Paul Landis stood on the running board of the slow-moving Cadillac that trailed the presidential limousine, scanning the crowd, looking for trouble.
That was his job, along with three other Secret Service agents who clung to the outside of the car.
Ever since John F. Kennedy was elected president, Landis had been assigned to protect the family. First Kennedy, then as guard to his children, then as one of two men directly responsible for the first lady’s safety.
That’s how he ended up in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He went where Jackie Kennedy went, and she had joined her husband for the Texas trip.
As the uncovered limo made the turn around Dealey Plaza, the smiling Kennedys waved to fans lining the sidewalk.
Suddenly, a loud crack came from behind and to the right of the motorcade.
“Was that a firecracker?” another agent asked Landis as they both whipped their heads over their shoulders.
“I don’t think so,” Landis said.
Still, he glanced at the president’s convertible just 30 feet in front of him to confirm that it wasn’t a blown tire.
Then a second shot. Or was it? The president’s motorcade was nearing an overpass. Was that an echo?
The president slumped in his seat.
Clint Hill, the other agent assigned to Jackie Kennedy, hopped off the opposite running board and ran toward the limo as a third shot split the air.
Landis watched as the right side of the president’s head exploded from the impact of a sniper’s bullet.
The motorcade picked up speed, racing to the hospital. Landis clung to the side of the Cadillac while Hill scrambled onto the trunk of the limo.
Then Landis saw Hill turn back to the chase car, shake his head and lift his hand.
Unforeseen career path
Landis never aspired to be a Secret Service agent.
Born in Toledo and raised in the Columbus suburb of Worthington, he collected a degree in geology from Ohio Wesleyan in 1957.
But jobs in the industry were scarce for anyone without a master’s, and he’d had his fill of school.
At 23, he was wondering what else he might do with his life when a family friend returned home on vacation, sharing tales of his life as a Secret Service agent for President Dwight Eisenhower.
“He made it sound pretty interesting and exciting,” Landis said.
So Landis scheduled an appointment with a field office in Columbus.
The Secret Service does more than protect the president, the officer in charge cautioned the wide-eyed youth. There are mundane assignments, like investigating stolen Social Security checks.
Go home for one week and think about it, the officer told Landis. Then call if you’re still interested.
One week to the hour, Landis called him back.
It took about a year to pass various exams and background checks, and when Landis was accepted into the corps at the age of 24, he was the youngest Secret Service hire to date. Not surprisingly, the rookie found himself in Cincinnati investigating stolen Social Security checks.
He didn’t care.
“It was still fun,” Landis said, “though ultimately I hoped to be on protection duty some day.”
Six months later, he got his chance, looking after President Eisenhower’s four grandchildren on the family farm in Gettysburg, Pa.
“Eisenhower was concerned for their safety,” Landis said, explaining the unusual detail.
At the same time, he was still going through Secret Service school, where in addition to weapons training, he was learning some behavioral psychology — how to spot trouble, how to control a crowd, how to work a motorcade.
The lessons came just in time. In January of 1961, Landis went straight from Secret Service school to John Kennedy’s inauguration.
He stayed in Washington on Kennedy’s guard for three months when he was reassigned to look after the president’s children, 3-year-old Caroline and baby John Jr.
“Everyone pooh-poohed the ‘kiddie detail’ because you weren’t with the big boss, but I liked it,” Landis said.
It seemed natural to assign the youngest agent to the kids. For a couple of years, he drove them on trips to the zoo, jogged alongside Caroline on her horse rides and accompanied them when they visited their friends.
Because there weren’t a lot of evening activities, “it was almost a 9-5 job,” Landis said. “The hours were great.”
They spent springtime on a farm in Middleburg, Va., summers in Hyannis Port, Mass., autumns in Newport, R.I., and winters in Palm Beach, Fla.
The destinations were about to become even more exotic. Jackie Kennedy lost one of her agents, and her agent-in-charge, Clint Hill, asked Landis if he wanted to switch jobs.
“She was comfortable with the agents assigned to her kids, so when they needed someone on her detail, he came to me and I said, ‘yes,’ ” Landis said.
He still saw the children a lot, since they were often in the company of their mother, but his new assignment took him to places like Italy, Morocco and Greece.
“It was a little more glamorous,” Landis said.
