|Posted on Sun, Nov. 16, 2003|
To serve a president
Alzheimer's stealing former agent's memories
Berger, of Charlotte, was a member of the Secret Service for 20 years, trusted by presidents and their families. But today he is rapidly losing the memories of those exciting years, and of the quieter moments he shared with his wife, Dolly, and their four children.
Alzheimer's is sapping the strength of the man who drove the hearse with a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy to Dallas' Love Field, who flew to Andrews Air Force Base, the man whose shoulders gently helped lift Kennedy's casket from Air Force One.
Now it's the job of Andy Berger's family to take care of him.
Together they remember Kennedy -- and in doing so, pay tribute to the husband and father who served them, and his country.
Nov. 22, 1963
Where were you when Kennedy was shot? If you were born on the other side of 1960, you probably know the answer.If you weren't, it may be hard to understand that the presidency was just a part of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's appeal. To a generation, he will always be 46 years old, a symbol of youth, promise and an optimistic America.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Andy Berger had already arrived at the Trade Mart in Dallas, where tables were set for a presidential luncheon. Berger heard that the president had been shot from a Dallas policeman and rushed to the hospital in a police cruiser with Dr. George Burkley, Kennedy's physician.
In "The Death of a President," William Manchester describes the confusion at the door of the trauma area at Parkland Memorial Hospital:
"Nurse Doris Nelson was just passing through it when a tall man in a light gray speckled suit shouldered his way past her, shouting, `I'm FBI!' He appeared violent, and Andy Berger, the closest agent, knocked him down. Sprawled on all fours the intruder gurgled, `You're not in charge now. What's your name?'...
"Credentials and commission books were whipped out; it turned out that the man really was from the bureau's Dallas office, though his presence in the hospital was unauthorized. Dragging himself away, he protested, `J. Edgar Hoover will hear about this!' Hoover did, and the unfortunate agent vanished into the limbo reserved for FBI men whose blunders embarrass the Director.
"He was wrong. Berger was right."
`He cried and cried'
The 26-year-old Andy Berger could stand up to the FBI, but his wife, Dolly, remembers how he crumbled when he finally returned to their Hyattsville, Md., apartment between 1 and 2 the next morning.
Andy walked in, dressed in his dark suit, with his trench coat wrapped over his arm. He sat down in the living room, where the husbands of Dolly's college friends had waited so she would not be alone.
In just over two hours, Andy Berger had witnessed the death of one president and the inauguration of his successor. Closer than most, he had seen the widow in the bloodied pink suit who had insisted on sitting beside her husband during that hearse ride.
Andy Berger didn't say a word.
"He cried and cried and cried," Dolly said. "My heart ached for him."
Dolly can't talk about that moment without crying, too.
Andy caught a few hours sleep before resuming his place in a history that he seldom spoke of.
The first time her husband introduced her to the president, in spring of 1963, a pregnant Dolly Berger shook Kennedy's hand at the Hilton in Washington. "He was handsome, the way he smiled, the way he pushed his hair back, the way he used his hand to reach inside his suit jacket to adjust it."
The last time Dolly saw the Kennedys together was at the Black Watch Band and Pipes ceremony at the White House. John and Jackie sat on the portico with Caroline and John-John.
"The children were so cute. Mrs. Kennedy dressed them alike. She was so beautiful."
It was 4 on a Wednesday afternoon, according to the invitation that hangs in the Bergers' family room.
The date: Nov. 13, 1963.
`Can we talk?'
When the former Marine joined the Secret Service in 1961, he and the former Catherine Frances "Dolly" Ferguson had been married just one year.To Andy, the kid from the Bronx, the job was a dream.
Dolly knew life with Andy would be different. It was hate at first sight.
Andy came to a dance at the Larchmont Shore Club in Larchmont, N.Y., with Dolly's friend Sheila. Dolly, the doctor's daughter, thought he seemed out of place, but asked him whether he was having a good time anyway. He replied, "You are without a doubt the biggest snob I have ever met."
They saw each other at a party a few weeks later. Andy apologized. "Can we talk?"
They did, for hours and hours.
Andy charmed her skeptical parents as well as everyone he met. He was drop-dead gorgeous and had a take-charge gait that drew stares.
"I told him I fell in love with his walk."
`Who loves you?'
Now, Andy's walk is unsteady. Dolly is there to lend her arm. It's Monday at the Lawyers Glen Retirement Living Center in Mint Hill, Andy's home since May. Dolly visits Andy, 66, regularly, and most often on Sundays and Mondays, her days off.
