Kennedy's Aggie Agent on the Man He Served and Protected

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Two rings worn on Toby Chandler's hands represent a foundation and a career. On one hand, an Aggie ring. The other: one from the Secret Service.

Chandler was an agent for more than twenty years, highlighted by being part of President John F. Kennedy's detail, less than three dozen in size, but steadfastly devoted to the commander-in-chief.

Dreams of earning the Aggie ring came from his youth, spent in Groesbeck and Thrall.

"I had, at that time, ideas of a military career, so of course, I wanted to go to A&M," he said.

Chandler started there in 1950 at the age of 16, spending two years in the Corps before leaving it to concentrate on academics. He graduated with the Class of 1955.

"I got the basics of inter-discipline and an attitude of preparation, which is so important to young people," he said of the Corps.

After graduating, Chandler spent four years in the Army. He had looked at going into the intelligence field, but was told there wasn't much upward mobility. Unemployed, Chandler looked at a number of options, and took the first that came his way: the Secret Service.

"I accepted them without fully knowing what they did, but I needed a job. I needed an income."

His first post: Los Angeles in 1959, earning some $4,000-a-year to investigate forgeries, thefts, counterfeiting and various threats. However, with a new president came the chance to move to the president's detail. Chandler made the cut.

Asked if it was shock to his system, he asked, "To mine or to theirs? Probably more to theirs than mine.

"In the early days," he continued, "the detail was not unlike your freshman year at A&M, where your senior people are ordering you around and judging you at all times."

Chandler says Kennedy made it a point to know each agent.

"To the extent that it was practical and possible, he virtually included us in his family."

Families give gifts, and Kennedy's sent a steel engraving of the White House Christmas card addressed to Chandler's son when he was born.

There were motivational moments, like when the president knelt down with White House gardeners trying to right the soil for flowers for the First Lady.

"And (he) talked to them about the roses, and the fact that Mrs. Kennedy wanted roses, and that he was depending on these gardeners to produce roses to get him off the hook," Chandler recalled.

The agent had to tell Donna Douglas -- Elly May Clampett from "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- that she couldn't give JFK a very public kiss. He had to clear a mass of Boys Nation teens that Kennedy had invited to come up to him. A young Bill Clinton was in that crowd.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs, the president was set to make a visit to Miami to speak to survivors of the invasion. Chandler headed up the advance team to set up security. Kennedy asked the agent to call him personally for an update.

"(I) Told him what I'd been doing and my assessment of these various Cuban leaders, and that I thought it would be alright," Chandler said.

While the moments were few because his job was so intense, there of course was the inevitable thought that any reasonable small town kid would have.

"How did I go from Thrall, Texas and suddenly, to Texas A&M, and then a junior second lieutenant, and then here I am at the White House," he asked.

On November 22, 1963, Chandler was in Washington. Not part of the president's team for his trip to Texas, the agent had an important part to play: setting up his return to Washington.

"I would have received him at Dulles (International Airport) and arranged the motorcade to take him to the White House."

So after stops in the Austin area, Kennedy's trek home would have ended with Chandler. For a few weeks prior, he'd been taking extra Secret Service classes.

"After school every afternoon, I would drive out to Dulles and have meetings with people out there that I needed to see, and then the next day, go to school for eight hours," he said.

November 22 was Graduation Day, and at a seafood restaurant event in the DC area, Chandler was giving a speech when his boss jumped in and ordered the agents to their posts, almost forgetting to tell them why.

"He said, 'The president's been shot in Dallas,' and of course, we were all stunned by this news," Chandler recalled.

To the White House he went to field calls from agents at offices across the nation, but word soon filtered in from Dallas on another issue.

"There's a rumor that President Johnson has had a heart attack at Parkland, and the Speaker (of the House) may be acting president," he said.

So Chandler and a colleague were sent to the Capitol to defend John McCormack, having to get a secretary to sneak a note to the Speaker because reporters were meeting with him. The agents didn't want to give them a story about a potential problem with the vice president.

Later, Chandler had to take McCormack to Andrews Air Force Base, where he watched the return of a healthy LBJ and Kennedy, too early, an arrival Chandler hadn't planned.

"Well, it was a tremendous sense, first, of failure that all of our work was for nothing, and then, of grief," Chandler said, emotional fifty years on since the death of a president not too far removed in age from the agents, and a family man himself.

For 50 years, there have been countless questions about what happened in Dallas's Dealey Plaza. Was there enough security on hand? Did the Secret Service agents that were there do enough? And of course, whether it was a guy on the sixth floor of an old book depository that fired the shots, or maybe someone else.

Chandler believes Oswald was the lone gunman, despite the theories that have popped up throughout the decades.

"There's never been a someone that's come forward with a hard piece of courtroom evidence to prove that anybody else had a hand in it," he said.

The president's car that day lacked a top, and in Agent Jerry Blaine's book, "The Kennedy Detail," he describes Kennedy's relayed order that the agents weren't to ride on the vehicle's side, that this president wanted to be seen by his public, especially in a critical time in his political career.

"There was no question in my mind or in any of my contemporaries that the president didn't want the top, and he didn't want the guys standing on the bumper," Chandler said.

Half-a-century later, years of exemplary service to the nation still don't erase the pain of the agents of that era.

"We considered it as a tremendous loss to the nation, and a personal failure."

Toby Chandler retired from the Secret Service in 1980. His other assignments included protecting one of President Lyndon Johnson's daughters and Vice President Spiro Agnew. He went on to work in field offices in Texas before his retirement, then worked in security following that. He lives in the Austin area with his wife.

Toby Chandler stands guard over the left shoulder of the president (from Chandler's collection)