Of course, there were still lots of run-of-the-mill trips to American cities.
Moments before tragedy
It had always been a challenge to protect President Kennedy.
“He was very personable. He liked going into the crowd and meeting people. He liked to shake hands,” Landis said.
Looking after the president and first lady when they were in an uncovered car ahead of you added a whole new layer of difficulty, he said.
“We knew there was a threat from the windows,” Landis said, recalling that fateful day.
But up until then, assassinations were historically an up-close-and-personal thing.
So while Lee Harvey Oswald prepared his rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, Landis was scanning the crowd.
“There was a group in front of the School Book Depository and I thought, ‘Oh, they must have let everyone out of the office to come and see,’ ” Landis said.
But Oswald, an employee in the building used as a warehouse for school materials, remained inside.
After the motorcade turned in front of the building for the final stretch to the airport, the sniper took aim.
From hospital to plane
The motorcade reached Parkland Memorial Hospital at 12:37 p.m., about seven minutes after the shooting.
Jackie Kennedy sat in the back of the limo with the president’s head in her lap. Landis reached for her shoulder to help her from the car, but she was reluctant to let go as if she didn’t want to reveal the mess below her hands.
Clint Hill took his coat off and used it to cover the president’s head, Landis said. Only then would she release him.
Landis assisted the first lady through the hospital doors and sat with her outside the trauma room, clearing the area of unnecessary gawkers.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody near her to bother her,” he said.
By 2 p.m., the president’s body was being wheeled from the hospital in a coffin to a waiting ambulance.
Local officials objected. The president was the victim of a crime, and they wanted his body to remain in the state.
The Secret Service ignored the orders and drove the ambulance to Air Force One. Agents broke the casket handles off in order to fit it through the plane doors.
On board, Landis watched Lyndon Johnson sworn in as president.
“Once we got on the plane and were situated, that’s when it hit me,” Landis said. “I broke down completely. I don’t remember too much of the flight back to Washington.”
After four nearly sleepless days culminating with Kennedy’s funeral, Landis was pretty sure he didn’t want to be a Secret Service agent anymore.
“I didn’t want to leave right away, so I thought I’d see if I felt the same way in six months,” he said.
Jackie Kennedy’s grief never waned.
“Clint or I would drive her everywhere, and it seemed everywhere we drove, she was crying and people were gawking, and I just wanted people to leave this lady alone,” Landis said. “I know Secret Service agents are supposed to be tough, but there was a lot of stress. It was just too much.”
Six months later, Landis’ mind hadn’t changed. He resigned.
For years, when people learned Landis had been on Kennedy’s detail in Dallas, it’s all they wanted to talk about.
So he stopped telling people he’d been in the Secret Service. It was easy to hide the past from strangers, as his career path took him far from that life.
He chuckles as he thinks of the jobs that followed: real estate agent, hand model, film production company owner, machine shop employee, house painter, handyman, and his current job as a security guard for the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.
He learned to internalize his memories, his pain, his guilt, and they remained buried until three year ago, when documentary makers brought all the former Kennedy agents together in Dallas for the filming of the book, The Kennedy Detail.
“It was the first time we’d been together since then, and we’re all talking and finding out almost word for word, we share the same feelings. We all felt guilty that we had lost a president. Everyone took it so personally,” Landis said.
“I probably internalized it the worst. A lot of them were able to at least talk about it before,” he said. “But doing the documentary was like lifting a big weight off my shoulder. It felt good to get it out.”
On Tuesday, Landis plans to join Clint Hill in Dearborn, Mich., where Hill will speak about his new book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me at the Henry Ford Museum, whose collection includes the limo from Dallas.
But Landis has no special plans for Friday, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.
“I’ll be hanging out at home, probably flipping channels, see what programs are on. There seem to be enough of them,” he said.
And no doubt, many of them will dwell on conspiracy theorists that have insisted Oswald could not have acted alone.
Landis said he understands the need for people to think that something this big had to come from some huge organized, well-planned effort involving several people.
But he doesn’t buy it. As hard as it may be to accept, he said, the president was brought down by one guy with a gun.
“Oswald. Three shots. That was it. He was a creep who got lucky,” Landis said. “Just some nut who, for some reason, everything went his way that day.”