"Who loves you more than anybody?" she asks.
"You do," he answers.
Then they kiss, the romantic kiss of a couple married 43 years.
The center smells of coconut-scented cleaning solution and fresh flowers.
That's important to Dolly. When they were first married, Andy brought a yellow rose home with each week's paycheck. When he could afford it, the single flower became a bouquet. Sometimes, he would make her cover her eyes until he arranged the flowers in a plastic cup.
"I know it isn't as nice as you could do it," he would say.
Andy never let a day go by without telling Dolly he loved her, even if it meant a call from the other side of the world over a band radio: "I love you, over and out."
The agents who worked for Andy still call to check on Dolly.
"They tell me, `He loves you with his whole heart and soul.'
"Some people never have that."
At Lawyers Glen, Andy is getting tired.
She asks: "Who am I?"
He answers: "Love of my life."
In 1961, the Secret Service called John Brady as a reference."They asked me if Andy was patriotic. No one was more patriotic than Andy. We joined the Marine Corps Reserves our freshman year at Fordham. He was proud as a peacock when he made it."
"This guy," John Brady says, "is something."
They met on the playground of St. John's elementary school in the Bronx. "Sports was our life -- punch-ball, tag, ring-a-leerio. Andy was as competitive as a person could get."
In eighth grade, the sports editor of the St. John's Eagle named Andy Berger the school's best athlete. The sports editor was Andy Berger, who assured his buddies he won the title in a fair election.
Andy, John and Richie O'Rourke, who lived around the corner, formed the core of "The Purple Gang," a street-smart variation of "The Lavender Hill Mob." But Andy, the charismatic leader, had little in common with the reluctant Alec Guinness in that 1951 film.
Andy wasn't a troublemaker, exactly. More like "a provocateur," according to Richie.
Most of the gang became the first in their families to go to college. "We didn't want to be cops or firemen or work in construction," says John. As a walk-on, Andy made Fordham's freshman basketball team. The third baseman also played varsity baseball as a sophomore.
While attending New York Law School at night, Andy heard other students talking about the Secret Service, something else to compete over. He left law school after a year for the challenge of government service.
The gang stayed together, and through the years, Andy organized trips to Kiawah Island and fishing at Cape Hatteras. Richie says: "He had us believing we could catch whales."
On the way to a fall football game last month in Mississippi, John and Richie stopped by Lawyers Glen to take Andy out for lunch and tall tales. When Andy walks into the room, his face lights up: "John Brady!"
"Can you still dunk, you think?" asks John.
John knew something was wrong a few years ago when he asked his best friend about summer plans and Andy said, "You have to talk to Dolly."
"This was the guy who made all the decisions."
"Andy was our leader."
One baby dies, one survives
Andy Berger loved Jack Kennedy. They were Catholics, making something of themselves at a time when being Catholic could be a liability. Both men were brash, and full of energy and fun. There were lots of secrets in Andy's job. There were things -- especially the details of Nov. 22 -- that he never wanted to think about again. But there were plenty of stories Andy could tell.
At the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., Andy and several other agents stood watch as Kennedy and a few friends took out a sailboat. After he came to shore, Kennedy urged the agents to take a turn. The water was calm, the boat easy to handle.
It didn't take long for Andy and the agents -- city kids all -- to capsize.
The president was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.
Andy saw Kennedy cry one other time, a time that linked the two families in sadness and triumph.
A pregnant Jackie Kennedy went into labor and on Aug. 7, 1963, at Otis Air Force Base hospital on Cape Cod, gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Five and a half weeks premature, he developed lung disease. The president rushed from Washington to be with her. Patrick was taken to Boston Children's Hospital, where he died Aug. 9.
Dolly remembers Andy saying how horrible it was when Kennedy buried his son. He was standing just behind the president and saw "his shoulders rise and fall because he was sobbing so hard. It was hard for the agents to see him like that."
Dolly was also pregnant, due in September. Something didn't feel right and Andy was still away in Massachusetts. So she grabbed her daughter and the two young nieces Dolly was baby-sitting and got on a plane to visit her parents in Larchmont.
The pains started again.
On Aug. 10 in New York City, Dolly had a boy who developed the same respiratory illness that took Patrick.
"When I woke up in the morning I asked, `Can I see my baby?' They wheeled me down the hallway in a wheelchair and I saw him in an incubator."
A priest walked in.
"He had baptized him during the night: Andrew Paul Berger."
