On Nov. 22, 1963, Geraldine Facey and her mother, Alma Broderson, who had come from Larimore, N.D., to visit her youngest daughter near Seattle, watched in common horror with the rest of America as television reporters broadcast the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
Neither woman had any idea the lone Secret Service agent they saw on the back of the President’s Lincoln limousine after the shooting, reaching for First Lady Jackie Kennedy, was her older brother, her youngest son.
Clint Hill, the sunglassed Secret Service agent whose profile became burned in the nation’s memory of that day, only recently began talking about the horror of it.
And even more recently he’s talked about his connections to North Dakota, especially his unrelated twin links to Larimore through both his birth mother and the family that adopted him.
For years after the assassination, Hill was in a deep depression, suffering what now is known as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“I spent 1972 to 1982 on the couch in my basement, with a bottle of scotch in one hand — Dewar’s, usually — and a carton of cigarettes in the other,” Hill said last month while visiting his alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, which honored him. “Guys would come over, Secret Service agents, and try to talk to me and I wouldn’t even get off the couch.”
He thought about suicide a lot, he says.
Forced to retire for his health from the Secret Service in 1975, Hill says he spiraled down even faster with nothing to do.
In the early 1980s his doctor told him he soon would die unless he stopped the free-fall and he pulled himself out of the pits.
Just in time to finally meet, shortly before she died, the woman who gave birth to him and to find another family he hadn’t known about.
Adopted by “marvelous people”
Hill grew up in Washburn, N.D., just north of Bismarck, adopted in 1932 as an infant in Fargo by Chris and Jenny Hill who already had adopted a girl, Janice, in 1927, in Grand Forks.
“They were marvelous people and really gave me a chance in life,” Hill said. “I couldn’t have been adopted by a finer couple than Chris and Jenny Hill. They devoted their life to Janice and myself.”
Little was said to Hill of his origins.
“When I was very young, maybe six years old, a neighbor girl told me I was adopted. I didn’t know what that meant. I went to my mother and asked her. My mother became quite upset. She thought I would think that I wasn’t wanted, or wasn’t really her son. So after that, my sister or I never made any mention of it.”
After Concordia, Hill was drafted into the Army and served three years in intelligence; he joined the Secret Service in 1958.
His sister Janice had also attended Concordia, worked in Grand Forks, then married Oben Gunderson, a farmer from northwest of Larimore and they raised three children.
Hill visited the Gundersons over the years, finding respite working on their farm near Larimore, getting away from his post-assassination trauma.
His father Chris Hill died when Clint was still young. Mother Jenny Hill died in 1974, in the hospital in Northwood, N.D., near Larimore, where his sister Janice — who died in 2002 — had brought her toward the end.
Learning about Alma
Some years after Jenny Hill’s death, a friend in North Dakota knowing of his adoption gave Hill a copy of his birth certificate.
For the first time, he learned the name of his birth mother, Alma Paulson, and that he was born in Larimore.
He learned his mother was born Alma Peterson in Fosston, Minn., in 1893.
“My mother was married to a man named Paulson and had five children before I was born,” Hill said. The oldest, Clarence, was born in 1910.
Alma’s marriage to Henry Paulson ended about 1930.
While she was working at the Violet Hotel in Larimore, she gave birth in January 1932 to the boy who would become Clint Hill. Within weeks, she gave him up to the Fargo Children’s Home.
“So I never did really know who my father was,” Hill said. “I have a suspicion, based on information from one of my sisters, that it was a man my mother worked for, or his brother, whose last name was Vassau.”
After he was adopted, his mother Alma married George Broderson and had another child, Geraldine, in 1934, Hill learned.
Searching for an Alma Broderson in Larimore in 1983, Hill learned from a local Lutheran pastor that she was in the nursing home in nearby Northwood.
(By an unlikely coincidence, the nursing home was part of the same hospital where Hill’s adoptive mother, Jenny Hill, died in 1974.)
Hill found Alma’s room.
“She was in there, asleep or unconscious. I looked at things she had on the wall and realized she had children. I was about ready to walk out when a lady walked in and said ‘What are you doing here? Who are you?’ She told me she was (Alma’s) daughter, her name was Helen. I explained to her who I was and she just about fainted. She knew her mother had had a child back in the early 1930s. Helen was about 16 at the time.”
Meeting a new family
It was an emotional moment for the matter-of-fact-mannered Hill.
“That day I discovered I had a family. I didn’t realize it.”
In 1984, he met Geraldine Facey, Alma’s last child, less than two years younger than Clint.
“She had no idea,” Hill said.
Facey knew her Paulson half-siblings, but says her mother never told her about having a baby in 1932.
“I didn’t find out about him until I was 50. It was really something, just the idea I had another sibling,” Facey said last week from her home in Marysville, Wash., just north of Seattle. “He looks like my Mom, from the picture I have of him. I have only seen him once.”
Hill also met Paulsons in and around Larimore, grandchildren of his mother from her first marriage, as well as his half-brother, Clarence Paulson, who died in 1986.
Everett Paulson of Larimore, also saw a family resemblance in his “new” uncle.
“Clint looked like my grandmother Alma.”
Facey can’t forget that day in 1963, too, that made her brother Clint a hero in the eyes of the nation, recognized for his courage and duty.
“I know exactly where I was, what I was doing, when I think back,” Facey said last week. “I was in my home and my mother was there with me. She was visiting with us. We both sat and watched it.”
Yet both had no inkling that the Secret Service agent they saw on the president’s limo and near Jackie Kennedy that long weekend into the funeral was their kin.
“She didn’t know, because I didn’t know,” Facey said of their mother, Alma. “I remember seeing it happen and I had no idea that was my brother. I didn’t know anything about him.”
Hill isn’t sure his birth mother ever realized who he was.
“At the time I met her, she had had a couple of strokes and didn’t have the ability to talk. I don’t know if she knew who I was at all.”
Alma died in 1984 in Northwood shortly after Hill’s visit.
She is buried in Bellevue Cemetery on the hill north of Larimore.
Gene Swanson and her family lived next door to Alma Broderson in the mid-1950s.
“She was a very sweet lady,” said Swanson, who heard only in recent years about the Clint Hill connection and that Alma would weep at times over the baby boy she had to give up. “She didn’t have a lot, no doubt about that,” Swanson said. “She babysat my son, Ron, when he was about three. Ron used to stand in the window, waiting for her and when he saw her, he would say, ‘Here comes my Broderson.’ He really liked her.”
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