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 who never finished high school. They loved their son, and each other, but weren’t able to 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 would wake up during thunderstorms screaming, “Shells! Shells!” and try to drag his wife and child under the bed. Husband #2, Everett, kicked Dad in the face over a game of marbles, 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 and lean physique.
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 didn’t find any, and Reagan himself did not think he was hit. But when bright red, frothy blood suddenly appeared on the president’s lips, Dad thought the president might have suffered a lung injury from being flung into the car. He ordered the motorcade to change course and head to George Washington University Hospital, a decision that was later credited with saving Reagan’s life.
In his 2012 memoir, In The Secret Service, Dad said March 30, 1981 was both the worst and best day of his life.
On the surface, Dad 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. Fortunately, he had two parents who loved him unconditionally and tried to keep him safe. They didn’t always succeed, but Dad never blamed them. He often 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, Dad’s father took him to the Tower Theater in Miami to see the B 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, smooth. Forty-two years later, that boy was the agent standing next to the actor from that film, Ronald Reagan, 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 Reagan, “Did you know you were an agent of your own destiny?” He told the president 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 one of the cheapest films 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.