James Brady, the former White House press secretary who survived a shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, died Monday. He was 73.
“We are heartbroken to share the news that our beloved Jim ‘Bear’ Brady has passed away after a series of health issues,” Brady’s family said in a statement.
As PEOPLE reported in 1982, on the first anniversary of the incident that nearly cost Brady his life before his miraculous recovery: The most frightening aspect of the injury was the effect it might have had on Brady’s mental processes. Yet according to [his wife] Sarah, “He has retained his near-photographic memory, [though] he was forgetful about who came to visit him or the date, but that has improved and is almost back to normal.”
He and his wife became tireless advocates to end gun violence – a federal law demanding a background check on handgun buyers bears his name – yet another scar that Brady carried from that fateful day was that he sometimes found it difficult to control his emotions and his voice.
“He will end his sentences on a higher pitch, generally when he’s laughing,” Mrs. Brady told PEOPLE. “Maybe he doesn’t control his laughing quite as well as before the accident. He’ll learn to suppress it.”
A federal law requiring a background check on handgun buyers bears his name, as is the White House press briefing room.
“In the short time he was able to serve as White House Press Secretary, Jim brought sharp instincts, integrity and energy to one of the most demanding jobs in Washington,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement Monday. “I still remember vividly that day in March 1981, when Sarah and I sat together in a tiny room near the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, trying to comfort each other while we both were gripped with unspeakable fear. The bond we established then was unlike any other.”
Mrs. Reagan added, “Jim was the personification of courage and perseverance.”
“He is somebody who I think really revolutionized this job,” Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary said in a statement. “And even after he was wounded in that attack on the president, was somebody who showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about.”
Brady “leaves the kind of legacy … that certainly this press secretary and all future press secretaries will aspire to live up to,” Earnest said.
As Monday’s family statement announcing his passing also went on to say: “Jim Brady’s zest for life was apparent to all who knew him, and despite his injuries and the pain he endured every day, he used his humor, wit and charm to bring smiles to others and make the world a better place.”