The Secret Service agents on President John F. Kennedy’s detail didn’t like motorcades. The open-air vehicle, throngs of people lining the streets, and the miles of unknowns made the agents’ jobs even more difficult.
Dallas – Nov. 22, 1963
Clint Hill ’54, the agent assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy, scanned to the left of the motorcade as the limousines crept down Houston Street. President Kennedy preferred that the agents not ride on the back of the presidential limo, but Hill felt he had to. Several times that day the crowd had been pushing in too close, and he needed to be able to protect Mrs. Kennedy – so he would jump on the rear limo step, then pull back when things seemed safer.
They were in the home stretch nearing Dealey Plaza – only five minutes from their destination. The crowds were thinning. They just needed to turn onto Elm Street and get on the freeway. Suddenly they heard an explosive noise.
Washington D.C – Summer 2011
Sitting in a chair with a watchful eye toward the building’s entrance, Hill waits. His coal black hair is now gray, but he is the same man the world has seen in pictures clinging to the back of President Kennedy’s limousine after the sniper’s shots rang out. More than 40 years later, he still has an agent’s stance. How much of his life has he spent waiting for something to happen and hoping it wouldn’t?
In the years following the Kennedy assassination, Hill granted few interviews. He was guarded with information. But in the past year, he’s started talking more freely. He helped his friend and fellow agent Jerry Blaine with facts for a book, “The Kennedy Detail,” that chronicled the day Kennedy was killed from the perspectives of the agents who were there.
“It gets a little easier as time goes by,” Hill says. “But it is still very emotional for me.”
Hill was born in Larimore, N.D., in January 1932. He was soon adopted by a couple from Washburn, N.D. – Chris and Jennie Hill. They had another adopted child, Janice. When the Hill children graduated high school, they attended Concordia. Clint loved sports and lettered in football and baseball. He majored in history and physical education and even found some time for music.
“I enjoyed singing in a quartet, and we even sang on the WDAY morning show,” Hill recalls. “And I had a great time playing football at Concordia.”
When Hill graduated in 1954, he planned to be a teacher and a coach, but his draft deferment had to be fulfilled first. He headed to basic training for the Army and was selected to be a special agent for the counter intelligence corps. When he was discharged, he was hired to be a detective for the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Then a position opened up in the Denver Secret Service field office. With only 269 agents in the entire Secret Service organization, it was a rare opportunity. Hill got the job and a little more than a year later, in 1959, he was tapped to go to Washington, D.C., to protect President Eisenhower.
“I was elated,” Hill says. “But at the same time, I was scared to death because I didn’t know if I would measure up, and this was an awesome responsibility.”
Being part of the president’s detail book took Hill to places many people only dream of visiting. He traveled to Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. It was a thrilling assignment.
When John F. Kennedy took office, Hill hoped he’d be part of the president’s detail. He soon learned he wouldn’t be guarding the president but Jacqueline Kennedy.
“I was very disappointed because I was hoping, like the rest of the agents, that I’d be assigned to the president,” Hill says. He knew what previous first ladies’ calendars had held – fashion shows, tea parties and ballet school – and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
“After meeting her and working with her for a while, it got to be the best assignment on the detail,” Hill says. “There were only two of us assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, and one of us was working with her all the time. We got to know each other really well. We were close both personally and professionally. She only called me Mr. Hill, and I only called her Mrs. Kennedy, but I knew a lot of her secrets, and she knew a lot of mine.”
Hill traveled the world with Mrs. Kennedy. He spent summers in Cape Cod, in Europe and on cruises. He quickly learned Mrs. Kennedy was extremely active. She enjoyed horseback riding, playing tennis and water skiing – activities she tried to get Hill to learn. And for many of the most joyous and most difficult times of her life, Hill was there.
“We had many good times – including the birth of her son John Jr.,” Hill says. “And we had many hard times – with the birth of the Kennedys’ son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy who died two days later, and then of course the assassination. I was with her in all those events.”
When Mrs. Kennedy decided she would go to Texas in November 1963, the agents were surprised. She rarely went on campaign trips. President Kennedy went to Florida first, and Mrs. Kennedy joined him for the Texas part of the trip. In Dallas, the Texas governor and his wife rode with the Kennedys in the presidential limousine as it headed through the heart of the city.
“I had been advised that the president didn’t want us up on the back of the car,” Hill recalls. “The driver kept the car way to the left side of the street to keep the president away from the crowds. That put Mrs. Kennedy right up next to the crowd, and so, occasionally, I had to get up on the back of the car to be in a position to do something.”
They were nearing the end of the route as they arrived at Dealey Plaza. The agents then heard a loud noise – a rifle shot. Hill saw the president grab at his throat and knew something was seriously wrong. Hill says he ran toward the president’s car when another shot was fired.
“As I approached the president’s car, the driver accelerated, and I slipped. I almost fell,” he says. “I got back up on the car. Then there was a third shot that hit the president in the back of the head.”
Mrs. Kennedy, trying to assist her husband, was getting onto the back of the car. Hill grabber her and put her into the backseat as the driver sped off to Parkland Hospital where the president died.
“I felt very guilty, very responsible,” Hill says. “I was the only agent who had a chance to do anything. Because of the angle where we were positioned, where the shot came from, the reaction of everybody, I was the only person who had a chance to do anything… and I was just too late.”
Most people credited Hill with saving Mrs. Kennedy’s life that day. He even received a gold medal and a citation for exceptional bravery presented by the head of the Department of the Treasury. But Hill didn’t feel like a hero, and he threw himself into his work even more. He stayed on as Mrs. Kennedy’s agent for the next year and when that assignment was up, he was moved to be part of President Johnson’s protection. He moved up in the ranks of the Secret Service – but the administrative work during the Nixon and Ford administrations gave him more time to think, and his health deteriorated.
In 1975, after 17 years with the Secret Service, Hill retired. Shortly after, Hill did an interview with Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes.” Wallace would later note in his memoirs that the interview was one of his most memorable. The interview showed the anguish and responsibility Hill felt for the president’s death. To mask the pain, Hill turned to alcohol and tobacco for comfort. For a seven-year period, he rarely left the basement of his house.
A visit to the scene of the assassination helped Hill climb out of his deep depression. In 1990, he went back to Dallas and walked the area of Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository where gunman Lee Harvey Oswald had been. Hill envisioned again what happened that day and made peace with himself.
“I went up to the sixth floor, looked out that window, and I came to the conclusion that based on everything – weather, the position of the car, the position of the shooter, everything – we did what we could do. There was no other thing I could have done.”
Though he’ll never rid himself of all the guilt, Hill says he’s healed a great deal in the past few years. He never planned to share his memories of the assassination until Agent Blaine asked him to contribute to his book. Hill agreed, only if he could review the manuscript. He granted Blaine’s co-author, former journalist Lisa McCubbin, a two-hour interview, but she kept calling after that.
“She finally convinced me to tell the whole story,” Hill says. “So I credit her with getting me out of those depths of emotional turmoil I was in.”
Hill came to campus in October for Homecoming and was honored with an Alumni Achievement Award. It was the first time he’d been back since his graduation more than 50 years ago.
He packed the Centrum to overflowing crowds when he spoke about his time in the Secret Service, waved to well-wishers in the Homecoming parade and carried out the game ball for the Homecoming football game wearing his letterman sweater from back in his football days.
And as he reminisced with people on campus, he looked just like any other Cobber, happy to be home.
Originally published in the Fall 2011 Magazine.