HOBART The day Louis Sims graduated from U.S. Secret Service School was certainly the most notorious day in the organization's history since its founding.
It was November 1963, and then-29-year-old Sims had recently arrived in Washington, D.C., from Chicago, where he had been working as an agent for two years. Having passed the agency's entrance exam with flying colors the highest score recorded at that time, he said graduation was an especially exciting time, even when it was interrupted with some pretty sordid news.
"The chief of the Secret Service was getting ready to speak; it was a noon graduation," Sims, now 77, said, recalling his early days recently in the living room of the Hobart home he shares with his wife, Gwen. "He got called out of the room for a phone call. He came back and said, 'The President has been shot in Dallas. Everyone report to the Washington field office.' You always think, if I would have been there, what could I have done? How could I have helped save his life?"
Born in 1934, the son of an insurance agent, Sims was a star athlete at Hobart High School and then at several prep colleges in Oklahoma, where he played baseball and basketball while pursuing a degree in business.
Shortly after his 1956 graduation from Panhandle State University he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was immediately recommended for U.S. Army Intelligence School in Baltimore.
"I was absolutely delighted because I intended to serve, so I figured hey, I'm going to learn as much as I can while I'm in there and get as much as I can out of it," Sims said.
He was a week off basic training when he married Gwen, his high school sweetheart, and in November 1957, he was assigned to Kansas City to work as an agent in Army intelligence, and then to Topeka, Kan., as a resident agent in Army intelligence. In Kansas City, Sims was conducting a background investigation and one of the references cited was former President Harry Truman, who was setting up his presidential library at the time. While he had Truman's ear, Sims figured he'd ask the former president what he thought about a Secret Service career.
"I said, 'I've only got a year left in Army intelligence and I'm thinking about joining the Secret Service. What do you think?' President Truman spoke up and said, 'If the outfit can be that close to me and not get in my hair, that's a pretty good outfit,'" Sims said.
After an interview and a four-hour test, he was told he qualified as a candidate for the service but that he would have to await assignment. In the meantime, he opened a life insurance business. It was 1960.
"If I never got that call from Secret Service, I've got a business," he said. "And after a few weeks we didn't know if we'd ever get the call, so we moved to Lawton."
Assigned to Chicago
In 1961, however, and after some haggling over his pay grade, Sims was assigned a special agent at the agency's field office in Chicago.
The Secret Service was tasked then, as it is now, with protecting the president and other elected national officials but also with investigating federal financial crimes, like forgery or counterfeiting of government obligations. In fact, though the Secret Service was founded by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s, it wasn't until William McKinley's assassination in 1900 that it was assigned its bodyguard duties.
In Chicago, Sims found the job as intense as it was an adventure, sometimes finding himself going to work in the morning and not knowing exactly where he'd wind up by night. The job was round-the-clock and required an enormous amount of personal commitment, he said.
"You realized that it was your responsibility to see that the right investigation was done and the right steps were taken for the security of the president or his family or the vice president," Sims said. "You looked at everyone and made a decision on whether or not that person was a danger. Unless it went to the courthouse, nine times out of 10 it never even hit the newspaper."
In 1961, he was assigned to the Kennedy detail at the White House for a month. Kennedy was the first of six U.S. presidents Sims would protect, an experience he tends to tone down.
"Normally a Secret Service agent doesn't have personal discussions with the president or first family; most of it is about the security activities where's your guy, itineraries and that sort of thing. Normally you don't sit down and visit," he said. "But it was just, I don't know how you describe it, it was exciting and you felt very privileged, no matter who the president was."
So of course it was only natural that when Kennedy was shot that fateful day in Dallas, Sims took it as kind of personal.
For four dark days, as he described them, Sims was among a crew of depressed agents tasked with handling logistics of the memorial. The day of the funeral, Sims walked alongside President Johnson's limousine during the motorcade from the Lincoln Memorial to the entranceway of Arlington National Cemetery.
Relied on his experience
"You're thinking about the job, but also, 'Here's a guy from Hobart up here where everybody in the country is focusing right now,'" he said. "And I will tell you how very true I relied on all that experience growing up in Hobart, Oklahoma, doing that job. You learn how to do everything here, and, if something needed to be done, you did it, no matter what it was."
Reforms put in place
The occasion marked serious reform for the Secret Service, and Sims was among the new agents who rode the tide as its budget was boosted and its personnel increased many times over. He was one of about 350 special agents when he went into the service, which operated then on about a $4 million budget. Today's Secret Service has more than 6,500 employees, including 3,200 agents, and operates with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.
The build-up after Kennedy's assassination did not stop until the Secret Service was ultimately swallowed by the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003, Sims said.
"The recommendations of the Warren Commission kind of changed our whole direction," he said. "No question that's what got the appropriations up where we could have the number of people we needed to do the job and get the right equipment. That was just the time when things began to happen, and they began with the assassination of President Kennedy and went from there."
The Kennedy funeral wasn't the last time Sims felt the eyes of the country upon him.