When Jerry Parr was growing up in Miami in the 1930s, he watched Ronald Reagan as Lt. Brass Bancroft in "Code of the Secret Service." In the film, Secret Service agent Bancroft chases counterfeiters across the Mexican border, is wrongly charged with the death of a fellow agent, breaks out of jail, overpowers his captors, arrests the ringleader, gets the girl and lives happily ever after.
More than 40 years later, the actor has become President and the boy his bodyguard. And on March 30, 1981, mild-mannered Secret Service agent Jerry Parr was thrust briefly into the Hollywood-like role of American hero, saving Reagan's life with a solid shove and some quick thinking when John W. Hinckley Jr. fired six bullets in the President's direction.
After 23 years with the Secret Service, Parr retires today. For the man who, as a boy, watched newsreels of presidents and dreamed not of being President but of being the President's bodyguard, retirement comes "with a certain sense of loss, but also a certain sense of completion."
Looks Like Walter Matthau
Parr, a beetle-browed Walter Matthau look-alike who leaves the service as assistant director for protective research, was most prominently in the public eye as chief of the White House detail from 1978 to 1981, serving as a flesh-and-blood shield first for Jimmy Carter and then for Reagan.
A decade earlier, he escorted presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic National Convention when Vietnam War protesters clashed with Chicago police. He was with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in 1973 when Agnew resigned his office. He has protected foreign guests as diverse as Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
Protecting VIPs from every conceivable threat, Parr said recently, "is like eating a chicken gizzard. The more you chew it, the bigger it gets."
Parr is an anomaly in an agency noted for its armor-plated personalities. He has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Vanderbilt University, is studying for a master's degree in pastoral counseling at Baltimore's Loyola College and is part of a counseling group at Heritage Christian Church in Washington.
He is one part philosopher who quotes the monk Thomas Merton: "Life is lived in the vast complexity of the gray." And he is one part Secret Service agent who says such things as: "Secure a perimeter."
In describing Parr, people use language reminiscent of the Boy Scout handbook: low-key, reasonable, professional, unflappable.
"He was just a delight," former President Carter recalled in an interview. "He worked very well with his subordinates and they respected him. Without being intrusive, he was personal and sensitive to our family."
Mike Pohl, a member of Carter's White House press staff, said: "He's the type of guy you'd love to spend more time with."
That is particularly true if you are the type of person others aim guns at.
Parr's face was frozen for posterity in the most familiar photograph of 1981, taken an instant after Hinckley's .22-caliber handgun shattered the calm drizzle outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Visible over the top of the presidential limousine are Parr and Reagan. Parr is grimacing, his eyebrows arched, left hand against the left shoulder of a recoiling Reagan. As the President begins to turn to look for his attacker, Parr has eyes only for the inside of the bullet-proof limousine.
'Gunfire Is the Starter'
This is what Parr calls his "counter-instinctive behavior."
"If you were running track, you would not turn and look at the starter," he said. "The gunfire is the starter. You know you have a problem. You don't need to look over there."
Parr landed on top of Reagan, who hit the car's transmission hump hard. Reagan didn't know a flattened Devastator slug had bounced off a rib and lodged an inch from his heart.
After telling the driver to go back to the White House, Parr ran his hands over Reagan's body, feeling for injury. He found none. Then he noticed bright red blood on Reagan's lips, which his Secret Service medical training told him must have come from the President's lungs. He told the driver to head for George Washington University Hospital.
Doctors credited Parr's decision with saving the life of the President, who had already lost three pints of blood when he staggered into the emergency room.
Visit With Monks
Parr saw his job as more than isolating the President in a cocoon. A Carter aide recalls an overseas trip on which the former President wanted to go to an island near Venice to talk with an order of monks. At midnight, while Carter slept, staff members broached the idea with Parr. At 1:15 a.m., Parr and the staff members took a boat to the island and woke up the monks, who said they would be glad to meet Carter at 6 a.m.
"Those were the things, if you pulled it on a normal agent, they would just give you a flat no," Pohl said. "He could have found 11 reasons why it couldn't be done. Jerry was willing to go that extra step."
Parr betrays no political preference. He is careful to remain neutral toward his past employers, noting only their "common humanity."
"We are very close to the political process," he said, "but we have to remain aloof."
Moment With Reagan
Parr will be feted by his Secret Service colleagues at a dinner Feb. 27 and will have a personal moment with Reagan earlier that day. He made a special trip to the White House two weeks ago to say goodby to Nancy Reagan.
Parr plans to continuing living on his two-acre spread in Travilah, Md., with his wife and three daughters. At 54--Secret Service agents may retire after only 20 years on the job--he may set up shop as a security consultant.
"Sometimes when people retire, they die," he said. "I'm willing to see what unfolds for me out there. I want to look back with a sense of integrity . . . and see that it all had some meaning. Otherwise, you look back with despair."