Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent in charge of Ronald Reagan’s detail who was credited with saving the president’s life during the 1981 assassination attempt, has died. He was 85.
He died Friday in a hospice in Washington, according to his wife, Carolyn Parr. The cause was congestive heart failure.
Reagan was 70 days into his first term when he was shot by John W. Hinckley Jr. while leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel after a speech. At the sound of gunfire, Parr shoved him into the back of the presidential limousine and shouted “take off!” to the driver. As the limo raced on Parr’s orders to the White House, the agent inspected Reagan and found no visible wounds. Moments later, the president began complaining of chest pain and the agent noticed blood on Reagan’s lips.
Parr redirected the limo to George Washington University Hospital where the president collapsed just steps inside the trauma center’s doors. Doctors determined Reagan was suffering massive internal bleeding. The president went on to lose more than half of his blood before surgery halted the hemorrhaging. Reagan’s doctors credited Parr’s actions for saving his life.
“If Jerry Parr took the president to the White House, Ronald Reagan would have died,” said Joseph Giordano, who was the top trauma surgeon at George Washington University Hospital where Reagan was treated. “There is no doubt in my mind. Jerry Parr is a hero.”
Joseph Clancy, director of the Secret Service, said in an e-mail that those who knew Parr “will forever be able to lean on the lessons of integrity, character and compassion that Jerry displayed at all times.”
In a 2011 interview, Parr said the attempt on Reagan’s life was “my best day and my worst day.” He blamed complacency among security agents for allowing Hinckley to get so close to the president and fire all six rounds from his revolver before being subdued.
Three others were wounded. White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, who suffered a grievous head wound, died in 2014 from complications from his injury.
D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty was struck in the back and forced to retire. Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy took a bullet in the chest that would have hit Parr or Reagan, recovered and returned to his job.
Jerry Studstill Parr was born Sept. 16, 1930, in Montgomery, Alabama, the only child of Oliver Parr, a cash register repairman and Patricia Studstill, a beautician. After the family moved to Miami, his parents divorced.
The future agent’s course in life was set when his father took him to see the 1939 film “The Code of the Secret Service” starring Ronald Reagan as a dashing lieutenant in the force who smashes a counterfeiting ring. Though Reagan judged the film the worst he ever made, it left a lasting impression on the 9-year-old Parr.
After a stint in the U.S. Air Force and 13 years working as a lineman for an electric company, Parr in 1962 joined the Secret Service. When President John F. Kennedy was slain, Parr was dispatched to Dallas for several weeks to guard the wife and mother of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1964, he moved to Washington and served in the vice presidential details for Hubert Humphrey, Spiro Agnew and Walter Mondale. He was with Agnew when he resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to charges of tax evasion while governor of Maryland.
For six months beginning in October 1973, Parr guarded Vice President Gerald Ford. The two attempts on Ford’s life occurred after he became president. In August 1979, Parr was tapped to supervise agents guarding President Jimmy Carter.
Parr left the White House in 1982 when he was promoted to assistant director of protective research. He retired in 1985, became a pastor and co-authored a 2013 memoir, “In the Secret Service,” with his wife.
The assassination attempt cemented a bond between the Reagans and Parr.
Reagan’s wife, Nancy, said Friday that Parr was “one of my true heroes.”
“He was humble but strong, reserved but confident, and blessed with a great sense of humor,” she said in a statement. “It is no wonder that he and my husband got along so well.”
After Parr’s retirement, he visited the Oval Office, where the wisecracking Reagan said: “You aren’t going to throw me over the couch are you?”
His survivors include his wife, whom he married in 1959, and their three daughters. He lived in Washington.