As Secret Service Agent, Alumnus May Have Saved Reagan
After likely saving Reagan's life, Jerry Parr, M.S. '87, turned to counseling career
July 22, 2011
In the fall of 1939, 9-year-old Jerry Parr convinced his father to walk with him to the Tower Theater in Miami to catch a new motion picture, an action-adventure called The Code of the Secret Service. Young Jerry watched the film mesmerized, returning two or three times to see it again, dreaming that one day he’d grow up to be an agent just like Brass Bancroft, the hero played by Hollywood star Ronald Reagan.
Many years later, Parr’s dream came true. By March 30, 1981, Parr, M.S. ’87, had risen through the ranks of the Secret Service to become head of the White House detail. That afternoon, he made a split-second decision that likely saved the life of his childhood idol when would-be assassin John Hinckley’s bullet struck U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan under the arm. The experience influenced the rest of Parr’s life, playing a significant role in his decisions to become a minister and to earn a master’s degree in pastoral counseling at Loyola.
Cover and Evacuate
“It was such a boring, routine thing,” said Parr of the speech Reagan delivered at the Washington Hilton just moments before the shooting.
In fact, Parr had not planned on being with the president that day, but decided to go along in the hopes of building his relationship with Reagan, who had only been in office 69 days. “Another agent was supposed to go. But I had had one week with the president after the inauguration, and then of all times, they decided to send me to management school for seven weeks. So [I decided] I’d go with him, and be able to talk with him, because there are always issues. Every day they want to expose themselves, and we want to protect them.”
As Reagan exited the hotel and approached his car, shots rang out, striking White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the abdomen as he attempted to shield Reagan with his own body. One bullet hit the window of the limousine, while the sixth and final struck the president under his left arm, and soon lodged in his lung.
“Agents are taught, in an emergency, first, you cover. Cover, and evacuate,” said Parr. “So when I hear the first shot, my hands go up. I move myself over toward Hinckley, and my right hand is reaching up for [the president’s] head, to push him down, because he’s got to get into that car.”
Parr maneuvered the president into the limousine and quickly began assessing the extent of his injuries.
And it was in the backseat of that limo that Parr made a decision many credit with saving Reagan’s life. Secret Service protocol called for the car to head to the White House, the most secure location in the world. Instead, Parr looked at Reagan and directed the driver to George Washington University Hospital.
“He was pale, though lucid. His lips were turning a little bit blue. I didn’t have to be a doctor to sense someone really in trouble. There was no choice. He was bleeding so badly from his mouth. It was frothy, red blood. I’ve had other agents who were in my position before me say ‘Jerry, I’d have taken him to the White House first.’ I tell them, if you’d seen him, like I saw him, you’d have known that was the wrong place to go.”
Reagan’s personal physicians and doctors who treated him at George Washington agree that if Parr had gone first to the White House, Reagan would have been close to death by the time he arrived at the hospital.
“The real hero—and I give him every credit—is Tim McCarthy, who spread his big Irish body out there and takes one of those shots that certainly would have hit me or the president,” said Parr. “It happened on my watch. I feel responsible that [Hinckley] got that close in the first place.”
Path to the President
Parr followed a particularly unlikely path to the Secret Service. Then, as now, Secret Service agents needed to hold college degrees, which Parr never expected to earn. Instead, he took a job with Florida Power & Light right out of high school, and later joined the Air Force, where he served from 1950-54 on bases in Minnesota and Alaska. First assigned to the Air Police (now the U.S. Air Force Security Forces), Parr found his experience with the power company made him well-suited to the difficult and dangerous work of a lineman on the bases.
In October 1954, he left the Air Force, returned to his job at Florida Power & Light, and soon met his wife, Carolyn, with whom he would eventually have three daughters. The two relocated to Nashville, Tenn., shortly after their 1959 marriage so Carolyn could pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University. Taking classes there and at Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt, Parr completed his bachelor’s degree.
As his graduation approached, Parr successfully interviewed for positions with both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Secret Service, and he chose to join the Service. He moved to New York City in October 1962, the oldest rookie in his Secret Service class.
