Jack Walsh was a relatively new Secret Service agent when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he soon was assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy and her two young children, Caroline and John Jr.
“Those were difficult times,’’ said Jim Christian, a retired special agent in charge with the Secret Service. “The nation was in mourning, she was probably the most important person in the United States, and the country pretty much adopted the children.’’
The assignment brought Mr. Walsh more than the standard chores of missing his children’s birthdays so he could guard the children of America’s Camelot. As fascination with the Kennedys increased, writers sought him out to see if he would share secrets.
“We would get repeated calls from people writing the unauthorized Kennedy books. He wouldn’t take a call,’’ said Mr. Walsh’s son David, of Cincinnati. “Whatever happened behind the walls at the Kennedy compound, stayed behind those walls.’’
Mr. Walsh, who became agent in charge of protecting the late president’s children and was so well loved by the family that he was a pallbearer at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, died in his home of cancer Thursday. He was 79 and had lived in Milton for more than 40 years.
“Jack had one of the more difficult jobs in the Secret Service,’’ Christian said. “He had to keep Washington happy and that meant keeping the children safe, and it also meant keeping her happy. That was an enormous balancing act.’’
When the president’s widow lived in New York City, she “wanted to keep those children safe, but she also wanted them to have normal lives,’’ Christian said. “The desire was that the children and their friends would not see the agents, but the agents had the responsibility of not letting anything happen. With all the other protectees, you were right there. Here, you were trying to stay out of the way, sometimes on busy New York streets.’’
Mr. Walsh, he said, “did it all, and he did it well.’’
Despite efforts to fade into the scenery, Mr. Walsh occasionally showed up in books by and about the Kennedys, or on the Globe’s front page, as he did May 17, 1965. In a photo, John Kennedy Jr. runs joyously down a street in England as a smiling Mr. Walsh towers over him, keeping pace.
Sarah Bradford’s 2000 book, “America’s Queen,’’ quoted a letter Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote in 1967 about a trip to Ireland. She thought she was swimming alone on the coast when a current threatened to sweep her away.
“I was becoming exhausted, swallowing water and slipping past the spit of land, when I felt a great porpoise at my side,’’ she wrote. “It was Mr. Walsh. He set his shoulder against mine and together we made the spit.’’
She recommended that the Secret Service award Mr. Walsh its highest commendation and requested that he lead the detail protecting the family.
“He was fiercely loyal and loved loyalty more than anything else,’’ said Geoffrey Kierstead, a friend and retired Secret Service agent. “And he was so loyal to the Kennedy family.’’
The feeling was mutual. Raymond L. Flynn, a former mayor of Boston, knew Mr. Walsh and his family since their childhoods in South Boston.
“I was in New York jogging one day through Central Park, and Jacqueline Kennedy was there,’’ he said. “She was sitting by herself trying not to be noticed, but I recognized her. I went over and introduced myself and said, ‘I’m a friend of Jackie Walsh.’ I ended up sitting with her for 45 minutes. All she wanted to do was talk about him.’’
John F. Walsh grew up in South Boston and, despite traveling the world with the Kennedys, never really left.
Photos of Southie hang in his Milton home. He attended Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston and its high school.
When he served in Korea with the Marines, he answered the obligatory “where you from’’ with: “Gate of Heaven.’’ Pressed to provide more, he would add: “I and 8th,’’ the street corner close by his family’s home.
Mr. Walsh was part of the Aces, a street gang from the days when pride was the weapon young guys wielded.
“He was known as Jack Walsh, I and 8th, one of the Aces,’’ David said. “He hadn’t lived in Southie for a long, long time, but you’d never know it.’’
Standing several inches above 6 feet, Mr. Walsh started going gray while still in high school.
“He had silver hair at 18 years old,’’ said his son John II, of Milton.
After returning home from Korea, Mr. Walsh graduated from Suffolk University and worked at City Hall until he became a Secret Service agent.
When the Kennedy children were too old for Secret Service protection, Mr. Walsh switched to the Boston office and coordinated protection when Pope John Paul II visited Boston in 1979. The Walsh family was up front during Mass, receiving Communion from the pope.
In 1963, Mr. Walsh married Ann Welch, whom he always called “my Ann.’’ Family was so important that while guarding the Kennedys in New York, he sometimes drove to Milton just to spend the night, and headed back the next day.
As if to make up for holidays and birthdays he missed while on duty, in retirement “he went to every one of his grandchildren’s games,’’ David said.
In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. Walsh leaves a daughter, Maura Walsh-Hammer of Hingham; another son, Matthew of New York City; a brother, Joseph of Hyde Park; a sister, Ellen Concannon of South Boston; and nine grandchildren
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. today in Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. Burial will be in Milton Cemetery.
When his illness progressed, Mr. Walsh “had three requests: ‘I want to die in my bedroom, I want to be waked at O’Brien’s Funeral Home in South Boston, and I want my funeral at Gate of Heaven,’ ’’ David said.
Mr. Walsh may have spent years training his watchful gaze on those who made history, but in the end his own past was most important.
“The best praise is when the people you grew up with and lived with respect you,’’ Flynn said. “That’s the greatest tribute that Jackie got. He traveled with presidents, popes, and prime ministers, but the people who love him the most are the people he grew up with.’’
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.