USOC security chief Larry Buendorf finally opens up about saving President Ford
Author: David Ramsey, The Gazette - February 12, 2018 - Updated: February 15, 2018
Larry Buendorf was a former college athlete, an overachiever and a Secret Service agent with a gift for seeing important details. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was a dropout, from college and virtue, who followed Charles Manson and often compared the cult leader to the Christ.
On a sunny morning in 1975, these two vastly different slices of America collided in a park in Sacramento.
Their collision altered history. Or, maybe, Buendorf’s bravery meant history was not altered.
A few months before the sunny morning, Fromme bluntly summarized a horrifying truth.
“Anybody can kill anybody,” she said in the little-girl voice that inspired her nickname. When she spoke the words, Squeaky was plotting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
On Sept. 22, 1975, Buendorf stopped Fromme from transforming her words to blood and death. Buendorf, working as a Secret Service agent, bolted between Fromme and President Ford and wrestled a 45-caliber Colt semi-automatic from her hand. If not for Buendorf’s instant, courageous act, Fromme might have joined presidential assassins John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald on a short list of American infamy.
Since 1993, the man who saved Gerald Ford has served as security chief for the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee. He’s kept American athletes safe during an era of peril.
He retires April 2, after exactly 25 years, but first embarks on his final major assignment. He’s traveled to the South Korea Olympics to keep American athletes safe from all menace, including North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, who, in a most recent twist, has sent a delegation including his sister south to the Games.
Buendorf, 80, looked back on his career in a small meeting room at USOC headquarters. He wore a blazer and pressed shirt with his initials on the sleeves. He spoke in a subdued voice that shows traces of his Minnesota youth.
“Well,” he said, “I can’t really judge how people get their fear, but I can tell you this: My job is to set that comforting level for our staff and athletes. If they see me get excited, they are going to get excited.”
Buendorf, who lives on the southwest side of Colorado Springs, is famously cool. Understated. Never ruffled. Seldom excited. A calm, sly grin is his trademark.
Rulon Gardner, who won gold at the Sydney Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, traveled the world with Buendorf.
“If you see Larry,” Gardner said from his home in Salt Lake City, “you shake his hand and tell him Rulon sends his love.”
In tense situations abroad, Gardner always looked to his silver-haired friend.
“Him smiling gives you a lot of confidence,” Gardner said. “You feel like you had a cocoon whenever you traveled with him. You put him in a 450-degree oven and he’s as cool as ice. The man will not sweat.”
The man also will not discuss President Ford and Squeaky and the Colt semi-automatic.
I talked with a host of Buendorf’s friends. All said this: He never mentions Squeaky and President Ford.
As Buendorf nears the end of his public life, he altered his reticence.
And talked about that morning in Sacramento.
It seemed Sept. 22, 1975, would be quiet for Buendorf, who was working the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.
President Ford was staying at the Senator Hotel, directly across a small park from the California state Capitol. Ford was scheduled to meet Gov. Jerry Brown at 10 a.m. (Brown, who turns 80 in March, is nearing the end of his second iteration as California governor.) The Secret Service planned to protect Ford during a blocklong ride. It would be over in a few dozen seconds.
The president’s spontaneous decision nearly shook American history.
“He walks out and says, ‘Oh, this is a nice day. I’ll walk,'” Buendorf said, speaking in the present tense about the long-ago day. “So he starts across the street.”
Buendorf followed Ford into the park, where Fromme waited. She wore a full-length gown, fire-engine red, and matching turban. A .45 Colt semi-automatic was strapped to her ankle.
In 1967, Fromme dropped out of her California junior college, ran away from home and headed to Venice Beach, where she hoped to roam with the beatniks, but no beatnik welcomed her. She was crying, alone on a beach bench, clutching school books and makeup.
“What’s the problem?” asked a dirty man who resembled a bearded elf.
She raised her eyes for her first look at Charles Manson.
“He smiled really bright,” Fromme wrote later, “and I had the strangest feeling that he knew my thoughts.”
In 1969, Manson led his small cult on a murder spree near Hollywood, killing six. Fromme did not participate in the murders, but remained a devout follower.
Minutes before Ford walked into the park, Fromme sat a few blocks away in a dingy apartment on J Street, where she engaged in an intense internal wrestling match. She was raised in an affluent home in Redondo Beach, Calif., the daughter of an aeronautical engineer. And she was a Manson disciple. On this morning, the contradictory sides of Squeaky clashed.
“I’ll take the gun,” Fromme told herself. “I have to do this. This is the time.”
But she ejected a bullet from the chamber, which meant she needed to pull the slide on top of the pistol to move a bullet to the chamber.
She wanted to kill Ford, or maybe she didn’t want to kill Ford. The Manson follower wanted to blaze in American infamy, but the suburban daughter wasn’t so sure. A conflicted Fromme strapped the haphazardly loaded gun to her ankle and walked to the park.
This lost young woman soon would stand face-to-face with the leader of the free world and his protector.