Parr’s career brought him in close contact with figures both extraordinary and infamous. He guarded Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother in Dallas in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He spent four years assigned to Hubert Humphrey, vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, in combination with covering visiting foreign dignitaries, including Yasser Arafat and Queen Elizabeth, and continued on to protect Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, and Walter Mondale during their vice presidential terms. In 1979, he assumed the leadership of the presidential detail assigned to protect President Jimmy Carter, a position he continued after Reagan’s election.
A Life of Faith
Parr’s personal faith remained a guiding force throughout his life, and influenced his career both during and following his time in the Secret Service.
Reagan, like Parr, was a member of the Disciples of Christ church, which believes that any person of faith can administer or receive the Eucharist. As Parr gazed at the president—who was intubated—as he waited for surgery, he wished he could have offered it as comfort.
“But I did look him in the eye, through his mask, and said ‘Lord, don’t let him die.’”
In December of 1981, Parr left the president’s detail for an assistant director’s job at Secret Service headquarters. He remained in the Service until 1985, but in 1983, his faith, combined with a passion for ideas, led Parr to enroll in Loyola’s graduate program in pastoral counseling, a discipline which blends professional counseling and spirituality.
“I love the contemplative life,” he said. “I always thought I was a right-brained agent in a left-brained organization. I always enjoyed poetry. I always saw things that other agents didn’t see.”
Even during his years as an agent, Parr realized he had a natural ability to offer comfort and counsel to his colleagues.
“I always had a tendency to talk to people,” said Parr. “I knew about therapy, but the Service was sort of against it in those days. The Service sort of let people wallow in their own pain and despair. So I became the guy who talked to agents, when their sons killed themselves, when their sons got hit by a car. I had a way about it. I didn’t talk much. But therapy isn’t talking much; it’s loving much. I let them in; then they let me in. I got a reputation for it.”
After finishing his degree, Parr began working as a counselor for Affiliated Community Counselors in Rockville, Md. While he spent 10 years with the organization, only two of his longest-term clients ever knew his history with the Secret Service. In 1989, he was ordained as a minister by the Church of the Savior, where he was co-pastor for 12 years. He still continues to offer counseling on an occasional basis to those going through divorces and other traumatic events.
A Born Rescuer
Parr says his experiences in the Secret Service made him well-suited to counsel clients in crisis, but he believes his real preparation for the role began much earlier.
“I knew I was a born rescuer,” said Parr. “The seed was there, from my mother and father. In our church, we have to do a spiritual autobiography, and I remembered my first two conscious memories. The first is being held close and safe by my mother in a car. The second is walking into the living room and seeing my father standing there, holding out his arms for me. And I know that if you haven’t been loved or touched by some significant other, you are in some deep trouble because it’s very hard to replace.”
Retired Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, M.S. ’87, recalls his brushes with death—only one of which was as an agent.
“When I graduated from high school, I went to work for Florida Power and Light as a grunt, which was a common word for a ground man, and I worked for them until the Korean War started, which was in June 1950. A month later, I joined the Air Force and was stationed in Finland, Minn., which is about 100 miles north of Duluth. It was a radar site. There were radar sites put all over the northern tier of the United States. Their radar looked deep into Canada.
I stayed in the Air Force up there for about two years, then I got transferred to another place, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. Before this experience, I had never seen snow. But for the four years from 1950-1954, I saw a lot of snow, a lot of bitterly cold winter.
I remembered a lot of how to do linework from working at the power company, even though I wasn’t a line man. So I helped them out at the base sometimes when they didn’t have anyone to climb the poles. I would go out there and change transformers out and things like that. When I got to Alaska, I decided to leave the military police, which was my military occupation, and I worked up there on the base as a line man. We repaired lines, built lines, took down old poles, put new ones up…sort of rudimentary stuff. But it was still dangerous work. You can get electrocuted, you can fall, or a pole can break with you on it.
In all my years of doing this work, I had about eight near-death experiences. I won’t bother you with telling you all of them. But in 13 years of line work, if you add them all up on the bases and back with the power company, that’s when I had those near-death experiences. I had a near-death experience when the president was shot. And then, on June 14, 2009, I had a cardiac arrest not far from here. What I had was bradycardia, my heart was slowing down, slowing down. If you don’t have a pacemaker that recognizes that, it can stop on you. And it did stop on me at the hospital for about nine seconds. And I came back from it. That’s been my last near-death experience…as far as I know.”