Dolly's mom and the doctor called Andy in the middle of the night. Once Andy heard the news, he told Ken O'Donnell, special assistant to the president, who told Kennedy. The president made sure Andy was flown immediately to New York in a private plane, with a police escort to the hospital.
Andrew Paul lived.
Not long after, Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, approached Andy Berger on his 4-to-midnight shift. "The president wants to see you."
Kennedy presented Andy with a framed etching of the White House -- signed by JFK and Jackie -- for newborn Andrew. Kennedy told his protector: "My son didn't make it, but your son did."
`Any truth to the rumors?'
John F. Berger was born Sept. 2, 1965. The F is for Ferguson, his mother's maiden name. He knows what the John means."I take a lot of pride in how my dad was a big part of American history." Yet, his father was a man who never bragged about his job. "He would brag about his kids."
John Berger's memories of the White House are those of a little boy who -- after asking Dad to take him to work -- was left to explore the White House corridors and steal a peek at Richard Nixon at his desk.
John thinks being witness to JFK's death affected the rest of his father's life. "I imagine how I would handle something like that. When I was 26, I was worried about my next golf game."
Daughter Kathleen -- called Katie -- thought she'd try one more time to pry a secret from Andy. It happened about 10 years ago. With her husband, Boyd Higgins, in the car, and her dad at the wheel on a drive along Wrightsville Beach, they heard a radio report about Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
"OK Dad, tell me. Is there any truth to the rumors?"
Andy smiled. "To my grave. I will take it to my grave."
Katie would ask that question. Her mother describes her only daughter, her firstborn, as the feisty one.
When Katie brought home stray dogs and cats, it was her animal-lover dad that helped her sneak them into the house. She told her girlfriends that the Johnny Rivers song "Secret Agent Man" with its lyrics "there's a man who leads a life of danger" was about Andy.
In a picture that captures a visit to Kennedy's grave at Arlington Cemetery -- with a pint-sized Katie in a fur-collared wool coat with a double row of buttons -- Andy holds onto his 5-year-old daughter's tiny right hand with both of his.
Last Christmas, Katie had the picture blown up and wrapped it up for her dad.
"I wanted to give him something that was meaningful to him. I prayed: `Lord, let him know who this is when he opens this present.' I was afraid he would think it was my daughter, Kelsey, who looks just like me."
Katie held her breath as he pulled out the photo.
"Pop-pop, that's me and you."
"I know who that is."
Calm in the chaos
Sometimes it's hard to get seventh- and eighth-graders to settle down. Chris Berger, who teaches and coaches basketball at Charlotte Latin, knows how. He asks his students about President Kennedy.
He shows them posters he bought at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, when he wanted to shout, "That's my dad!" every time he saw Andy in a photo on display.
Saving the best for last, he says his dad was in Kennedy's Secret Service detail.
Chris came along in 1970, and moved with the family to Charlotte in 1981, so his memories of his father's time in the Secret Service aren't as vivid as those of his older sister and brothers.
He understood when he visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, in what was the Texas School Book Depository. Eighty-eight yards. Chris couldn't believe how short the distance was from the window where Lee Harvey Oswald fired a rifle at Kennedy's car as it passed below. Photos from Parkland Hospital, Love Field and Andrews Air Force Base show Andy Berger calm in the chaos.
When Heidi, Chris' wife, caught a glimpse of Andy in the documentary-style beginning of Oliver Stone's "JFK," she called out, "Hey Chris, you're missing your dad."
For their first child, due in May, Andy's cameo will be another great story about Granddad and Kennedy.
Old friends don't forget him
Andy Berger resigned from the Secret Service in 1981 with an impressive resume: youngest agent, at 32, in charge of the Buffalo, N.Y., field office; cracking down on forgers and counterfeiters from offices in Syracuse, N.Y., Baltimore and Washington; personal detail for presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Vice President Agnew.Yet, even after he moved to Charlotte that year to work as director of security for North Carolina National Bank, eventually started his own business, then retired, he carried the Secret Service with him.
At parties, friends would sit close to Andy and try, after a couple of drinks, to get him to reveal presidential secrets. All struck out, as the phrase "to the grave" became his trademark.
Andy's Secret Service years were on future son-in-law Boyd Higgins' mind when he nervously walked into a lunch meeting at Carmel Country Club to ask for Katie's hand in 1989. Boyd was convinced the ex-agent had compiled all sorts of background checks. Before Boyd could get a word out, Andy told him: "I think I know what you're going to say. Let me make it easy for you." Then he told the story of how he asked Dolly's parents for her hand.
