CLEVELAND - When those old enough chat with each other about where they were when they learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, Paul Landis usually remains silent. He knows exactly where he was - within 20 feet of the President - when gunfire erupted, killing the nation's leader.
Landis was a Secret Service agent who guarded the President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on a daily basis. On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, Landis was in the Secret Service car immediately behind the Presidential limousine as the motorcade slowed to make a tight turn into Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
"I was looking at the president when he got hit," said Landis. "I saw his head explode."
Landis' voice is soft and lilting as he describes what he saw and heard that day when bullets struck President Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.
For the last several years, Landis has worked as a security guard at the Western Reserve Historical Society. He left the Secret Service less than a year after the assassination.
Landis does not often talk of the assassination. Less than a year after the President was killed, he left the agency. Up to that point, he had worked in the Eisenhower White House and then the Kennedy White House. When Kennedy moved in the mansion in 1961, Landis was assigned to protect Mrs. Kennedy and the couple's children, Caroline and John Jr.
In the book "The Kennedy Detail," written by Gerald Blaine, an agent who worked with Landis, there are photographs of Landis with members of the First Family, It was a good job he enjoyed. Mrs. Kennedy always called him "Mister Landis."
"She was personable; she was beautiful," said Landis as he walked his security guard route through the museum. "She treated the agents around her with respect."
Landis contends there was only one gunman - Lee Harvey Oswald - who fired three shots from the Texas Book Depository Building. The former agent has not wavered from that opinion. That is what he wrote in a deposition for the Warren Commission which officially investigated the assassination. Strangely, Landis was never called to testify personally before the Commission, which was headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
When Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Landis sat in a corridor with Mrs. Kennedy, her skirt and white gloves still heavily stained with the blood of her husband. She had cradled him while the car in which he was shot sprinted to the hospital.
Landis said she sat quietly. "She stared into space and said nothing," remembered Landis.
He said the agents never openly discussed the assassination while they were in Dallas, even after the official medical announcement that the chief executive had died. He said there was no time to discuss anything; agents had to quickly surround Lyndon Johnson, the nation's president upon Kennedy's death.
In 2010, after "The Kennedy Detail" was released, the agents who had worked the Kennedy White House had a reunion. In that gathering, there was therapy. Each man described how he had suffered mentally from the assassination. From that, Landis said he grew to find an inner peace. The nightmares he had had for more than 40 years disappeared.
For several years, Landis worked in advertising in New York City. He recalls how one day many years after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy got out of a car which pulled to the curb where Landis was standing. She immediately recognized him from the White House days and heartily greeted him, calling him by name, "Mr. Landis."
As for the assassination of the president, Landis said he does not usually watch large numbers of documentaries on the JFK assassination. He did appear in one - "The Kennedy Detail," which was based on Blaine's book.
For now, retired from advertising, he works a few hours at the museum, walking softly through its many corridors and exhibits, his eyes watching the comings and goings of those who visit. At a section of the museum where there are vintage cars, his eyes regularly notice a 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible, eerily similar to the Lincoln Continental in which the president was riding when bullets streaked through the sunlit air of Dallas on November 22, 1963.
When asked if he thinks of the assassination which he witnessed first-hand when he sees the car in the museum, he said in his soft voice, "Yes, but it doesn't haunt me." With a pause, Landis said, "It just brings back memories."