(NBC via Getty Images)

Thirty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan’s Presidency — and life — nearly ended before it began.

Chuck Wasserstrom
Mar 4, 2016 · 8 min read

Once upon a time, I had the dream job of dream jobs, working in the Media Relations department for the Chicago Cubs. I’d spent 16 wonderful years there, first as a point of contact with the media when helicopters airlifted the lights onto Wrigley Field in 1988, to getting “thisclose” to reaching the World Series in 2003.

Media Relations is, for a sports team, an in-house publicity arm, but I was most assuredly not needed to generate publicity. People came to Wrigley Field no matter how the on-field product happened to be producing.

But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Media Relations, for the Cubs, could’ve been more accurately called Crisis Communications. When you work for the North Side, everything is a five-alarm fire. Some situations truly to qualify as a crisis — Sammy Sosa’s exploding bat, for instance, or cracks in the Wrigley Field foundation causing cement to drop on the seats. Then again, working for the Cubs’ Media Relations office also meant you had to deploy the Crisis Communications team when Kerry Wood might (or might not) have a blister.

But my Crisis Communications stories pale in comparison to those David Prosperi, a Cubs season ticketholder and a good friend of mine. You see — and this gives me goose bumps even as I type it — David was steps away when his boss, White House press secretary Jim Brady, and then-President Ronald Reagan were shot on March 30, 1981.

David and I have lunched together several times over the past few years, but his past never came up. It seems he’s always more concerned with helping me out than in addressing old demons. He doesn’t wear his past on his sleeve; doesn’t talk about “being there” very much.

We sat down last week, when I was finally able to convince him that his story — American history that very nearly careened into American tragedy — was much better than my own.

David is a Chicago-area guy through and through. He grew up a Cubs fan, although he’ll tell you his true sports passion is college basketball. That, and the fond sports memories his three now-adult children provided for him.

“I remember my Dad and I would sit in the bleachers, and the cost was one quarter,” he said. “One of my first games was looking at the back of Richie Ashburn, who played centerfield for the Phillies. We were sitting in the seats that today are blocked out by the ivy. There weren’t big crowds, but it was sports. It was great. I loved being in that atmosphere.”

He was passionate about sports, but his calling was in the public-relations realm. His career path took him to the “Reagan for President” Campaign, which he joined in October 1979. He was a press aide for the then-California governor, who — on his way to Hollywood — had previously spent time as an Iowa-based radio broadcaster of Cubs games recreated live from telegraph accounts.

“A guy named Mike Deaver hired me, and Mike asked me to travel with the governor from L.A. to Phoenix for a speech,” David recalled. “I sat next to the Governor in first class. He looked at me and jokingly said, ‘Hey, do your parents know what you’re doing right now?’

He continued:

“It was hard not to hit it off with President Reagan. He was a gentleman who was very comfortable in his own skin. He treated everybody the same, whether you were the CEO of a major company or the guy who was sweeping the hallway at the end of the day. That’s what I really admired about him — the respect he held for everyone. And how he didn’t think of himself as a big deal. He didn’t feel that he was any more important than the next person.”

(Rogers Photo Archive, Getty Images)

Stories about President Reagan’s affinity for the Cubs are well known. One of his bucket-list items, towards the end of his Presidency, was to broadcast a game live at Wrigley Field — which he finally did, on Oct. 1, 1988. I only got as close to him as the police detail German shepherd would allow. David wasn’t there, having been tapped as Dan Quayle’s press secretary during his campaign run for Vice President.

But the stories of his broadcast past were often a topic of conversation.

“This one time on a plane, he was talking about his early experiences and how he would broadcast games from the WHO Studio in Des Moines based on the ticker tape that they would get of the games,” David said. “And I remember distinctly one story where he was laughing and said, ‘I’m broadcasting the game from the ticker tape, and the ticker tape stopped.’ Governor Reagan looked at me and said, ‘It was amazing how many foul balls this one batter hit until the ticker tape started again — when they could pick up on what was happening in the game. It was a very funny story about how he came up with all these different ways the ball was being fouled off by the batter. He was able to keep things going until the ticker tape kicked back in again.”

