A fateful November day in 1963 sent a 13-year-old Michael Pritchard (B.S. ’76) toward a life on high alert in the Secret Service. In his 26 years as an agent, he has protected world leaders, from presidents to the pope. These are the stories he can tell about his career (without having to kill you).
Today, any American who was alive at the time can tell you where he or she was on Nov. 22, 1963. But on that day, the Friday President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Michael Pritchard realized where he was going. Pritchard was 13 years old, sitting in Coach Morris’s sixth-period math class at Atlanta’s Campbell High School when the speaker on the wall suddenly crackled to life with the voice of Walter Cronkite. The president had been shot in Dallas. School let out at 2:30 that afternoon. Pritchard went home and planted himself in front of the family’s console TV, where he watched history play out in black and white. He saw the silent film of the President’s convertible limo cruising through Dealey Plaza, Kennedy waving to the crowd from the backseat when his body suddenly went limp and sagged toward the First Lady beside him. Over and over, he saw Jackie Kennedy panic and stand up, reaching back desperately for a strange man in a dark suit who immediately leapt onto the moving vehicle and threw his body over her and her wounded husband. Newscasters identified the stranger as Clint Hill, a member of something called the Secret Service. A hero at a time of unthinkable tragedy.
“The president was dead, so the journalists were looking for anything positive,” Pritchard says. “As an eighth-grader, it was pounding into my head that these guys walked on water.” By the following week, young Pritchard was convinced. “I knew I couldn’t be an astronaut,” he says. “But I thought I might be able to become one of those guys.” Pritchard was excited to tell his parents about his new plans.
“That’s nice dear,” he remembers them saying. “Now finish your dinner.”
More than half a century later, Pritchard sits in the study of his home in a mountain-lake community outside of Asheville, N.C. The walls are lined with tall, deep shelves packed with rows of memorabilia: cufflinks, matchbooks and decks of playing cards bearing the seal of the President of the United States, and racks of coins commemorating participation in assorted Secret Service and joint-agency task forces. A framed “Wanted” poster offering $25 million for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, signed in wild Sharpie: To Mike — With best wishes to my friend — George W. Bush. Framed photos featuring Pritchard at various stages of his now graying hair, with every president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.
Over a 26-year career, Pritchard protected six commanders in chief, from Ford through the second Bush. He protected presidential hopefuls Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. He was even a body man for visiting dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II, twice. (“I’m not Catholic,” Pritchard says. “But watching him perform mass in front of 1.5 million people; he was almost God-like.”) During the second Papal visit, he was star-struck for the only time in his career, meeting Clint Eastwood (“The first time I saw women swoon”).
After a lifetime of playing the stoic sentinel, Pritchard is free to be a natural talker who can lead a casual conversation through a pinball machine of fascinating tangents. He has enough behind-the-scenes war stories to start a second career as a professional cocktail party guest. And those are just the anecdotes he is at liberty to divulge.
“There are so many decisions that presidents make and can’t really tell the American people about,” he says. “A lot of them in reference to things the people know nothing about.”
What Pritchard can tell you is that he has conducted missions to investigate or protect in 93 countries on seven continents; has surgically inserted titanium in his knee and neck; has felt a bullet whiz past his ear; and yet spent far more time training, studying, waiting and joking with presidents and fellow agents than in action-hero mode. And it’s been far more rewarding than the 13-year-old Pritchard could have ever dreamed.
Even though Pritchard’s image of himself in sunglasses and an earpiece was conjured in his childhood home, it began to materialize at Georgia State. After a brief stint with the Marines, Pritchard came home in 1971 and joined the Atlanta Police Department (APD). At the same time, to bolster his resume, he enrolled in the criminal justice program at Georgia State. After sitting in class, studying police response to burglaries, assaults and murders, he’d head home, sleep and don the APD blues to report for 11-p.m. patrol, where he would respond to burglaries, assaults and murders. His teachers understood if he had to miss class to go to court. Soon Pritchard was promoted to homicide detective.
Then in the fall of 1975, Lynette Fromme, a disciple of Charles Manson, tried to kill President Gerald Ford in Sacramento, Calif. Secret Service agents tackled her before she could fire her pistol. After a second failed assassination attempt less than three weeks later, the Secret Service announced it would be hiring 200 additional agents the following year. Pritchard saw his chance. In January 1976, the 24-year-old walked into the Atlanta field office and left with an application the size of a phonebook. Next came a five-hour written exam — math, vocabulary, reading comprehension and an observation portion to test his short- term recall. The minimum passing grade was 70. Pritchard scored a 71.
“I later learned that 70s to 82s made the best agents,” he says, with a wry grin. “Anything above an 82 would raise eyebrows.”
Pritchard was now an agent, a member of the same brotherhood as his hero, Clint Hill. But to his chagrin, his first detail was not to a car tailing a president’s parade limo. In fact, it wasn’t even in Washington, D.C. Instead, Pritchard reported to his new post in the 12-man field office in Memphis, Tenn., where he traded his souped-up APD squad car for a 12-year-old Chevy Impala with no air-conditioning and an A.M. radio.
“I thought to myself, ‘What have I done?’” he says.
As a federal agent, you’d think you’d be powerful,” Pritchard says. “But it’s the uniformed cop who actually has the power. He can take someone off the street immediately. A federal agent has to have a federal statute.”
