Bill Carter, the legendary former Secret Service agent for President John F. Kennedy whose later music business experience includes managing artists like Reba McEntire and legal representation for the Rolling Stones, recently recounted his remarkable career before the George Washington University Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at the Marvin Center Amphiteater in Washington, D.C.
But Carter also addressed the anxiety that students naturally feel as they near the end of their college studies.
“Life is not always going to go as you think it will, so expect the unexpected,” he said, then illustrated with examples from his own unexpected experiences following high school graduation in his tiny hometown of Rector, Ark. College not being an option, he joined the Air Force in 1953, then attended Arkansas State University on the GI Bill. Higher education, he said, prepared him for and provided the opportunities that would guide his future.
Deciding to go to law school at the University of Arkansas, Carter first accompanied is brother, who went to Dallas to take a civil service exam. Rather than just sit there, he took it, too.
Broke following 18 months of law school, he was about to take a job as an insurance adjuster (“It paid $450 per month and they furnished you a car. Sounded like heaven to me.”) when he was contacted by the U.S. Secret Service, which had found him through the Civil Service roster in Dallas.
“I wonder what direction my life might have taken had I not taken that test,” Bill told the students. “Now the 26-year-old kid from Rector was in training school in Washington, which included the White House. Never in my wildest imagination growing up in Rector, did I think this kid would ever make it to Washington, much less meet the president of the United States.”
Carter was in Washington on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, and was sent to the White House immediately following the assassination.
“Those four days still haunt me and will until I die,” said Carter, who was assigned to the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas, and brought Marina Oswald to the commission’s hearings in Washington in March, 1964.
“JFK inspired my generation with new ideas, hope, and vision,” Carter told the students. “He touched and remolded lives, and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history.”
Devastated by the death of Kennedy—“the most magnetic personality I have ever met, and I have met several”—he left the Secret Service in 1966 and returned to law school and graduated in 1967. But his time in the Secret Service led to future opportunities.
While practicing law in Little Rock in 1969, he was hired, because of his Washington contacts, to represent a young man who was trying to establish a cargo airline. After three years of legal work to change Civil Aeronautics Board regulations, Federal Express was born.
Then in 1973, Bill’s friend Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked him to help another friend whose clients were in trouble. And thus began Carter’s work for the Rolling Stones, who had been barred by the State Department from returning to the U.S. because of open drug use and riots by fans at American concerts in 1972.
Carter’s exploits with the Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life and Bill’s own memoir, Get Carter.
“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time getting various members of the Rolling Stones out of legal troubles so they could perform in the United States,” he related. “And while I was busy doing that, I also established friendships with some of the most colorful characters that ever walked the planet. Me, a kid from little Rector, Arkansas.”
Bill also shared other adventures stemming from his new entertainment business involvement, most notably his friendship with actor Steve McQueen and the retrieval of his body following his death in Mexico. But besides representing the likes of the Stones, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings and Bill Gaither—to name a few—Bill represented Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, bringing him into a confrontation with President Nixon in his White House office.
“None of these opportunities would have come my way had I not been prepared to take on the challenge,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be ready to do what it takes—even if you think the job is beyond your skill.”
Always remember, he instructed, that “hard work creates opportunity.” You never know who you will meet at a job, he explained, and the opportunities that flow from those fortuitous meetings.
But even the best education, he suggested, “is not always enough to be a good and effective lawyer.” While he himself was “never a brilliant lawyer,” he allowed, “I had common sense and knew how to deal with people. That kind of knowledge is a valuable commodity, but you’re not going to learn it in a classroom.”
It’s vital, then, to “get to know your future clients–the ones who will be counting on you to help them. The better you know the big variety of life’s circumstances, the better prepared you will be to relate, and help.”
So “believe in yourself, hold strong to your faith, and know there is a world out there waiting for you to make a positive impact,” Carter concluded. “One person can change the course of history. Be that person. You can do it.”
Noted fraternity president Will Jennings, “Most of the speakers we bring in to discuss what they have done with their careers in law focus on how necessary it is to get into the best law school and work for the best law firm as quickly as possible. With the recent economic recession, those who are interested in law in my generation are always worried about the next several years and are under a lot of strain from mentors and peers who constantly tell us we will be unemployed or underpaid if we don’t follow a career center’s clearly defined plan better than anyone else.”
“But Bill offered the students a different story—one of hope,” added Jennings.
[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]