CHICAGO - Thirty years ago today, Tim McCarthy set out for work at the White House in a brand-new suit, the nicest one he'd ever owned.

McCarthy can't recall why he and his wife, both from the same working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, decided he should splurge on a decent suit. He remembers it was a wool-cotton blend, sort of blue-gray.

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Agents on the presidential detail in Washington, where McCarthy had been stationed for two of his 10 years with the Secret Service, typically ordered suits from a tailor in Florida; send your measurements and a few weeks later a box arrived with a polyester jacket and pants. Sometimes three guys on the same detail would be wearing identical lousy suits.

"No one noticed the Secret Service anyway," McCarthy said during a recent interview at the Orland Park, Ill., police station, where he has worked as chief for 17 years.

But on March 30, 1981, McCarthy was walking beside Ronald Reagan as the president and his entourage left the Washington Hilton.

And on that day, McCarthy became the most famous Secret Service agent alive.

At 2:27 p.m., as Reagan walked to his limo outside the Hilton, John Hinckley Jr. stepped out from a crowd less than 20 feet from the president and raised a cheap .22-caliber pistol.

Press secretary James Brady was felled by the first shot, Washington, D.C., police Officer Tom Delahanty by the second. Other police and bystanders fell away as McCarthy spun to face the gunman.

The third shot was on a line to hit Reagan, a vector on which McCarthy had immediately crouched in a linebacker stance. The bullet struck McCarthy in the chest, spinning him in a half-pirouette and knocking him to the ground.

The fourth bullet slammed into the limo door as Secret Service agent Jerry Parr lunged inside with the president. The fifth glanced off the frame of the limo, striking Reagan under the arm on the ricochet. The sixth glanced off the pavement.

Less than five seconds after the first shot, the limo squealed away to George Washington University Hospital, where Reagan nearly died from the wound.

Secret Service agents in training still watch video from those few seconds, Parr said, as an example of a well-executed "cover and evacuate" scenario. Protocol changes and metal detectors have made it nearly impossible for someone to get near the president with a gun, so the real value of the footage is to give new agents a reminder of the dangers of their job. No agent has taken a bullet for a president since.

"If Tim's not there, I'm sure that either I or the president would have been hit (by the third shot) that day," said Parr, who retired from the Secret Service in 1985 and became a minister, confident that God had put him on Earth for a special purpose.

"The only thing between the president and this guy was (McCarthy's) big Irish body."

McCarthy is 61 now. His hair is thinner, his face more fleshy and ruddy than it was 30 years ago. He has recounted the assassination attempt probably thousands of times, and during interviews his answers come rapid-fire, not impatiently, but with the speed of a practiced response.

The most common question is, "Why did you do it?" In truth, he had done the same thing hundreds of times in training drills until stepping in front of a bullet became a reflex.

"No agent thinks it will happen to them. If you stopped to think about it, you probably wouldn't do it. It's not a rational act," he said.

McCarthy said he is a spiritual man _ a product of St. Denis parish on the South Side _ but he does not believe it was his divine mission to take a bullet meant for Reagan.

"Most of the agents that have been in that situation have done what they were supposed to do," McCarthy said.

The bullet that hit McCarthy struck his rib, punctured his lung and diaphragm and raked his liver. He never got back to running five to seven miles a day as he did before he was shot.

While he was recuperating, friends in Chicago suggested McCarthy retire immediately, return to the city of his birth a national hero and run for Congress.

"I was a young guy with a family. I said, 'What if I lose?' I'd have been out of a job," McCarthy said.

Instead, McCarthy took four transfers in the 10 years after the shooting, before he returned to the Chicago field office for good. He retired in 1993 as the agent in charge of the Chicago Division.

He and his wife, Carol, settled in Orland Park, where McCarthy was hired as chief of police in 1994.

In 1998, McCarthy made a failed bid for Illinois secretary of state, and his name has popped up as a possible candidate for other offices.

McCarthy acknowledges that his name recognition enhances his viability as a candidate, but he wanted to run on his other merits, too.

"I have a resume as an administrator, that I could hold almost any office," McCarthy said. "If (getting shot) is all you have going for you, that's not a lot."

When he was a boy, McCarthy remembers his father being shot in the hand as a Chicago police officer. Norm McCarthy was a decorated World War II veteran and was in dozens of shootouts as a member of the department's robbery squad.

Norm McCarthy cried on the plane ride to Washington the night his only son was shot. In the intensive care unit at George Washington Hospital, Tim McCarthy recalls his father said to him:

"I'm sorry this happened, but this is the world that we live in. I'll understand if you don't want to go back."

Tim McCarthy spent two weeks in the hospital and was back on duty at the White House that June. He was on Air Force One with Reagan when his father died in 1987.

A flip of a coin had put McCarthy in the line of fire on March 30, 1981.

That morning, there was an extra agent on McCarthy's shift, and he and agent Joe Trainor decided a coin toss would determine who would go with the Reagan detail that afternoon.

Win, and McCarthy could spend the afternoon catching up on paperwork. Lose, and he would have to expose his new suit to the drizzle on the way to and from the Hilton.

Asked if he ever wished the coin toss had gone the other way, McCarthy gives an uncharacteristic _ but still brief _ pause before answering.

"No," he said. "I'm glad I got to do it. I'm glad I got to do what I was trained to do. I wouldn't want it another way."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.