The campaign trail was, of course, a rousing success, as Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 1981.

David was brought to the White House as an assistant press secretary under Jim Brady, a huge Cubs fan in his own right who’d grown up in downstate Illinois. David and his White House colleagues operated differently than today. Back in the early 1980s, there was neither internet nor cell phones, and 24-hour news outlets were a work in progress. For these media relations practitioners, the only way you could get a news release to media outlets was via a fax machine — unless you could hand-deliver it to them.

Brady was a master at working with the media, and taught his staffers well.

“We used to call Jim ‘The Bear’ because he was a big guy,” David said. “Really good sense of humor. Really good appreciation for the role of the media in politics. And an equally good appreciation for what you needed to do as a press secretary — to make sure that your messages could get out in the most effective way.

“You didn’t have 24-hour cable TV. You had three networks and, at that time, an upstart cable network in Atlanta [CNN]. So if you could manage ABC, CBS and NBC, that was the best way to control the news — and Jim was quite good at it. If not for the assassination attempt, I think Jim Brady would have gone down as one of the best White House press secretaries of all time.”

(Keystone-France via Getty Images)

Which leads to that date: March 30, 1981. Just 69 days into the presidency. Where were you on the day Reagan was shot? David was yards away.

My words won’t — and can’t — do it justice. The story, in David’s words:

“The speech took place at the Washington Hilton, and the President was coming back out through what was called the ‘President’s Entrance.’ I was with the press pool in the motorcade, so I was standing to the left of the motorcade near one of the press vehicles with a reporter named Judy Woodruff, who at the time was with NBC News.

“Judy came up to me and said, ‘Can you take me up to Jim Brady?’ And Jim was part of the group that was coming out with the President. So we started to walk up the left side of the motorcade when I heard a pop. It sounded like a balloon pop. Then there was a small lull … and then there were five more pops. I knew then that someone was firing a weapon. Instinctively, I ducked and I pulled down Judy with me. The next thing I know, the motorcade is taking off, cars are whizzing by me, and as the last car whizzes by, you see Officer (Thomas) Delahanty from the Washington, D.C., police force down on the ground. He was shot. Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service agent who stood up when everybody else ducked and took a bullet in his stomach — he was on the ground. And then there was Jim Brady, lying face down on the ground.

“A friend of mine, who was a White House advance man — Rick Ahearn — was kneeling next to Jim and holding a handkerchief to his head. Rick yelled at me and said, ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ I had a handkerchief that my grandmother had given me, and I threw it at Rick. Then I ran inside to call the White House. No cell phones at the time, so fortunately I had an AT&T credit card for the pay phone — because that was the only phone that was available inside the hotel. I raced in and used the credit card and called the White House press office and told them the President was shot at and Jim Brady was hit. Larry Speakes took the call, and that’s how the White House found out — before the Secret Service even told them.

“I said the President was shot at — because I wasn’t aware at that time whether the President was shot. Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent who pushed the President into the limousine — he wasn’t aware if the President was shot. He knew they had been shot at.

“In the immediate aftermath, you had the Sam Donaldsons of the world yelling at everybody and asking questions. ‘Was the President shot? Was the President shot?’ I said, ‘I can’t confirm that.’

“We did not have any Crisis Communications training prior to that. You were literally flying by the seat of your pants.”

David Prosperi went on to have a successful, exciting career. Most days, if the truth must be known, I’m liable to say the same.

But like I said, and will always say, David’s story is better than mine.

Chuck Wasserstrom

Written by

Freelance writer & storyteller. I tell my behind-the-scenes stories of 25 years in a big league front office on www.chuckblogerstrom.com.

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