The Agent Who Saved a President

Jerry Paar with President Ronald Reagan

Photo by Ron Edmunds/Associated Press

The Agent Who Saved a President

| published October 10, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton editor


Jerry Parr, who died late Friday night at a hospice facility near his home, did what only a tiny handful of Americans have ever done: he saved a President’s life. Parr, who was known to be a humble man, would have balked at the notion that he was a hero: as an agent of the U.S. Secret Service, it was merely his job.

On the morning of March 30, 1981—reacting swiftly to the sounds of gunfire only a few yards away—Parr grabbed President Ronald Reagan, thrusting the President by his back and shoulder into the open door of a waiting limousine. Once inside the car, Parr ordered the driver to take off, making a quick, passing glance at the chaos outside the limo. In that fleeting moment Parr saw wounded people on the sidewalk, and a ferocious struggle taking place between agents, police and others as the bullet-proof car sped away.

Reagan and his entourage were leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel when John W. Hinckley, Jr., who was standing in a small crowd along the sidewalk near a retaining wall, thrust a .22 caliber handgun between the torsos of reporters and cops and opened fire in the direction of the President. Bullets struck White House press secretary James Brady, D.C. metro police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy.

McCarthy, whom some consider one of the other heroes of the brief violent encounter, raised his arms, widened his stance, and stepped directly in front of the President, taking a bullet in the abdomen. Brady was struck in the head, Delahanty in the stomach. Presidential aide Mike Deaver, who ducked slightly at the sound of the first shot, recalls a bullet passing so closely over his bald head—only one sixteenth of an inch—that he felt its intense heat and the stream of air it displaced.

But it was Parr who may have ultimately saved Reagan’s life. Inside that speeding limo, Parr saw that Reagan had begun to spit up blood, first in small quantities, then more heavily. While reaching into the President’s jacket to feel for injuries on his torso and back and chest, Parr noticed also that the blood on Reagan’s chin and mouth was bright red—nearly a deep orange. Reagan and Parr each briefly assumed the President had broken a rib when Parr shoved him into the car, but Reagan had in fact been struck by one of those shots. Though neither Parr nor Reagan could know it yet, as a .22 caliber bullet was lodged in the President’s lung.

Parr, suspecting the worst as Reagan coughed up more blood, ordered the limo driver to divert to George Washington University Medical Center, which Parr knew, instinctively, was the closest emergency room and only minutes away. Though the initial press reports that day were that Reagan has sustained minor injuries, his life, in fact, was hanging by a thread. Reagan underwent surgery to remove the bullet and repair the wounds to his lung. He returned to the White House two weeks later.

Jerry Parr’s swift, forceful intervention saved Reagan’s life. Had there been any dithering inside the limo regarding the blood, Reagan—surgeons and doctors later said—would have died. Not only was Reagan upset that he had sustained “a broken rib,” he was also halfheartedly angry about the ruination of one of his newest, favorite suits, covered in blood, then moments later cut apart by emergency room nurses and doctors in the operating room.

For Parr, that violent incident outside the Hilton was a coming-full-circle moment in his life, and one of those inexplicable but ironic historical oddities.

As a kid, Parr sat in a movie theater watching a 1939 Hal Wallis mid-budget Warner Brothers potboiler called Code of the Secret Service, which starred Ronald Reagan as agent Brass Bancroft. Bancroft and his fellow agents are on the trail of a money-counterfeiting operation in Mexico, where criminals have taken stolen engraving plates and may already be cranking out hundreds of thousands in realistic-looking U.S. cash. That film was one of a short series of four short films—each about one hour long—in which Reagan portrayed the fictional agent Bancroft.

Those short movies, which Parr says he watched numerous times in the theater, were considered a key stepping stone in Reagan’s path toward stardom as a B-movie great. And those movies about the Secret Service also inspired the young Parr to choose his path in life—those that knew him said he made the decision right then and there to become an agent in the real life U.S. Secret Service, an agency that counts among its jobs the full time protection of the President and presidential candidates.

The bullet that struck Reagan’s chest had in fact arrived only after it glanced off the side of the bulletproof car. A detailed investigation, using the TV film footage of the incident, concluded that the bullet ricocheted from the side of the limo, and passed through the narrow opening between the doorframe and the open door. The bullet which struck McCarthy when he threw himself in front of the President would have hit Reagan in the stomach. Brady was the most seriously wounded of all those struck that day; the bullet which lodged in his brain required many hours of surgery to remove. His condition was so bad, that several TV networks reported that he had died that afternoon.

Brady, too, can be credited with saving Reagan’s life. Even before Hinckley had fired his first shot, the assassin was attempting to push his way forward between several reporters and a policeman, causing a brief scuffle and shouting. Brady, who as Press Secretary was instinctively tuned to listen to the shouts from reporters, knew something was amiss, and as he turned slightly, his large, bearish frame stepped into the path of Hinkley’s bullet. Brady was left partially paralyzed, and remained largely confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He and his wife Sarah became outspoken and tireless supporters of tougher U.S. gun laws, particularly handguns.

Parr testified about the events of March 30 in front of a Congressional committee later that same year. He retired from the U.S. Secret Service in 1986.

In California, Nancy Reagan released a statement saying that Parr had saved the life of her husband.

“Without Jerry looking after Ronnie on March 30, 1981,” the former first lady wrote, “I would have certainly lost my best friend and my roommate to an assassin’s bullet. Jerry was not only one of the finest Secret Service agents to ever serve this country, but one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever known.”

Parr was 85 at the time of his death, according to a statement released by his family. In his last year of life, Parr had suffered with congestive heart problems. Had Parr lived a few more days, he would have celebrated the 56th wedding anniversary to his wife Carolyn.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Washington Loses The Bear; Thursday Review Politics Page; Thursday Review; August 5, 2015.