Martin Underwood, 88, state employee, advance man for two U.S. presidents

March 25, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Martin E. Underwood, a retired state employee who had been an advance man for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and was riding in the Dallas motorcade when President Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, died of cardiac arrest March 18 at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Mr. Underwood, who was 88, had been recovering from injuries suffered in a fall a few days earlier at the home of his son in Carney, where he had been living.

He had retired about 1979 from a position in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where he went after joining state government and working as an aide to former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Born in Ryan, Iowa, Mr. Underwood was captain of the baseball team and earned a degree in business administration from the University of Iowa in 1936. He then became a regional sales manager for the Schaeffer Pen Co. - "selling fancy pens to farmers in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids," said his son, Martin L. Underwood.

Mr. Underwood enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in Europe. He became a sergeant major, landing at Normandy and later serving under Gen. George S. Patton Jr., whom he admired.

After the war, Mr. Underwood moved to Chicago, where he first ran a small Army surplus company - and occasionally bumped into gangster Al Capone at the Black Hawk Hotel, his son said.

Mr. Underwood then ran a 56-person public relations firm and did contract work for about five years for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. He later had a job in Washington with the Small Business Administration.

Mr. Underwood was visiting Daley's office in 1960 when a call came from the Kennedy campaign looking for an advance man, he recalled in a 1979 article in The Sun Magazine. The mayor recommended him, and Mr. Underwood flew that day to Knoxville, Tenn. He said he was photographed there at the campaign plane with the smiling candidate - whom he had just met - and was identified in a local newspaper as "one of JFK's closest assistants."

In November 1963, he had been assigned to handle President Kennedy's visit to Houston, which left him free to ride in the motorcade in Dallas the next day, Nov. 22. After the fatal shooting in Dealey Plaza, he was sent aboard Air Force One and helped to obtain the wording for the presidential oath of office for President Johnson.

"I knew my father was on that trip," the son said, recalling the nuns telling his third-grade class at St. Ursula's parochial school on Harford Road about the assassination. His father was "really devastated," he said, because Mr. Underwood and others had urged President Kennedy to use a protective bubble on the limousine.

He continued to work for the White House until President Johnson decided against seeking a second term, and then obtained a similar job with Mr. Mandel - the result of a call from the president, the former governor said yesterday. He also moved to the Baltimore area.

"Marty was one of his favorites," Mr. Mandel said of President Johnson. "He tried to take care of the people who had been loyal to him."

Mr. Mandel, who remained a friend of Mr. Underwood's, said, "He worked for me in my elections, both of them. He did an excellent job, he really did. ... He was a very fine person, very knowledgeable."

"His memories of his time with both President Kennedy and President Johnson were actually remarkable," said Mr. Mandel.

Mr. Underwood had traveled around the world, including a trip to Vietnam.

In the 1979 article, former speechwriter and syndicated columnist John P. Roche called Mr. Underwood "the genius of the tribe" of "that rare breed, the inspired advanceman."

"After watching Marty for four years, I was convinced that he could turn out a huge crowd in the middle of the Kalahari Desert on 24-hour notice. Not only would they be there, but they would have American flags, balloons and spontaneous handwritten posters. (Johnson loved to see those spontaneously misspelled.) Marty made it look easy."

A funeral Mass was offered Saturday.

In addition to his son, Mr. Underwood is survived by a daughter, Deborah Agro of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a sister, Rose Hughes of Dubuque; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His marriage ended in divorce in 1960.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the University of Maryland Medical Systems, Shock Trauma, 29 S. Greene St., Suite 500, Baltimore 21201-1534.

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