Saturday, November 19, 2011

What if...?

He was an Irish farmer's son with only a 10th grade education, who immigrated to America in 1929 and worked as a chauffeur and later joined the US Navy during World War Two. In 1945 he applied for a job with the government and wound up driving for this country's Presidents beginning with Harry Truman, and ending that day in Dallas in 1963.

I met William Robert Greer in 1964, when, as I understand it, I was the only reporter he had allowed to interview him since that awful day the year before.

Total BS
I could certainly sympathize with Greer's reluctance to talk to the press, which even then was not above twisting stories to fit their own agenda. The latest totally insane conspiracy going around the Internet today is that Greer shot Kennedy.


I was hoping to do a soft news feature for CBS radio's “Weekend Dimension.”...which broadcast five minute audio vignettes on the half hour throughout the weekend.

Imagine my surprise when Greer agreed to my request. (He told me later that it was his wife, who watched me regularly on local TV, who convinced him to invite me over.)

Norelco cassette recorder 1964
I arrived at his home in nearby suburban Maryland carrying one of the latest (at the time) technological wonders in modern recording devices called a “cassette recorder.”  My particular machine was made by Norelco, which allowed radio reporters to record good quality “on the scene” reports without the aid of a engineer and cumbersome recording equipment. This was a major breakthrough.

William Greer
Rare photo of JFK wearing hat
William Greer was very gracious and invited me into his home in suburban Maryland where we talked for about an hour....with my amazing small recorder doing its thing. He seemed to light up when talking about the happy times he spent driving Kennedy from place to place. He was especially pleased on several occasions when the President unexpectedly had him stop in front of a church and ask to borrow his hat before going inside.

Greer was technically a Secret Service Agent. But, realistically, he was what he'd always been; a chauffeur. He was not trained as a “protector” of the President, he was simply a driver. The Secret Service procedures in place at the time did not allow Greer to take action without orders from a senior agent.
Roy Kellerman, was the senior agent who sat to Greer's right that fateful day.

Kenneth O'Donnell (special assistant to Kennedy) who was riding in the motorcade, later wrote: "If the Secret Service men in the front had reacted quicker to the first two shots at the President's car, if the driver had stepped on the gas before instead of after the fatal third shot was fired, would President Kennedy be alive today?"

He also stated that after the death of the president  "Greer had been remorseful all day, feeling that he could have saved President Kennedy's life by swerving the car or speeding suddenly after the first shots."

Author William Manchester reported in Death of a President, that at Parkland Hospital, 

“Those who had been in the motorcade were racking their brains with... if only this, if only that. One of them, Bill Greer, came to her [Jackie Kennedy] his face streaked with tears, took her head between his hands and squeezed until she thought he was going to squeeze her skull flat. He cried, ‘Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, oh my God, oh my God. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t hear, I should have swerved the car, I couldn’t help it. Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, as soon as I saw it I swerved. If only I’d seen in time! Oh!’ Then he released her head and put his arms around her and wept on her shoulder.” [Death of a President, p.290]

It was reported that Mrs. Kennedy felt so sorry for Greer that she requested that he drive the naval ambulance containing the casket to the naval hospital.

I believe that Greer admired the young President as much as most Americans did. Perhaps more so.

CBS Radio aired my story, but if my interview were to be graded by any modern journalism professor, it would receive a big fat F.  I didn't ask any of the questions that a reporter these days is taught to ask, such as “how did you feel?”  “What was it like....., describe the scene.." etc.

But, for what it's worth, I'll tell you how I felt:

To me, William Greer was like the typical kindly uncle; humble, thoughtful, and  honest. I could still detect a hint of an Irish accent in his voice. His home was modest and warm, but just below the surface, there was a sadness that was almost palpable. He retired on disability from the Secret Service in 1966 because of a stomach ulcer that rapidly grew worse following the Kennedy Assassination. He died in 1985.

I like to believe that I was able to offer him a few short moments of relief by getting him talking about some of the good times in his American Dream....that so suddenly had turned into a nightmare.   -Ed