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Former Secret Service agent recounts decades spent protecting presidents

Former Secret Service agent Jim Johnson sits in his home office in Moss Creek in Bluffton. Pictures of the seven presidents - from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan - he served hang on the wall behind him.
Former Secret Service agent Jim Johnson sits in his home office in Moss Creek in Bluffton. Pictures of the seven presidents - from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan - he served hang on the wall behind him. JAY KARR/The Island Packet

Jim Johnson's son recently opened a copy of The Washington Post and saw someone he knew. It was in a file photo that accompanied a story about the recently deceased Sargent Shriver. The vice presidential candidate was shown glad-handing the crowds during the 1972 campaign. In the background, face slightly obscured, was a Secret Service agent.

The younger Johnson recognized the face anyway. It was his father.

The Moss Creek resident was a Secret Service agent for close to 25 years. For some of that career he protected presidents, candidates and dignitaries. When he got a copy of that newspaper photo, Johnson was reminded of his career and the people he served with who are obscured in presidential history. A Secret Service agent always is around -- never the focal point but always a presence.

GETTING TO THE WHITE HOUSE

The Kentucky native attended Centre College and worked for IBM for two years after school. A friend told him about the Secret Service, and he applied. The Secret Service was small back then; there were only about 250 agents across the country. It's best known for the protection division. But when Johnson was accepted, he was placed in the Louisville field division, investigating forgeries, counterfeiting and fraud.

Soon enough, he received a 30-day temporary assignment in Washington, D.C., and in August 1960 got a permanent transfer.

He was assigned to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His first trip was to follow the president to Augusta, Ga., for a golf expedition. The next trip was similar -- golf in Palm Springs, Calif.

The trips weren't the most exciting, but, as he recalls, he was just a farm boy from Kentucky and suddenly he was traveling across the country with the president.

Johnson stayed in the White House once John F. Kennedy was sworn in. He has fond memories of the young president. Kennedy was friendly and engaging, Johnson said. He knew the agents by name. He'd strike up conversations on his weekend vacations to Hyannis Port, Mass., asking about families or football. One Christmas, he invited the families of the agents assigned to him to Palm Beach, Fla. There, the Kennedys mingled with the agents' wives and children over punch, wine and cookies.

DECIDING TO LEAVE

The job of a Secret Service agent is inherently stressful. Some of Johnson's days were filled with lots of public interaction, where tense agents scanned crowds while the president reached for outstretched hands. But other times, the job might seem mundane. Johnson would sometimes get stuck on the midnight shift with nothing much to do but patrol the White House grounds. But he was always on alert, even if the setting appeared relaxed to everyone else.

He left Kennedy in August 1963. The job was engaging, but the long weekend trips took a toll.

"I wasn't seeing much of my family," he said. "It was time to move on."

He returned to the Louisville field office. Kennedy was assassinated just a few months later. Johnson and his fellow agents gathered around the television, like millions of their fellow Americans, when they heard the news.

"I was sick," he said.

He received an assignment in the wake of the assassination to head to Texas. Secret Service agents were assigned to protect gunman Lee Harvey Oswald's relatives. Johnson stayed for several weeks with Oswald's wife, Marina, in Carrollton, Texas. The Russian native spoke broken English and was overwhelmed by the situation, Johnson said.

The assignment was rather uneventful. Marina and her children stayed in their house, leaving mostly for dentist or doctor appointments. Once, in their downtime, Johnson talked with Marina about the Russian language. She wrote the Russian alphabet on a ruled sheet of paper. Johnson still has it in a scrap book.

Congress authorized the protection of major presidential and vice presidential candidates in 1968 after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Because he had experience, Johnson was regularly called back for special duty. He guarded vice presidential candidates Edmund Muskie and then Shriver. Johnson said Shriver was friendly and talkative -- but an absolute pain to guard. He would often go off script. "I've got to meet the people," he'd say and head toward a crowd.

Johnson spent time in the Columbia field office and the D.C. office before retiring in 1986 at age 52. He did some consulting work and helped organize security at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

He moved to Moss Creek about 20 years ago. In his office, he has reminders of his time in the Secret Service, including a few framed Christmas cards from presidents. Also framed on his wall are photos of his son, Larry, with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He followed in his father's footsteps and became an agent, even getting to White House duty.

Photos of father and son, each with the presidents they served, hang side by side in the office. And, for once, their faces are not obscured.

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