At Minnesota State, Buendorf had played guard for the basketball team and ran hurdles for the track team. After departing the Navy, he applied to work at the FBI and Secret Service. Both accepted him on the same day in 1970. He spent hundreds of hours as “the guy in the stairwell,” guarding against threats to Richard Nixon and Ford that never materialized.
Now, on a sunny morning, he was walking next to Ford, who was enthusiastically shaking hands.
“I was watching to make sure nobody hangs on or grabs his watch or whatever,” Buendorf said.
At 9:57 a.m., Buendorf looked into the crowd and spotted a woman in red.
“Squeaky is back, not at the front of the line but back a little bit and had a .45 strapped to her ankle,” Buendorf said, reaching down to his ankle to demonstrate. “It came up like this.”
Buendorf stopped to show how Fromme raised her pistol.
“When I see it coming, I stepped out in front of the president.”
Buendorf was not wearing a bulletproof vest. Didn’t matter. He was protecting the president, no matter the risk.
Fromme, after leaving the chamber empty, finished her internal wrestling match. The Manson follower defeated the suburban daughter.
Buendorf believes Fromme made the decision to open fire.
“She was probably pulling back on the slide,” he said.
He grabbed the gun with his right hand and seized Fromme with his left hand as other Secret Service agents rushed Ford to safety. Buendorf, wearing a suit and tie, was holding “a screaming girl” wearing a red robe. He wondered if gunfire would soon drop him.
“I’m expecting that she’s not alone,” Buendorf said.
She was alone. The president’s short, spontaneous walk through the park ended safely.
Buendorf, sitting in the meeting room, shook his head as he returned to the morning in Sacramento. He spent hours of boredom preparing for an instant of sheer terror. Most agents, he said, never face such a moment.
“Afterwards, you think about it and you think if she had a round in the chamber already, she would have shot through me and him,” Buendorf said. “It does put a little different slant on your life when you start thinking about it. A lot of things that people get stressed out about, I don’t get stressed out about.”
He became friends with Ford. He skied beside him on slopes in Vail. He sat with him in smoky backseats of limos and asked, politely, if the president would mind putting out his pipe.
He saw how deeply the president cared for his family. When first lady Betty Ford quit drinking alcohol, her husband stopped, too. At banquets, Ford asked Buendorf to make sure his toasting glass was filled with a nonalcoholic beverage.
He sat next to Ford on long plane flights. Sometimes, Ford talked with Buendorf the entire flight. Other times, Ford napped and read newspapers and spoke not a word.
“He set the pace,” Buendorf said.
Every Sept. 22, Ford and Buendorf talked by phone and remembered their moment. Ford died in 2006.
Even today, 42½ years later, Buendorf’s moment defines him. Olympic athletes hear they are being protected by the man who once protected presidents. These young athletes, born long after Buendorf’s Sacramento heroics, ask which president.
“George Washington,” Buendorf replies.
But the line does not always inspire knowing laughter.
“They’re beginning to believe me, so I dropped that,” Buendorf said with his grin.
His calm, the result of meticulous preparation, has a way of banishing fear. Rich Bender serves as executive director of USA Wrestling. He’s traveled with the U.S. wrestling team to Iran, with Buendorf overseeing the trip.
But the Buendorf moment that sticks with Bender is a 2001 journey to the Greco-Roman World Championships in Patras, Greece, 90 days after the 9/11 terrorist catastrophe. Bender selected a hotel room next to Buendorf’s. “He was my security blanket,” Bender said.
In the middle of the night, power went out in the hotel. In normal circumstances, the darkness would have been no big deal, but on this tense night not long after 9/11 it was a very big deal. Nervous wrestlers gathered in the hallway. Team trainer Rod Rodriguez brandished scissors for protection against attackers. Bender pounded on Buendorf’s door.
No answer, and the panic escalated.
Moments later, Buendorf walked calmly down the hall. He already had spoken to hotel representatives. Everything was fine, Buendorf announced before commanding the far-from-home Americans to return to bed.
“I’ll tell you what,” Bender said, “I went to sleep in five minutes.”
Buendorf hopes to inspire the same soothing sleep in South Korea. He’s famous for knowing all paths the bad guys might take to harm the good guys. Friends say, only half joking, he knows every back door in whatever city he’s visiting.
He works with local law enforcement and the State Department. He pays intense attention to every troubling detail so American athletes don’t have to. He wants them to focus on winning medals.
“I try to come in with whatever anxieties I might have about a particular place and get them settled out, nice and smooth,” Buendorf said.
Yes, there’s reason for anxiety in the hearts of American athletes and the hearts of those watching back home in America.
North Korean dictator Jong Un has engaged in a lively battle of words with President Donald Trump. Jong Un is a sinister and vengeful man, and he’s shown that he’s not all talk.
Each night, American athletes will go to sleep knowing Jong-un is only a few dozen miles away.
But they also will go to sleep knowing the man who saved President Ford is close by, laboring for the last time to keep them safe.