It is with heavy hearts that Young America’s Foundation shares that President Reagan’s longest-serving Secret Service agent and close friend, John R. Barletta, passed away Tuesday afternoon.
John Barletta is a widely known and greatly beloved figure in the ranks of Young America’s Foundation. He is similarly beloved by many more across the globe who came to know of John’s unique role in protecting one of our greatest leaders.
John lived a life distinguished by service to his country. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, to Walter and Victoria Barletta, John first served his country as a member of the United States Army 1st Cavalry Division, answering the call of duty in Vietnam.
When he returned from Vietnam, John was again ready to answer the call of duty. He considered following in his father’s footsteps as a Somerville police officer, but in 1974, he was offered the opportunity to join the United States Secret Service as a special agent. John was transferred to the White House in 1978, during the Carter administration. John was serving as a Presidential Protective Detail Agent when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
An accomplished horseman, John was soon placed in charge of the new President’s equestrian detail. Like Ronald Reagan, John was most comfortable on an English saddle, one of many similarities that became important to forming a close, lasting bond. After his first ride with Agent Barletta, President Reagan—who was by that point quite familiar with the challenges the Secret Service experienced protecting a President on horseback—commented tellingly to John’s boss, “Well, you finally got me a good one.”
Following this pivotal ride, John’s fate was sealed. While John served in the White House and traveled the world with Ronald Reagan, the uniqueness of their relationship was defined by their shared love of horses. As John often put it, whenever the President “so much as thought about a horse,” John was there at his side. Later, John took over the Western Protective Division and the Ranch detail. Through the hours and hours spent together riding the trails, most often at the Ranch, but also during rides at Camp David and Windsor Castle, John Barletta and Ronald Reagan became close friends. John never let this dynamic get in the way of his job, however. “I was his protector first, his friend second,” John would say.
In all, John protected Ronald Reagan for 17 years, serving alongside his friend into the twilight years of President Reagan’s life. Even after John retired from the Secret Service, the two stayed close. John regularly visited the Reagans at their home in Bel Air, usually with one of the expertly trained labs John raised for Guide Dogs of America at his side.
There was a similarity and a bond between the two men that was unmistakable, even—or perhaps especially—to the President himself. On one of the many inscribed photographs of President Reagan and John riding together at the Ranch, both on white horses, Ronald Reagan wrote, “Looks like a matched pair—or 2 matched pairs.” This was John’s favorite photo.
In a letter congratulating Barletta on his retirement in 1997, President and Mrs. Reagan reflected on the special relationship they’d shared with him:
Whether we were visiting foreign lands, attending to the business of the nation at the White House, or simply spending time in that weathered room out back at the Ranch just cleaning the tack — you were with us during many of life’s most significant moments.
John Barletta was not just an Army veteran and decorated Secret Service agent. He was a patriot who continued his service to his country and extended his commitment to protecting our freedom by dedicating his “retirement” years to introducing new audiences and younger generations to Ronald Reagan and his lasting accomplishments.
John was introduced to Young America’s Foundation by Nancy Reagan shortly after YAF stepped forward to save Ronald Reagan’s beloved Ranch home in 1998. Mrs. Reagan told us that no one knew the property and Ronald Reagan’s life at the Ranch like John. He became a key partner as YAF worked to preserve the 688-acre property, historic adobe home, Presidential and personal artifacts, and most importantly the stories that made Rancho del Cielo a national treasure.
John served as a member of the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors since its inception, joining fellow Reagan alumni—including Attorney General Edwin Meese, Judge William Clark, and Frank Donatelli—in their commitment to protect and preserve the Reagan Ranch.
In addition to joining the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors, John inspired thousands of young people who walked in Reagan’s footsteps. His stories brought to life the wit, convictions, and personality of Ronald Reagan. His 2005 book, Riding With Reagan, gives a one-of-a-kind look at his time and relationship with Ronald Reagan. It is and always will be the authoritative record on the Ranch. In Riding With Reagan, Barletta recalls saying goodbye to his close friend Ronald Reagan, noting, “President Reagan is gone, but memories of him will remain in the hearts of millions.” Thanks to John Barletta’s work to preserve and protect the Reagan Ranch, generations more will have the opportunity to experience those memories.
John regularly greeted distinguished visitors and had a unique way of almost instantly setting at ease even the most powerful of figures. John welcomed Charlton Heston to the Ranch, zipped around the trails on an ATV with Fox News’s Jesse Watters, and left such an impression on bestselling author Nelson DeMille that DeMille wrote a character based on John into his book, The Lion’s Game.
While he enjoyed these encounters. John truly loved talking to young people.
In recent years John often spoke to groups of high school students in the Hay Barn at the Ranch, perched on a stool and framed by the open barn doors—something he would do faithfully, even as his health began to fail. It was always remarkable to see John, with his Boston accent, salty language, and completely unscripted tales, leave a group of students (born well after Ronald Reagan left office) with tears in their eyes. Through John, these students met Ronald Reagan in a way they never would or could from a textbook: they met a man of principle, a man of faith, a man of optimism, and a man of authenticity who was always the same person no matter what company he kept.
“John was the ‘gold standard’ for any experience at the Reagan Ranch,” remembered Young America’s Foundation President Ron Robinson. “All who visited Rancho del Cielo with John saw the Ranch through his eyes and his stories. John’s service to our country and President Reagan was reflected in his partnership with Young America’s Foundation to continue sharing the incredible experiences of Rancho del Cielo with the rising generation. The students and leaders of the Conservative Movement who had the privilege of hearing John’s stories were truly blessed. We join with countless others who were touched by John’s friendship in thanking him for his guidance, leadership, and inspiration. Everyone involved with Rancho del Cielo is indebted to John R. Barletta.”
“John offered his counsel, leadership, knowledge, stories, and countless hours of his time to ensure that the Reagan Ranch was properly preserved, and Ronald Reagan’s legacy shared with an intimacy and poignance that only John could provide,” remarked Andrew Coffin, Director of the Reagan Ranch. “John faithfully protected his President, riding partner, and friend and continues to have a powerful impact on the many, many young people who encounter the real Ronald Reagan through the stories John shared and the Ranch the two of them so loved. John became, and remains, a dear, dear friend and colleague to all of us at Young America’s Foundation.”
In a moving retirement letter signed by both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the President and First Lady describe John as about to “ride off into the sunset—shedding your ear piece, the dark suit and those ‘creative’ neckties for that perfect pair of tattered cowboy boots that tell the proud stories of long ago rides.”
Perhaps now we can imagine the two of them together again, riding into the sunset, each in that perfect pair of tattered cowboy boots, leaving it up to us to continue to tell the stories of their long ago rides.
John is survived by his sister, Barbara, and brother-in-law, Jerry Kenny, who were at his side in his passing; his brother, Robert, and sister-in-law, Nancy Barletta; sister-in-law, Mary Barletta (wife of his deceased brother Edward); brother Walter “Chuck” Barletta; many nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces and nephews; and John’s constant companion, Fenway.
UPDATE: John Barletta’s life will be celebrated with family, friends, and colleagues at a public memorial held at the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum in downtown Santa Barbara on Friday, August 31st at 5pm. All ages are welcome; dress is casual western. Please let us know you’re coming by registering here.