Thomas 'Lem' Johns dies at 88; Secret Service agent for LBJ

Thomas 'Lem' Johns dies at 88; Secret Service agent for LBJ
In this Nov. 22, 1963, file photo provided by the White House, Thomas "Lem" Johns, background at right, watches as President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, console Jacqueline Kennedy, right, moments after Johnson was administered the oath of office in the cabin of the presidential plane at Love Field in Dallas after President Kennedy's assassination. (Cecil Stoughton / White House)

Thomas "Lem" Johns, a Secret Service agent who protected Lyndon B. Johnson as he was sworn in as president on Air Force One in the chaotic aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination, has died. He was 88.

Grandson Michael Johns said the former agent died Saturday at his home in Hoover, Ala., of natural causes.


Lem Johns served more than two decades in the Secret Service, including time as the special agent in charge of the president's detail during the Johnson administration.

In iconic photos from Nov. 22, 1963, he is a watchful presence aboard the presidential plane during the hastily arranged ceremony in which Johnson took the reins of office. Another photo shows him looking on as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is consoled by Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.

Johns was assigned to Johnson's security detail at the time of the shooting and was riding in the motorcade when the shots were fired.

In a 2013 interview with WBRC-TV in Birmingham, Ala., he recalled hearing the shots from several cars back and seeing people duck during the chaos that ensued. At Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital, he said he "walked right past the presidential limousine.... Saw the blood on the back seat. Flowers everywhere. I know I can't block it out."

In a 1986 piece for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Valenti, who was in the motorcade as a Democratic political consultant, recalled Johns approaching him as the grim scene at Parkland unfolded.

"The vice president wants you with him, Mr. Valenti," Johns told him. "I am to transport you to Air Force One immediately."

"Johns and I commandeered a police cruiser and a driver who must have been related to A.J. Foyt," Valenti, who was soon to become an LBJ aide, wrote. "We caromed off the curb and flew several feet off the surface of the highway to Love Field."

The aircraft was in a remote corner, ringed by three circles of guards. The swearing-in photos that would be taken inside, with Johnson solemnly standing beside a grieving Jackie Kennedy, were immediate signals that the highest power in the U.S. government had been transferred in a lawful and orderly manner.

Johns was followed into the Secret Service by his son Joseph Jefferson Johns, who helped protect Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and by grandson Michael, who has served presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 11, 1925, Thomas Lemuel Johns served in World War II with the U.S. Naval Air Corps. He attended the University of Alabama and later graduated from Howard College, now Samford University.

In the early years of his government career, he pursued moonshiners for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In 1954, he joined the Secret Service, serving in Birmingham and Chicago before an assignment to the White House detail in the last two years of the Eisenhower administration.

He became head of the White House detail in 1965 and an assistant director of the Secret Service two years later. In 1969, he returned to Alabama and headed the service's Birmingham field office until his retirement from the department in 1976.

He returned to Washington as special assistant to Joseph Califano, the secretary of heath, education and welfare, from 1977 to 1980.

Johns' survivors include Nita, his wife of 67 years; son Joseph Jefferson, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.