President John F. Kennedy's son would have turned 60 last week
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From left: John F. Kennedy Jr. and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House in November 1962
| Credit: John F. Kennedy Library/Getty

Twenty-one years ago, a small plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean killed John F. Kennedy Jr. along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

It was the latest tragedy — but by no means the last — in the storied American family. President John F. Kennedy's oldest son was 38 when he died: eight years younger than his father when the latter was assassinated in 1963.

But there was a time, decades ago, that was not shadowed by their loss.

Speaking with PEOPLE for what would have been John's 60th birthday last week, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill remembered the delight of John's arrival on Nov. 25, 1960 — as President-elect Kennedy, who was in Florida at the time of his son's birth, rushed to meet him.

“He was elated that he was now a father and it was a boy, his first son,” says Hill, who was then assigned to incoming First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. “That made him very, very happy.”

Hill, 88, says that the the future president had borrowed a press plane to return to Washington, D.C., after Hill finally reached him while he was in the midst of working on his transition to the White House.

"This was early in the morning and he had already gone through a whole day of Thanksgiving day," Hill says, adding that Kennedy "was obviously excited, but had been rushed."

The secret service agent was one of the first to see John, moments after Jackie gave birth.

“He turned out to be quite the young man,” says Hill, the author, along with Lisa McCubbin, of two books about his time in the White House: Mrs. Kennedy and Me and Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.

John F. Kennedy Jr.
From left: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy visit St. Justine’s Children’s Hospital in Montreal in 1953
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction
John F. Kennedy Jr. as a boy
| Credit: Getty

The Kennedys' son was a first child like none other in American history, born into a spotlight that never truly dimmed.

Two months after John entered the world, his father was sworn into office — and then was fatally shot less than three years later, with the younger Kennedy photographed saluting his father's casket.

His uncle Robert F. Kennedy, an attorney general, senator and presidential candidate, was killed five years after that.

“Considering everything that happened to him in his life — his father was assassinated when he was 3, his uncle was assassinated at that time when John was only 8 — he grew up with such turmoil in his life, and yet he was a wonderful young, normal human being,” says Hill. “He turned out magnificently, considering everything he went through.”

That’s a testament to his mother, who “was elated” and “very, very happy” following his birth, making it a point in his early years to try and give him a normal life, despite the spotlight in the White House, Hill says.

President John F Kennedy and son John-John
President John F. Kennedy (left) with his son John F. Kennedy Jr. circa 1962
| Credit: Underwood Archives/Getty
John F. Kennedy Jr. plays in the Oval Office while father John F. Kennedy works.
| Credit: Courtesy JFK Library

As a young child, Hill describes how John "loved the military," airplanes and helicopters.

"We would go out to Middleburg where [the Kennedys] had leased this property, and where they eventually built a place, and he would play soldier in the woods around the house," Hill says. "He had his nanny, she would put on her nurse's uniform and she would be the military nurse. And he would take a stick that he would find and he used that as a rifle and kind of march around like he was a soldier counting cadence just like he heard the military do."

"He was a very rambunctious young boy," Hill says. "But he turned out to be a good man."

From left: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr.
| Credit: Paul R. Benoit/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Hill says the Kennedy kids — John and his big sister, Caroline — didn't join their father in Washington, D.C., until early February of their dad's term because their bedrooms weren't ready.

"[Jackie] wanted them painted a certain way and various things," he says, "So, they had me stay with a team of agents down in Palm Beach with Caroline and John until we brought them back early February of 1961."

Both John and Caroline "had to be respectful of the agents that were around them, of anybody that they came into contact with,” Hill says. The first lady was "very, very close to both her children" and "very concerned about them."

"She gave us implicit instructions that they should be permitted the opportunity to grow up as normal children as humanly possible. And I always kept saying, 'They're the children of a president of the United States, it's never going to be like other children throughout their entire life,' " Hill says. "But she really wanted it to be just normal."

From left: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr.
| Credit: Getty Images

Still, it was a different life than for most: “I remember her teaching John, they taught him how to bow — all that stuff — because of meeting heads of state or kings and queens and princes and princesses," Hill says.

As a child, John adored the pomp of the presidency, Hill says, and his mother made sure to bring him to White House events, sometimes sitting behind bushes with Secret Service agents in order to avoid press and still catch a glimpse of President Kennedy at various ceremonies.

The first lady "wanted [John] to understand and know what his father was doing," Hill says.

"We would hide behind some bushes so that she could show and talk to John and tell him what's going on without anybody knowing about it," Hill says.

The death of the president put much of the focus on his son.

From the moment the older Kennedy died, "all the unfulfilled hopes and expectations transferred to [John]," friend and historian Steven M. Gillon, previously told PEOPLE.

As an adult, John at times courted that attention and utilized it for projects such as George magazine, founded in 1995.

"At first he needed to find himself," Gillon, author of America's Reluctant Prince, told PEOPLE. "At first, he ran from his father's legacy and he ended up running in circles. At the end of his life, he wanted to embrace his father's legacy."

“I think he was slightly misunderstood because he was such a sweetheart — people think anybody that’s been through so much and they’re still this happy-go-lucky person must be kind of a dummy,” friend Sasha Chermayeff, one of his high school classmates, told PEOPLE last year. “The one thing I would want is for people to see that John was a really serious, hard-hitting thinker who would have done great things.”

Gillon and some of John's closest friends say he was preparing for a political career of his own, before the 1999 crash.

Hill remembers how John, then 27 years old, wowed the audience when he spoke at the 1988 Democratic National Convention on behalf of his uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“It was obvious that he was a very handsome man, well-spoken,” Hill says of John. “I think it was clear if he wanted to go into politics, it was going to be successful. Because he just had a way with people that was just — it was magic.”