Former Secret Service agent preserves painful JFK history
By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
Former Secret Service agent Bill Carter gave Union City Rotarians a rare glimpse recently of the persona of late President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy, he said, had a bond with his Secret Service detail that no other president before or since his death has achieved.
“He was a guy who, although he was a politician, was incredible,” said Carter, who was guest speaker at a Union City Rotary Club luncheon last week at the Hampton Centré. He was accompanied by his wife, Marlow.
Kennedy, he said, had a way of speaking to anyone on the appropriate level and put him or her at ease right away. “He reminded me of sailors I have known. He would get down to your level and talk about things that presidents don’t normally talk about,” Carter said. “He’d want to know what was going on back in your hometown, or he’d ask about your family. He made you feel like you were kind of buddies.”
But all that, and more, much more, ended at noon Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas as Kennedy rode in a convertible in a parade through downtown with Texas Gov. John Connally and Mrs. Connally. JFK’s wife, Jacqueline, was also in the vehicle. Two shots rang out — from a rifle in the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had taken a position at a window on the fifth floor of the Texas Book Depository and waited for the motorcade to approach — and the president slumped over, mortally stricken, as it turned out a few minutes later. Vice president Lyndon Baines Johnson ascended to the presidency, taking the oath of office on board Air Force One, which carried the body of the late president to Washington.
“We were all attached to John Kennedy. His loss was a severe trauma to all of us,” Carter said.
Carter was assigned to President Johnson during the four days of the state funeral accorded John Kennedy. Carter also accompanied the slain president’s body to the Capitol rotunda, where it lay in state 24 hours and where thousands of mourners filed by in stoic silence to pay last respects.
Carter was later assigned to Dallas as part of a team of federal agents investigating the assassination.
Born and raised at Rector, Ark., Carter served in the U.S. Air Force 1953-57 and earned a bachelor of science degree at Arkansas State University and a law degree at the University of Arkansas. In 1962, he entered the U.S. Secret Service and stayed with that agency until 1969, when he retired to go into private practice.
He says he did not intentionally join the Secret Service, that it was one of those things in life that just happened. Here’s the situation, which has a comical flair, to say the least. Carter went with his brother to Dallas, where his brother was scheduled to take a civil service test. Carter was just along for the ride. He was broke, true, but he was not looking for a government job.
“While he was taking the test, a lady came out and said, ‘Are you taking the test?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just here with my brother. I’m not interested in taking the test.’
“She got a little sassy and said, ‘You just going to sit out here the whole time while he takes the test and do nothing?’ I told her that’s what I kind of planned on doing. She said, ‘Maybe you should come in and take the test. It may be a good experience for you’ And I did. I told her, ‘I’ll take the test but I’m not interested in no government job.’
“Well, about six months later, I’d run out of money in law school and was looking for a job. I got a phone call from the resident agent of the Secret Service. He said, ‘I understand you’re looking for a job.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am, but how did you know?’ He asked, ‘Is this your social security number?’ I said yes, it is. He said, ‘Well, are you interested in the job for not?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for one.’ He said to come on down for an interview.
“So I wound up in the Secret Service. Nothing planned. It just happened. All my life I’ve never planned a single event. I’d come to a crossroads, sometimes I took the wrong turn, but if I did, I knew it. I think someone has been looking after my life, some angel who has guided my life. I’ve been blessed throughout my life.”
Writing a book
Carter has written a book about the story of his life, and he urges everyone else to do likewise. Do it with pen and paper or cassette recorder or video recorder. Whatever. But do it. “When my parents had passed on, I realized how many questions I would have loved to have asked them,” he said. “They were not well educated and they never volunteered much to me in their lives. I know very little about my family’s past, and there’s so many stories they could have shared if I’d just taken the time to ask. And I think your children and grandchildren would appreciate your recording some of those thoughts for future generations.”
Preserving history is important, Carter emphasizes. He said he wrote his book for his own children, “who never asked me about Kennedy.”
“I never talked about it, but they never questioned me about it, either,” he said. “And I wanted to preserve that (history). When I first started, I had to go to the National Archives at Washington for research. I became a part of that history and I wanted to preserve what I knew about it for my children.
“When Kennedy was killed, it was such a trauma. You’ve heard of men in World War II or in different wars not wanting to talk about friends killed in their presence. They don’t want to talk about it when they come back.
“And I kind of understood that from the Kennedy death. Because the guys who served with him had a bond with him they’d never had with any other president, except maybe Harry Truman.”
Published in The Messenger 5.2.08