In memoriam: Robert R. Faison, 1929-2011


As U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's highly guarded car rounds the corner taking him on "L" street and then to the Capitol building he lost balance, but regained it with the help of Mrs. Edmund Brown, wife of California governor, Sept. 17, 1964, in Sacramento, Calif. Secret Service agent Robert Faison is at far left. (ASSOCIATED PRESS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
December 15, 2011

In the spring of 1963, Special Agent Robert R. Faison was permanently assigned to President John Kennedy’s Secret Service protection detail. For any agent, rising to this elite level was an undeniable achievement, but for Faison, as the first African American to hold this post, it was groundbreaking. Hardworking and strongly convinced, as he told his son, that a black man must push to be better than average, Faison reached this position by employing the same determination that made him one of the youngest first sergeants in the Korean War at the age of 22.

Faison was hired by the Secret Service in 1962 and by the next year quickly promoted to the ultimate assignment: protecting the president. Still, he was not exempt from America’s harsh racial climate. He received the prestigious appointment the same year that four black girls were killed in the Birmingham bombing; the same year civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered. It was also the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

As one of the first black men ever hired as a special agent, he faced challenges being perceived as an equal among peers. He learned that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover questioned Kennedy on the wisdom of trusting his life to a black man. And for Faison, traveling also proved difficult. The night before Kennedy was assassinated, the protection detail checked into the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth to await Kennedy’s arrival from Dallas. A clerk told them they would have to make other arrangements for the Negro, according to Gerald Blaine, a former special agent and co-author of the book “The Kennedy Detail.” One of the agents informed the hotel clerk that if Faison couldn’t stay, the detail wouldn’t stay, and if they didn’t, neither would Kennedy. The clerk quickly changed his mind.

While Faison had close relationships with his wife and two sons, his professional life was largely a mystery to his family and friends. They asked him about the presidents he protected, but Faison refused to answer. He kept piles of career mementos that begged for accompanying stories, such as a signed photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy or the picture of Faison running alongside President Lyndon Johnson’s motorcade. But his sons learned to be satisfied with shirts brought home from around the world — and no details.

In 1995, cancer claimed Faison’s first wife, Dorothy. Two years later, he married Jacquelyn McGee. “Coming into his life in the last 16 years, I had a lot of questions,” she says. “I learned early on in my relationship with him that there were some things that he was simply not going to talk about.” His reticence, however, never created problems for his conversations; people found him easy to talk to. “He would much rather listen than speak,” Jacquelyn Faison says. “He always gave you the chance to talk about yourself, rather than for him to talk.”

Though Faison was reluctant to share the particulars of his professional life, it was clear that he loved his work. In fact, he had difficulty transitioning into retirement. For weeks after leaving his position in 1982, he continued to get up in the morning and dress for business, sitting around the house in a shirt and tie. It wasn’t long before he returned to the Secret Service, where he spent the next several years as a contractor, conducting background investigations for prospective agents from his basement office.

After several years of struggling with recurring cancer, it became obvious to Faison that he was nearing the end of his fight. He recognized the signs, having lost both a wife and son to cancer; his eldest son, Gregory, succumbed to the disease in 1997. Though Faison’s health was declining, he was reluctant to relinquish his love of traveling, so Faison and his wife embarked on a jazz cruise to the Caribbean in early 2011. But Faison wasn’t strong enough to tour the islands as they had so many times before, and they had oxygen delivered to the cabin. Their new limitations led Faison and his wife to a difficult conclusion.

“I realized then, and I think he realized, that that was going to be our last cruise together,” Jacquelyn says. After their return, Faison turned his energies to a subject he had long tried to avoid: himself. He set to work on his own obituary.

As Faison saw it, he was the only one who could tell his story, since no one knew the details as he did. He worked quietly from their family room, sitting at the round table at which he regularly toiled over the bills and balanced their accounts. Using a yellow legal pad, he began to reconstruct the facts of his life. “Robert R. Faison,” he began, “affectionately known as Bob, was born in Montclair, New Jersey on August 12, 1929. ...

For weeks he worked on a draft. He wrote about the small Southern town where he was raised (Seaboard, N.C.), and the cousin who took him in and treated him as her own; the university where he graduated from with honors (North Carolina A&T), and the prestigious fraternity that he was an active member of for 51 years (Alpha Phi Alpha). He wrote of his pride in being promoted to chief warrant officer, and acknowledged the church he and Jacquelyn had joined after leaving Silver Spring for retirement in Palm Coast, Fla. He remembered those he loved and lost, and those who were left behind to “cherish his memory.”

Regarding his profession, he wrote, “He was the first African American permanently assigned to the White House and had the pleasure of serving six U.S. presidents during his career and traveled to more than 30 countries until he retired in 1995.”

A month before he died, Faison presented the legal pad to Jacquelyn, who was surprised but relieved. The draft was so thorough that she typed it verbatim, and used it in the programs at two of the three of the services held in his honor. The only addition she made was one her husband, so modest and matter of fact, would never have included. Robert Faison “was the epitome of a gentleman, loving, kind and always good-natured.”

Robin Rose Parker is a writer living in Maryland. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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