hard times and gave him the confidence to break away from his life script.
He never broke away completely, however. After Dad died in 2015, I came across his old hard hat from his lineman days. He had held onto it long after he left the name Spider behind, a memento of the days when danger came from a snapped guy-wire instead of a gun.
In 1939, Oliver Parr took his son to the Tower Theater in Miami to see the film Code of the Secret Service starring Ronald Reagan as agent Brass Bancroft. For a nine-year-old boy, Brass was the epitome of a hero: strong, brave, dashing. Forty-two years later, that boy was the agent standing next to the actor from that film, now in the plum role of President of the United States. Only this time, the bullets and blood were real.
Several weeks after the assassination attempt, Dad asked the president, “Did you know you were an agent of your own destiny?” He told Reagan about the movie he saw as a boy in Miami and how, against all odds, it inspired him to become a Secret Service agent.
Reagan laughed. “That was the cheapest film I ever made.”
Kimberly Parr is a writer and civil servant from Manlius, NY, and the daughter of the late Jerry Parr, Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protective Division for the U.S. Secret Service, 1979-1982.