January 31, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN TIM McCARTHY MOVED INTO HIS plush new office at Security Link in Oak Brook, Ill., four months ago, he brought mementos from his Secret Service days. On one shelf is a card from George Bush; on another, a photo of Jimmy Carter. But his most treasured keepsake is a framed letter from Ronald Reagan. “There will always be the special gratitude I feel for your extraordinary heroism on that one cold day in March,” the President wrote. “It is a gratitude words could never convey.”

It is a gratitude shared by millions who witnessed McCarthy’s valor on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire in front of the Washington Hilton. McCarthy leaped in front of the President and was hit in the abdomen by a .22 slug. “I helped save a man’s life, which was what I was being paid to do,” says McCarthy, 44. “Could I do it again? I don’t know.”

Fortunately, McCarthy doesn’t need to ponder that question. Since retiring in October from his $100,000 plus-a-year job as special agent in charge of the Chicago division to become a corporate vice president for Security Link (which designs electronic security systems for homes and businesses), he has stopped wearing a gun. Does he miss the excitement? “No, I don’t think I miss it,” says McCarthy. “A lot of it was difficult and stressful, but I miss the people I worked with.”

As it happened, McCarthy was on duty only by chance on that fateful March day. He had lost a coin toss with a colleague to see who would fill a last-minute request for an extra agent to protect Reagan at an AFL-CIO luncheon. As the event ended around 2 p.m., McCarthy was opening the door of Reagan’s limousine when someone in the crowd began shooting. “I thought, ‘Oh s—t!’ You think it could never happen when you’re working,” he remembers.

Hinckley fired a .22-caliber revolver six times within two seconds: The first to be struck were presidential press secretary James Brady, who suffered permanent brain damage, and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, who later retired on disability. Next hit was McCarthy, who was wounded in the abdomen and instantly slumped to the ground. Finally, Reagan was struck in the chest by a bullet that ricocheted off the limousine.

After McCarthy’s wife, Carol, now 42, learned of the shooting on TV, another agent drove her from home in Montclair, Va., where she lived with Tim and the first two of their three children—Jeanne, now 16, and Jeff, now 14—to George Washington University Hospital in Washington. “He had no radio, so we had no news the entire 40-minute trip,” says Carol, a part-time hospital secretary. “That was probably good, since news reports were back and forth about everyone’s condition.”

Carol also remembers the First Lady’s compassion on the day of the shooting. “After I had spoken with the doctors, I was ushered into the chapel where Mrs. Reagan was praying,” she recalls. “She threw her arms around me and hugged me and told me how sorry she was.”

The 6’2″, 220-lb. McCarthy recuperated at home for three months and received nearly 50,000 get-well notes, including one from Hinckley’s parents. Before long, he says, “I started feeling antsy. It was always just a matter of when I would go back to work—not if.”

McCarthy learned his sense of duty early on from his father, Norman, a sergeant with the Chicago police, and his mother, Elizabeth, a housewife. Along with his four sisters, McCarthy attended strict Catholic schools. At the University of Illinois he studied finance and played football before graduating and joining the Secret Service in 1972. (“What interested me most was that they did this thing called protection,” he says.) In 1979 he was transferred to Washington from Chicago to work for Carter and stayed on to cover Reagan. “He didn’t even know who I was,” says McCarthy.

Now friends, the Reagans and McCarthys write and call several times a year. When McCarthy’s daughter Jeanne developed a case of osteomyelitis, a bone-marrow infection, Nancy Reagan sent a stuffed bear and flowers. Later, when McCarthy had knee surgery after suffering an injury in a parish basketball game, Nancy called to see how he was doing.

These days, McCarthy says he can view the shooting in perspective. “Really, I don’t dwell on it,” he says. In fact he has been so busy that he missed last year’s thriller In the Line of Fire., which features a Secret Service agent played by Clint Eastwood in a life-and-dealh situation like McCarthy’s own 13 years ago. Still he receives dozens of requests each month to speak about the incident, and he leaves his Orland Park, Ill., home to fulfill as many as he can. “You get thrust into history,” he says, “and you can’t be prepared for it. You just hope you don’t let your head get so big it doesn’t fit on your pillow anymore.”


BONNIE BELL in Chicago

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