That’s not to say Pritchard didn’t have any fun. During the 1976 election, he was sent to Plains, Ga. for 36 days to protect Jimmy Carter. He set up sting operations for an organized-crime task force, where he bought back stolen treasury bonds. And there was the first Papal detail: While visiting a Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Pope handed Pritchard a heavy, wrapped gift for the congregation to free his hands for blessing — it turned out to be a brick from the tomb of St. Peter. Pritchard was also assigned to Ted Kennedy in the fall of 1979, when JFK’s younger brother was considering his own run for the White House.
But it turns out, Pritchard, not Teddy, was the one ticketed for Washington in 1980 — though still not Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, he was transferred to the D.C. field office, to Ford’s detail, following the former president on a tour around the world. He then headed to Florida, where he worked intelligence and counter-terrorism under Ronald Reagan, one of the few agents who spent time with the 40th President at his California ranch. Pritchard also collaborated on task forces with a Scrabble rack of other agencies — FBI, DOD, DEA. During one operation, Pritchard helped buy 2,000 kilos of cocaine from the Russian Mafia.
In terms of witnessing history as it was being made, however, it didn’t get bigger for Pritchard than in 1986, when he was dispatched to provide security for the first-ever meeting between Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland. After overhearing U.S. and Soviet pilots debate whose country’s cargo plane was biggest, Pritchard had a front-row seat as the principals of the superpowers shook hands at the height of the Cold War.
“Reagan was fabulous,” says Pritchard. “He had a way of connecting with people. Just a great guy.”
Pritchard has never voted in a presidential election. He says it was important for him to separate his politics from his job. Besides, he figured he didn’t want to end up working for — or taking a bullet for — someone he’d voted against. As a result, Pritchard has a fairly unadulterated impression of each head of state he worked with. To him, Reagan was the most impressive, the greatest leader — but the most intimidating in person, when necessary. George H.W. Bush was the most pragmatic. Bill Clinton was the best politician.
Being a body man, practically a shadow, to the most powerful men in the world, Pritchard saw them pushed to and, sometimes, beyond their limits. He saw them at their most vulnerable, but he also saw them relax and loosen up. Letting their guard down knowing that Pritchard was always there. He witnessed them at their most human. He got to know them, at least a little. And the more Pritchard got to know George W. Bush, the more he liked him.
Pritchard first met the younger Bush as part of his detail during the run-up to the 2000 election. Bush, Pritchard says, was well known for giving everyone around him silly nicknames. Pritchard got tagged with the relatively mild “Mikey.” One of the first campaign stops was at a high school in Orlando, Fla. The candidate was walking along the crowd barricade, shaking hundreds of outstretched hands, when a boom seemed to rattle the ground. Within .2 seconds, Pritchard was huddled over his charge, ready to whisk him away, when Bush yelled: “It’s the band! It’s the band!” The marching band had launched into the school’s fight song, five bass drums pounding in unison, simulating the cannonade that Pritchard mistook for real gunshots.
After that incident, the bond between Pritchard and Bush strengthened so much that when Bush won the controversial general election, the president-elect requested “Mikey” to be the leader of his personal detail. Finally, Pritchard could be the man in the dark suit riding in the black Suburban behind the president’s car. After 24 years, the job he had longed for almost all his life was his for the taking.
Pritchard was working out of the Secret Service branch in Houston in 2000 when his wife suddenly discovered cancer had spread from her kidney throughout her body. Stage Four. She was dying.
“She had seemed so healthy,” Pritchard says. “It just hit us like a ton of bricks.”
She could not be moved to Washington, D.C. For Pritchard, facing such personal loss, the job had lost much of its allure. Besides, he had been to Washington working special ops, had protected president after president. He was 51 years old. He says he had no regrets.
Bush understood. The president-elect made Pritchard a deal: Instead of moving all the way to D.C., simply transfer to the Secret Service office nearest the Bush ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he could still watch over the commander in chief during his frequent retreats. That office was in Dallas. Pritchard agreed. And nearly 40 years after an assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy, Pritchard arrived at the Dallas branch, mere miles from Dealey Plaza, to sit in the same chair once occupied by Clint Hill.
After two years, Pritchard retired from the Secret Service, accepting a corporate job with a Dallas-based oil company where he headed up global security, mostly in the Middle East. He fully retired from that post last year.
Pritchard has lived most of his life on high alert. He has been shot at on multiple occasions and faced off with criminals from every corner of the earth. He has met Dirty Harry and practically tackled the 43rd President of the United States. Sixty-five, sitting in his study among the tokens of that career in yellow shorts and a polo, he says he’s enjoying civilian life.
But the transition can still be tricky at times. He still pauses when entering a convenience store to make eye contact with the cashier to make sure he or she is relaxed at the counter — not being quietly held up by a would-be robber. Recently, he and his new wife were biking in the mountains when he noticed a red car, foreign make pulled off on the side of the road, as if the driver had just walked into the woods. Without thinking, he memorized the number on the North Carolina license plate. When they reached the top of the mountain, he asked his wife if she had noticed the vehicle. She said she had not and that he was driving her crazy with his cautious habits.
Fitting then that Pritchard enjoys attending the annual Association of Former Agents, U.S. Secret Service Conference in D.C. There, he can compare detailed observations with the most vigilant retirees in the world. During this year’s gala dinner at the Grand Hyatt, Pritchard was having his picture taken with his first boss from the Secret Service office in Memphis when he recognized a white-haired gentleman at the table beside him. Pritchard eagerly invited him to be part of the photo. The man was Clint Hill.