story and photos by Brittany Ransom
Harrowing. Heroic. Historic.
Those were the words event organizer Philip Merry used to describe Special Agent Clint Hill’s incredible story as he welcomed him to the stage Friday night (Dec. 7) for a Christmas Honors special presentation.
As the last surviving member of the Kennedy Secret Service detail, Hill shared his first-hand account of the President’s assassination and his time with First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Hosted at the Fort Smith Convention Center, hundreds came out to hear Hill as he kicked-off his national tour for his recently published book, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me.” Co-author Lisa McCubbin, who encouraged Hill to tell his story, joined Hill for the event.
Merry explained that a chance Facebook encounter with another “Philip Merry” helped lead to Hill speaking in Fort Smith. Upon learning of the Christmas Honors program, the “other” Philip Merry sought out Merry to arrange bringing a speaker to Fort Smith for the event. Unbeknownst to Merry, that speaker was none other than Clint Hill who was eager to be a part of the Christmas Honors project.
An initiative of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, Christmas Honors oversees the placement of the more than 13,500 wreaths on the graves located at the Fort Smith National Cemetery. The project was first organized by Merry in 2009 as a way to honor the men and women who sacrifice their lives in service of their country. Since its inception, the program has grown each year and now includes more than 1,000 volunteers.
Hill and McCubbin were welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation. The two then began telling Hill’s story of how he became a member of the Secret Service and his first encounters with Mrs. Kennedy.
“She didn’t want any part of me,” said Hill of the First Lady’s initial reaction to him. “And I wanted to be where the action was, guarding the President. … I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. We decided to get along though.”
Throughout the presentation, Hill and McCubbin shared pictures and videos of Hill’s time with the Kennedy’s, including footage of him interacting with Caroline and John Kennedy Jr.
Often referring to him as “the handsome young man in the glasses,” McCubbin pointed out Hill in pictures of the First Lady and President, prompting him to share his memories from those times.
Hill recalled funny stories of trips abroad with the First Lady and of special mementos given to him by the President. He also spoke of more difficult times, including the loss of Kennedy’s newborn son, Patrick, and the emotional toll it had on the First Lady.
McCubbin then asked Hill about the events leading up to the Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas. Hill walked the audience through his experience of hearing the shots fired, leaping on the car to protect the First Family and seeing the gruesome site of the President’s blood and gunshot wound.
“I gave the thumbs-down to indicate what appeared to be a fatal assault,” said Hill.
From there, the car raced to the hospital where Hill had to help get the President’s body inside the building.
“She (Jackie Kennedy) didn’t want anyone to see him so like that,” said Hill. “So I took off my suit coat to cover his head and upper back. … Only then would she let them take him.”
Hill recollected speaking to the JFK’s brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the phone following the shooting.
“I didn’t want to tell him his brother had been killed,” said Hill. “When he asked how bad was it, I said, ‘It’s as bad as it can be.’ Then he just hung up.”
For years after the assassination, Hill struggled with depression and had a difficult time coping with everything he had witnessed.
“I turned to alcohol and tobacco for many years,” admitted Hill.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Hill was able to return to Dallas to face the memories that haunted him.
“I wish I had done that sooner,” said Hill. “Confronting it all helped me move on.”
Following the presentation, the floor was opened up for a question and answer session. Audience members inquired if Hill kept in contact with any members of the Kennedy family and asked about specific events from the time of the President’s assassination.
When asked if he had any interesting stories about the other Presidents whom he had helped protect, Hill humorously replied, “Yes, lots … most of which will never be revealed.”
After the Q&A session, the crowd lined up for Hill and McCubbin’s autographs and to have their photos taken with the authors. Copies of Hill’s book were for sale at the event.
New to the event line-up, the special presentation followed a day of Christmas Honors festivities, which saw hundreds of volunteers unpacking and preparing wreaths to be delivered to the cemetery. The wreaths will be placed, once again with the help of community volunteers, on Saturday morning at the official Christmas Honors Ceremony.
A candlelight vigil will be held on Monday, December 10 from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. With the Wreaths Across America Commemorative Ceremony will taking place on Saturday, December 15 at 11 am.
The wreaths will remain on the graves throughout the holiday season.