TRAVERSE CITY — Retired Secret Service agent Michael Shannon, like many Americans alive in 1963, recalls exactly what he was doing 50 years ago today when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
Shannon, a 1954 Traverse City Senior High graduate then in the first year of a 27-year career with the Secret Service, was on a Braniff airliner traveling from Dallas to San Antonio.
Then 27, he had worked during Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s arrival the day before at Love Field, as well as the midnight shift at the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, where LBJ and his family slept. In fact, he was the only agent on duty that night from 11 p.m. until LBJ left that morning for the motorcade.
Shannon’s assignment on the morning of Nov. 22 was to fly to San Antonio, pick up a Ford at the local dealership for use the following day by LBJ and JFK on a planned media deer hunt at the Johnson ranch. At that time, Ford Motor Co. provided vehicles to traveling presidents.
Midway through the flight, the airline captain asked him over the cabin loudspeaker to come to the cockpit. Once there, the pilot informed him a Texas radio station had just reported Kennedy had been shot during the Dallas motorcade. Shannon sat glued to the radio for the rest of the flight -- decades before computers, cell phones and 24/7 news reporting in a tense Cold War political era
As the plane landed, the radio announced that Kennedy had died. Shannon raced to a pay phone and called the LBJ ranch. Agents there instructed him to pick up the car and come to the ranch as quickly as possible. He grabbed a taxi, picked up the Lincoln convertible and began his drive through roadblocks set up by Texas Rangers on the route to the ranch in Texas Hill Country near Austin.
“They didn’t know at that time whether the assassination was part of a plot to take over the government,” he said.
He remembers LBJ’s cook coming out to the Secret Service trailer later that day carrying a pecan pie she had baked especially for JFK’s visit.
“She said she couldn’t look at it,” he said. “Neither could we.”
Shannon, who now lives in Grand Rapids, doesn’t like to talk about the assassination and rarely does so.
“It was the Secret Service’s failure to protect the president, and it was hard to face,” he said. “We all felt like failures. It was a real bad day for the Secret Service.”
The Secret Service fielded only 326 agents nationwide in 1963 when Shannon joined the service after studying mining and technology at Michigan Technological Institute in Sault Ste. Marie for two years and then transferring to Michigan State University, where earned a degree in police administration. He also served a three-year Army stint in intelligence.
Today, the Secret Service has more than 4,000 agents and training has vastly improved, he said, in part because of the Kennedy assassination and recommendations from the Warren Commission Report that included four pages about the Secret Service in its 27-page “Summary and Conclusions” of the total 889-page final report.
“The Warren Commission told it like it was,” he said. “We needed more money, more information, better firearms and paramedic training and imagination.”
Today, the Secret Service has its own training center, the James J. Rowley Training Center, just outside Washington, D.C. It is comprised of almost 500 acres, six miles of roadway and 31 buildings.
Shannon returned to nation’s capital two days after the assassination and was assigned to work one of the three shifts to protect Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline, 6, and John Jr., who turned 3 on the day of his father’s funeral and saluted the coffin as it passed.
Shannon said he has pleasant memories of that assignment.
“They were good kids,” he said. “John Jr. asked me one day why I had the same name, Shannon, as the family dog.”
Shannon joked that he thought John Jr.’s parents had named it for him.
“I thought I’d hear about that, but I never did.”
Shannon also recalls a time the summer before, when JFK saw him standing in the rain on a protective detail at a family reception under a tent. Kennedy told him he looked miserable and brought him a bowl of chowder.
“President Kennedy was considerate of agents and was always looking out for their best interest,” he said.
Over the next several years, Shannon worked other assignments in Washington, D.C., New York and Cleveland. In 1981, he was assigned to the Grand Rapids field office. One of his most stressful assignments there was coordinating security for the dedication of the Gerald Ford Museum.
Special guests included the Fords, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H. Bush, Ford’s White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Several of those attendees were in the succession line for president if Reagan were to die in office.
More than 250,000 people attended the 1981 dedication of the $72 million museum.
Shannon retired in 1988 from the Grand Rapids field office.