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Secret Service Agent Thomas E. McCarter, who helped foil Ford assassination attempt, dead at 71

Thomas E. McCarter’s Secret Service training kicked in when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a disciple of notorious cult leader Charles Manson, pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1975.

The president was walking to the California state Capitol when a red-robed Fromme — who had been living in Sacramento to be near Manson at Folsom Prison — raised a loaded .45-caliber revolver to the president’s chest at near point-blank range.

Mr. McCarter helped seize her gun and wrestle her to the ground as she cried, “Can you believe it, it did not go off. . . . Why are you protecting him?”

Ford personally thanked him for his valor.

“That was a big memory for Tom,” said Mr. McCarter’s wife of 45 years, Gail.

An agent who also served Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Mr. McCarter died Sept. 2 at his home in Lombard. He was 71.

Secret Service agent Thomas E. McCarter, in dark sunglasses and earpiece, next to Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme after she pointed a gun at President Ford.

Secret Service Agent Thomas E. McCarter, in dark sunglasses and earpiece, next to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme after she pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford.

He led others with wisdom, authority and humor, according to Tim McCarthy, the former Secret Service agent who took a bullet that would-be assassin John Hinckley intended for Reagan in 1981.

“Having been in Vietnam, he brought common sense to things,” said McCarthy, the police chief of Orland Park.

His family recalled how grateful Mr. McCarter was to come in the front door on the day of Fromme’s arrest. “He used to tell my mom how they would practice and practice in case something would happen,” said his daughter, Annie Hansen. “This time, when he came in and hugged my mom, he said, ‘This was the real deal.’ He was relieved to be home.”

Lynette Fromme motions to the cameras on March 13, 1976, as she was brought chained and in handcuffs to the federal court in Sacramento by U.S. Marshals. | AP file photo

Lynette Fromme motions to the cameras on March 13, 1976, as she was brought chained and in handcuffs to the federal courthouse in Sacramento by U.S. marshals. | AP file photo

Though Fromme’s gun had a clip, there was no round in the chamber. Witnesses said they heard a click.

Convicted of attempting to kill Ford, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her case was the first covered by a federal law, enacted after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, addressing threats to the president. She was paroled in 2009.

She claimed she had only been trying to get Ford’s attention. “I stood up and waved a gun [at Ford] for a reason,” she wrote in a letter to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation.”

Fromme wasn’t implicated in the Manson “family’s” killings of actress Sharon Tate and others, but she drew attention at the deranged-circus atmosphere that permeated Manson’s murder trial, where she camped out, knelt on the sidewalk and cut an X into her forehead.

After working in the Secret Service’s Chicago field office, Mr. McCarter was assigned to Washington, D.C., from 1974 to 1978. Returning to Chicago, he remained with the Secret Service for five more years. He worked for the U.S. Department of Labor through 1996; served two years with the Social Security Administration; and then with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he was special agent in charge of the Chicago field office until his 2001 retirement.

McCarthy probed counterfeit-currency scams with him. When undercover investigations plodded and tempers frayed, he broke the tension, McCarthy said. “We’d be working at 3 o’clock in the morning, grumpy and grousing — ‘What the hell is this, is this buy [of counterfeit money] ever gonna take place’ — and he’d say, ‘It’s the greatest job you ever had, it’s what puts meat on the table.’ ’’

“He had these very serious jobs, but at home, he just turned into dad,” his daughter said. “He left his work at work. He would drive us to school every morning, he would be available to talk about anything. He woke us up for school; helped put us to bed at night.

“He was this tough guy who knew how to love as a father.”

Young Thomas grew up on the Northwest Side, where he attended St. Ferdinand grade school and St. Patrick High School. After seeing combat in the Army in Vietnam, he returned to Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree at DePaul University, where he met his future wife.

Mr. McCarter also is survived by another daughter, Mimi Cunningham; a son, Michael; sisters Patricia DiMarzio, Suzanne McCarter and Peggy Serwa;  brothers Richard and James, and 10 grandchildren.

Services have been held.