Even the part of Secret Service life that didn't involve protecting presidents followed him to Charlotte. Kennedy friend Frank Sinatra became Andy's friend, and Old Blue Eyes never forgot him.
When the new Charlotte Coliseum scheduled its first concert in 1988, only one act would do. For Frank Sinatra, only Andy Berger would do for security.
The three Berger boys got to ride in the limo with Dad and his old friend. Chris, 18 at the time, remembers Sinatra's outfit: a silk purple shirt, gray slacks and gray wingtip shoes.
"I thought, `My dad is cool.' "
Protecting each other
This isn't the way it's supposed to be.
Life now for Andy and Dolly Berger was going to be about children and grandchildren and deep-sea fishing trips.
Then, about five years ago, the family started to notice things.
Andy, who liked to join his son John on the golf course, left a game early one day. Three or four hours later, John found him waiting to ask directions home.
Dolly noticed Andy kept missing the turn for their church, St. Gabriel. "We're already late for Mass," she would tell him.
By the time the kids threw a surprise 40th anniversary party in 2000, everybody suspected. The children thought they were protecting Dolly; she thought she was protecting them.
Andy's doctors confirmed Alzheimer's.
Dolly made sure Andy was comfortable every day before she went to work as manager of Paul Simon for Women clothing store. He would call her if he got confused.
In August 2002, Andy wandered into a house in the neighborhood. Two teen-age boys calmed him down before calling the police. Dolly never left him alone again.
During the day, she'd take Andy to the Adult Care & Share Center on Idlewild Road. If it were up to Dolly, she'd still be working and taking care of her Andy at home. But the kids were worried.
"We couldn't afford to have both parents sick," says John.
Together, the family chose Lawyers Glen.
"One of the blessings, if you could say there's a blessing, is that he doesn't know he's ill," says Katie. "If you knew the man he was, he would hate this."
At Lawyers Glen, even if he's just finished dinner, Andy will say, "I'm starving." Katie thinks it's his way of saying, "I hate this."
The cheerful phone message at their southeast Charlotte home says: "Hey there! You've reached Dolly and Andy Berger...."
Andy is there in the pictures on the family room wall: with Lyndon Johnson and his daughter Luci, with Frank Sinatra, with Dolly and the kids all wearing the polyester prints of the 1970s.
He's there in the books about Kennedy and Nov. 22 that line the shelves: driving the hearse in "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye," hitting the siren to clear a way through traffic in "The Day Kennedy Was Shot."
Dolly gets up each day and goes to work. But when she comes home, Andy isn't sitting in his chair across from her to hear about her day and assure her, "You can handle anything."
"We knew each other so well. We could be sitting in the same room and not say a word and be happy with each other's company.
"I miss his warmth."
Still, "I thank God for my husband. I fell in love with him years ago. How could there be anyone else in my life?"
What could have been
Forty years later, the world remembers the last day of John F. Kennedy and wonders what might have been. So does the Berger family and even -- if only for a moment -- the man who protected them all.It's lunchtime at Lawyers Glen.
Dolly is snuggled on a chair beside Andy, rubbing his back. Andrew is there, smiling, blowing softly on his dad's sweet potatoes to cool them, calling him "Pop-Pop," the name the grandkids gave him.
Dolly whispers: "Mary wants to ask you about the Secret Service."
She warns me not to expect much. She says Andy hasn't spoken in sentences for months.
Then, Andy's hand stops shaking. He turns. Behind his tinted glasses, his hazel eyes stare into my brown ones.
"What do you want to know?"
Tell me about Kennedy. Was he your favorite?
"Oh yes. It was the way he handled himself."
The day of his assassination?
"We thought, `Why did it all happen?' "
Books About JFK
Andy Berger is mentioned in several books about John F. Kennedy.
Andy appears several times in "The Death of a President: Nov. 20-Nov. 25, 1963." Among the countless books written on the days surrounding the assassination, William Manchester's is considered a classic.<
"It was exactly 2:08 p.m. (Dr.) Burkley, who entered the hearse by the rear doors, squeezed his chunky frame behind Mrs. Kennedy. He had to make himself very small. Clint Hill and Godfrey were there, too, and three agents were cramped in front. Kellerman was on the right as usual, but Andy Berger was behind the wheel. This was the only time in these last days that Bill Greer did not chauffeur the president
� Brief mention in "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye" by Kenneth P. O'Donnell, David F. Powers (contributor), Joseph McCarthy.
� Brief mention in "The Day Kennedy was Shot" by Jim Bishop.