At 2:35 pm on March 30, 1981, seventy days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan exited the presidential limousine, buttoned his suit jacket, walked 45 feet towards the George Washington Hospital Emergency Room, and promptly collapsed. Five minutes earlier, six shots had rung out, and unbeknownst to himself nor his security detail, one bullet had ricocheted off the limousine, flattening into a disc, and then entered Reagan’s chest as he had lifted his arms instinctively upon hearing the shots. The bullet had lodged itself in Reagan’s lung, less than an inch away from his heart, in the moment that the Special Agent in Charge threw him into the limousine. In the tumult after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, the seemingly unscathed Reagan was set to head back to the White House. Yet within 80 seconds of the shooting, one man overrode that decision; making Reagan the fifth president to be shot and the only to survive it. That man’s name was Jerry Parr, and the story of his journey to becoming the head of the Secret Service and saving Ronald Reagan’s life is as cinematic as it was serendipitous.
Jerry Parr’s interest in a career in the secret service was ignited, when, as a boy, he saw the 1939 film Code of the Secret Service several times. The nine-year-old Parr knew he wanted to be just like agent “Brass” Bancroft, played in the film by Ronald Reagan. Reagan called the film the “worst picture I ever made,” even remarking that “never had an egg of such dimensions been laid.” Amazingly, forty-two years later, Parr, now Special Agent in Charge, would find himself saving the life of the man who had inspired that dream: the President of the United States.
Parr was born in 1930, and grew up during the Depression with an unemployed alcoholic father (who took him to the movies), and a life further interrupted by his mother’s subsequent two marriages to abusive men. Though born in Alabama, he spent most of his turbulent childhood in Florida, and after struggling through high school, Parr took a job with Florida Power and Light, becoming a lineman. This job was highly dangerous and required quick-thinking; Parr, who survived several near-death incidents on the job, served as pallbearer for eight of his colleagues.
Parr became the first member of his family to attend university when he moved to Nashville in 1959 and enrolled at Vanderbilt. It was the same year he married Carolyn Miller, who would later become a judge. By the time Parr graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy, he was a father. Later that year, a recruiter for the Secret Service came to town, and Parr, having experienced serious occupational hazards as a lineman, was undeterred by the risk involved in becoming an agent; at 32, he was the oldest rookie in his class.
Parr served in the Secret Service for twenty-three years, protecting presidents, vice presidents, and over fifty foreign heads of state. At the time of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Parr, fifty at the time, was Special Agent in Charge and Head of the White House Detail, and supervised over 100 agents a day. For some inexplicable reason, on March 30, 1981, Parr decided to ride with the president.
During his tenure as Assistant Director of the Secret Service, Parr began a Master’s program in Pastoral Counseling, and eventually founded the Festival Church after his ordination in 1989. In his written statement of the assassination attack, Parr wrote “while I went in with a Democrat and out with a Republican, it didn’t make much difference to me—they were both Presidents of the United States.” In a twist of Reagan being Parr’s boyhood hero, written at the top of Parr’s accounting of the Reagan assassination attempt, Reagan inscribed “Jerry Parr is my hero!” Parr died in October of 2015 of heart congestion in a hospice near his home.