Jerry S. Parr, the quick-thinking and fast-moving Secret Service agent who was credited with saving the life of President Ronald Reagan after the 1981 assassination attempt in Washington, died Oct. 9 at a hospice center near his home in Washington. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Carolyn Parr.
Mr. Parr had been an electric-power lineman before his Secret Service years and was a clergyman in retirement. But he was best known for the fraught moments after gunfire erupted March 30, 1981, as the president was leaving the Washington Hilton hotel.
In that time of chaos, Mr. Parr seemed the epitome of the firm-jawed man of action: forceful, resolute, decisive.
At the president’s side when the shots resounded, Mr. Parr did not immediately look for the gunman, John W. Hinckley Jr. Instead, according to accounts, Mr. Parr placed his hand on Reagan’s shoulder and pushed the president into an awaiting limousine.
The vehicle pulled away from the hotel, leaving behind a scene of blood and tumult. Also severely wounded by gunfire had been White House press secretary James S. Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty.
Although Mr. Parr and the president were moving swiftly away from the carnage, shielded by the armor of a bulletproof vehicle, the agent’s responsibilities were far from over. Carefully, he ran his hands over Reagan’s body, searching for bullet wounds. He found none.
Then he recognized the ominous signs: The president complained about pain in his chest, and there was blood on Reagan’s lips.
Mr. Parr immediately ordered that the limo be driven to George Washington University Hospital instead of the White House. The president survived, but he had a close call.
“If Jerry hadn’t made the change,” first lady Nancy Reagan later told CNN host Larry King, “I wouldn’t have a husband.”
Doctors, noting the president’s severe loss of blood, sometimes reported as three pints, have agreed with that assessment.
In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Mr. Parr was hailed for his cool capacity to confront danger and steer a path to safety. But the skills, instincts and abilities he demonstrated then gave an incomplete picture of his character and personality.
Among those who knew him inside and outside the Secret Service, he was regarded as a patient man willing to hear out the troubled, to keep confidences and try to suggest a course of action.
He was called on so often to play the part of wise adviser, his wife said, that after retiring from the Secret Service in 1985, he obtained a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola University in Baltimore and became co-pastor of the ecumenical Festival Church in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Jerry Studstill Parr was born in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 16, 1930, and he grew up in the Miami area. His spent time as a lineman for Florida Power and Light. It was often hazardous work, and he was a pallbearer at the funerals of eight colleagues.
When he applied to join the Secret Service in 1962, soon after graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he was asked at an interview about what motivated him to assume the perils of the job.
As he recalled it, his wife said, he replied that he did not expect the work to be as dangerous as what he had been doing for the power company.
In fact, Mr. Parr had been fascinated by the Secret Service from boyhood. His father had taken him in 1939 to see the low-budget action film “Code of the Secret Service,” one of several movies in which Reagan starred as the dashing agent “Brass” Bancroft.
“There’s a couple of times where truth and training converge, where history and destiny converge,” Mr. Parr told The Washington Post in 2006. “I thought about that for a long time. It’s that moment — either you do it or you don’t, either you save him or you don’t.”
Over the years, Mr. Parr met and provided security for some of the world’s most prominent figures. His career took him to all 50 states and 37 countries. He helped to protect Pope John Paul II, and a photograph showed him alongside Japanese Emperor Hirohito. As deputy special agent in charge of the foreign dignitary division, he was credited with overseeing protection for more than 50 world leaders.
After assignments to vice presidential protection, he became head of the White House detail in the presidential protective division in 1979 and provided security for Jimmy Carter.
In recent years, he and his wife co-wrote “In the Secret Service,” a memoir.
In addition to his wife of 56 years, Carolyn Miller Parr, a former U.S. Tax Court judge, survivors include three daughters, Kimberly Parr of Syracuse, N.Y., Jennifer Parr Turek of Severna Park, Md., and Patricia Parr of Frederick, Md.; and four granddaughters.