Reagan assassination attempt forever linked pair of Illini

Reagan assassination attempt forever linked pair of Illini

Their paths did not cross while at the University of Illinois, but the two Illinois natives did end up together on the afternoon of March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley Jr. pulled out a pistol and fired at President Ronald Reagan, wounding not only Reagan but press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington, D.C., police Officer Tom Delahanty.

It was "a huge tragedy. (Brady) was never able to fill his destiny because of what happened, to fill his role as press secretary to President Reagan," McCarthy remembered Tuesday, a day after hearing news of Brady's death at 73.

They would recover together in the same Washington hospital and see each other at occasions for a few years after that, but McCarthy would return to work a few months later, while Brady was left partially paralyzed from a gunshot to the head. And McCarthy has been called an unsung American hero for pushing himself in front of the president and taking a bullet in the chest.

"The way things work, being around the president or any other world leader can be hazardous. There are plenty of people who want to change the world through the use of a weapon. In the Secret Service, we train for this all the time," McCarthy said.

Presidential staff members also are briefed on the fact that "being in and around the president can be hazardous," he said. "It's part of the hazards of the job."

McCarthy was a line agent on presidential protection detail, and at the time the detail's members worked three shifts around the clock. They were leaving the Hilton Hotel following a speech, when Hinckley took his shots, he said. Back then, he and Brady were not friends, but they knew of each other. Members of the security staff often worked in advance with presidential staff, such as the assistant press secretary.

Brady graduated from the UI in 1962, and McCarthy was a student there from 1967 to 1971. While on campus, Brady was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, and McCarthy joined Delta Tau Delta.

After graduating, McCarthy, a two-time UI letterwinner in football, would go on to join the Secret Service. He served several years on presidential detail, from 1979 to 1982, protecting President Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Then, after working for the agency in Chicago, he returned to Washington, again protecting Reagan and George H.W. Bush before moving back to Illinois in 1989.

Over the years, McCarthy has followed James and Sara Brady's work on gun control and has appeared with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to support bans on assault weapons.

"The mood of the country swings back and forth on these issues," McCarthy said. "Hopefully, some positives have come out of (the Brady Bill, which required waiting periods and background checks). Anything that raises the conversation level of anything like that is important."

McCarthy retired from the Secret Service in 1993 and became the village of Orland Park's police chief in 1994. McCarthy, who has relatives living in Champaign-Urbana, still visits the area and regularly attends events organized by the UI athletic department.