Naples woman called 'unsung hero' during assassination attempt on President Reagan

When someone tried to kill the President, secret service agent Mary Ann Gordon ran toward the bullets.

It was 2:27 p.m. on March 30, 1981, and Ronald Reagan had just attended an event at the Washington Hilton hotel. As the president walked to his limo, John Hinckley aimed his gun and pulled the trigger. Six shots rang out.

“I heard the gunshots,” remembers Gordon, a Naples resident. “I turned around and all I saw were bodies on the ground.”

That’s when Gordon and other secret agents and law enforcement officers sprang into action, and their choices in those crucial minutes helped get the president to the hospital fast, saving his life.

■ ■ ■

When Gordon was growing up in Norristown, Pa., women didn’t work in the Secret Service.

She studied law enforcement at Penn State University, graduated and got a job as a juvenile parole officer. But when her next promotion meant she’d have a desk job, Gordon went looking for something else. She went to apply to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but they weren’t hiring.

Someone said, “The secret service is hiring, and they’re right down the hall,” Gordon remembers. So she applied. It was 1974 and she was 24 years old. She’d never shot a gun.

The Secret Service hired its first women as uniformed division officers in 1971, then in 1972, the first women became special agents. Gordon was hired as a special agent and attended an eight-week training on investigative skills, laws and protection.

Gordon started her Secret Service work in the Washington field office working on forged check cases. New agents usually started in that area to learn the process: How to make arrests, go to court.

She remembers her first arrest — everybody does, she says. They followed a man to a check cashing agency where he was going to cash a bad check, and when he did, they arrested him.

Then, in 1978, Gordon was the first woman permanently assigned to the White House, which meant she was one of the agents responsible for protecting the president and his family.

“I was not too happy about it,” she says. “I liked working in the field office and no woman had ever been assigned to the White House. ... I knew there would definitely be challenges and I knew there would definitely be prejudice. ... But I was very lucky because I had a shift leader who made sure I was treated like everyone else. No favoritism for me, but no harassment either.”

President Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and though presidents don’t always know the names of the agents who protect them, he knew hers. She was the only woman there.

■ ■ ■

When Reagan was elected, special agents traveled to California to protect him between the time of the election and the inauguration. Gordon was one of them.

Special agents are with the person they’re protecting all the time, but you don’t get to know as much about them as people think, she says.

“Your job is to know the security of the person, not to get to know them on a personal level,” she says.

About Reagan, she says “he was a wonderful man, ... very, very personable to everyone.”

She remembers a moment at his ranch, when Reagan was talking with them and holding one of his guns. He wanted to ask them a question about it and, without thinking, pointed it in their direction.

Reflexively, all the agents hit the floor, and Reagan looked up, puzzled.

“Mr. President, is that gun loaded?” someone asked, Gordon remembered. And then Reagan laughed. “No, no it’s not loaded,” he said, realizing what had happened.

For the event on March 30, Gordon was assigned to coordinate transportation. She ran the routes that morning to make sure there was no construction or demonstrations, and worked with the local police to close off intersections — all normal preparations.

As the transportation agent, she rode in the front seat of a marked police car in the motorcade. They drove to the Hilton and dropped the president off without incident. They waited while the president participated in the event, and as she saw him coming out, Gordon got into the police car she’d ridden over in.

Then, suddenly, there were gunshots and bodies on the ground. Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, was shot in the head, a local police officer was shot as he turned toward the president and a special agent was shot as he shielded the president with his body.

Another agent pushed Reagan into his limo. In just 1.7 seconds, 6 bullets were fired, according to Rawhide Down, a new book written about the day by Del Wilber, a reporter for the Washington Post.

Gordon ran toward the president, but he was already inside his limo and it sped off.

Rather than run back to her police car, Gordon jumped into a spare limousine and followed the president’s limo. At first, the president didn’t realize he’d been wounded. When it became clear something was wrong, they sped toward the hospital.

In his book, Wilber writes about how the special agent driving the presidential limo was nervous, speeding down city streets with the wounded president and no motorcade in front to lead the way.

Gordon knew that the president’s limo had lost its police escort, so she directed the driver of her limo to get in front of the president’s.

“She’s a true unsung hero of that day,” Wilber says. “She really moved quickly. ...She had the presence of mind to realize that they were going to lose their police escort and to get that spare limo in front of the presidential limo.”

Gordon speaks in a matter of fact, calm voice as she talks about those crucial split-second decisions. She remembers speeding through intersections blocked off by police following the president’s limo, securing the hospital and waiting for hours outside.

You can tell she’s the kind of person who keeps her cool in a crisis.

When the president arrived at the hospital, it was Gordon’s responsibility to set up security outside and make sure the president was safe as he underwent surgery to take the bullet out of his chest.

■ ■ ■

After, agents took a hard look at what had happened that day, Gordon says.

“I think you feel,” she says, and pauses to think. “Well, disappointment doesn’t quite capture the right emotion. You just feel so sad that something like that would happen, and you pray that everybody’s OK.”

In the fall of 1981, Gordon moved from the White House assignment into public affairs. In the following years she held different positions, including public affairs, working on investigations in the Baltimore field office and working on electronic crimes in the headquarters office. In 1995, she retired.

She was married and had a young son, she says. Another campaign was starting and she knew it would involve a lot of travel.

“It was a great ride,” she says.

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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