"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
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Memories of JFK assassination haunt former Secret Service agent and North Dakota native

Monday, October 10, 2011

MOORHEAD - Nov. 22, 1963, is on Clint Hill’s mind every day. The former Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jackie Kennedy the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated is still haunted with guilt nearly 50 years later.

By: Amy Dalrymple, INFORUM

MOORHEAD - Nov. 22, 1963, is on Clint Hill’s mind every day.

The former Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jackie Kennedy the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated is still haunted with guilt nearly 50 years later.

The Washburn, N.D., native and Concordia College graduate was on the running board of the car behind the presidential limousine in Dallas. He heard the first shot and jumped onto the presidential vehicle in an attempt to shield the Kennedys from gunshots. Hill made it just as the first lady was reaching for the top of Kennedy’s scalp.

He received recognition for “extraordinary courage and heroic effort in the face of maximum danger.”

But Hill, who battled depression and alcoholism for years as a result of that day, still wonders if he could have done more.

“I still have a sense of responsibility and a guilt feeling I should have been able to do more, because I was the only one who had that chance,” Hill said in an interview last week with The Forum.

Hill, who served five presidents during his time with the Secret Service, will return to Concordia this week to accept an Alumni Achievement Award.

“I tried to tell them that I didn’t think I was worthy of the honor, but they insisted,” said the 79-year-old, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Hill also will give a public talk on Wednesday night, along with Lisa McCubbin, co-author of “The Kennedy Detail,” which gives the Secret Service agents’ account of the assassination.

North Dakota native

Hill was born in 1932 in Larimore, N.D., and was adopted as a baby by Chris and Jennie Hill of Washburn.

Hill graduated from high school in Washburn and attended Concordia, where he majored in history and physical education and excelled at football and baseball.

After Hill graduated from Concordia in 1954, he served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence agent.

Hill’s Secret Service career began in 1958.

When Kennedy was elected, Hill anticipated he would be assigned to protect the president because he had been assigned to President Dwight Eisenhower.

He was shocked to learn that he’d instead be protecting the first lady.

“I was very upset about it,” Hill said. “I didn’t really want that assignment.”

But it turned out to be the best job in the Secret Service at the time, Hill said.

Jackie Kennedy and Hill built up a trust and became friends, though she always called him Mr. Hill, and he always called her Mrs. Kennedy.

“We shared secrets, and we got to know each other very well,” Hill said.

That historic day in Dallas was unusual because the first lady was campaigning with Kennedy, something she often shied away from doing.

During the motorcade, Hill was positioned behind Jackie Kennedy on the follow-up car and was scanning people taking photos from a grassy area off to the left.

Then he heard an explosive noise over his right shoulder, and his eyes scanned past the presidential vehicle.

“I saw the president grab at his throat and kind of move to his left. I knew something had happened,” Hill said.

“I jumped from the follow-up car and ran toward the presidential vehicle,” he said. “My attempt was to get on the back of the presidential car and place my body above the president and Mrs. Kennedy so that I would shield them from anything that was a possibility of happening.

“There was a second shot, apparently, but I didn’t hear it because I was running.

“Then the third shot happened just as I was approaching the presidential vehicle. I slipped, had to regain my steps, got up on the car. The president had been hit in the upper right rear of his head with that third shot.

“There were blood and brain matter and bone fragments throughout the entire area, including myself. He slumped to his left. Mrs. Kennedy came up from her seat onto the trunk of the car trying to grab some of the material that came off his head. … I grabbed her and put her back into her seat. When I did that, the president’s body fell into her lap.

“The right side of his face was up, and I could see his eyes were fixed. There was a hole in the upper right rear of his head. It appeared to me that he was dead.”

Hill gave a thumbs-down to the follow-up car, and agents yelled to the lead driver to go to Parkland Hospital. Hill continued lying on the back of the car to shield the Kennedys as the car sped 80 mph to the hospital.

‘Downward spiral’

After the assassination, Hill continued to be assigned to the first lady and the children until the election.

He was then assigned to President Lyndon Johnson and served him during the tumultuous time that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Hill also protected Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

In 1970, a promotion had Hill working an administrative desk job, and for the first time since the assassination, he had time to think. That day in Dallas was never far from his mind.

“I gradually deteriorated emotionally, and that affected my physical well-being,” Hill said.

In 1975, doctors said he wasn’t fit for the Secret Service, and he retired at age 43.

Hill returned to North Dakota and worked on his sister’s farm for about six weeks, “trying to get everything out.”

That year, he also spoke about the assassination for the first time in a famous interview with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes.” Prior to that, Hill hadn’t talked about that day with anyone, not even his family.

Hill’s emotional state only worsened in his retirement.

“By 1976, I was once again in a downward spiral, and that lasted until 1982,” Hill said. “I had a great big bottle of scotch and a carton of cigarettes, and I laid on a couch in my very dark basement.”

Then in 1982, a doctor told Hill he either had to change or die.

“I decided I wanted to live,” Hill said.

Without any help, Hill quit drinking and did some security work for Chrysler, Mesa Petroleum and Billy Graham during the 1980s.

Decades after the assassination, Hill was still not talking about that day. He declined to be interviewed in 2003 for the 40th anniversary of the event.

“I didn’t want to talk about any of this type of thing and never did,” Hill said. “We as agents never talked about the assassination among ourselves. I never discussed it with any member of my family.”

Then fellow Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine and journalist Lisa McCubbin began working on the book “The Kennedy Detail.”

Hill said McCubbin convinced him that it would benefit history if he revealed details of that day from his perspective.

Contributing to the book proved to be beneficial for Hill, and he’s now talking more openly about that day for the first time, nearly 50 years later.

Hill and McCubbin also are collaborating on a book, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” that will be published in the spring of 2012.

In 1990, Hill did something he wishes he would have done earlier: He returned to Dallas and walked Dealey Plaza and looked out the window of the sixth floor.

“I came to the conclusion that on that particular day, because of everything involved, the weather, the angle of the building, the way the street was configured and the way the motorcade was running at the time that I did everything I could, and I really couldn’t have done any more than that,” Hill said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590

If you go

  • What: Speech by former Secret Service agent Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin, co-author of “The Kennedy Detail”
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
  • Where: Concordia Knutson Campus Center Centrum
  • Info: The event is free and open to the public. A Q&A session and book signing will follow.

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