Reluctant Hero, American Tragedy?
Oliver Sipple is a favorite topic among students of journalism when the topic turns to freedom of the press and “outing” somebody.
Oliver “Bill” Sipple was a former member of the United States Marine Corps, twice decorated, twice wounded Vietnam veteran, credited with probably saving the life of President Gerald Ford from would be assassin Sara Jane Moore and “openly” gay.
Oliver Sipple was just wandering around San Francisco on a fall afternoon on September 25, 1975. His steps took him past the St. Francis Hotel where a crowd had gathered and President Gerald Ford was speaking. Sipple moved forward in the crowd to get a better look of the goings on when he happened to notice a dark haired woman standing next to him He saw her reach into her raincoat and pull out a revolver. Reacting instinctively, he grabbed for her arm and deflected it just as she pulled the trigger. The bullet, instead of hitting Ford, ricocheted off the wall a few feet away and wounded a cab driver who was watching the proceedings. Sipple then tackled the assailant and held her down to prevent her from getting off another round. The Secret Service took it from there…
Lauded as a hero in the national press over the next couple of days, Oliver Sipple was trying hard not to be the center of attention. It seems his family and friends back in his hometown of Detroit had no idea that he was gay. That was until….
The San Francisco Chronicle began wondering why the powers that be in the White House had not recognized Sipple publicly. So far, the only recognition that Sipple received was a short note from the President that read :
"I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation." -- President Gerald Ford/September 25, 1975
The Chronicle article wondered if the White House was avoiding Sipple because he was gay. Harvey Milk, perhaps realizing that the gay community could use some good publicity had this to say:
"That guy saved the President's life. It shows that we do good things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms."
Mr. Sipple though, was having none of it. He tried to deflect attention from himself by offering up the following:
My sexual orientation has nothing at all to do with saving the President's life, just as the color of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel." -- Billy Sipple
It wasn’t long before the national media picked up on the story and word leaked back to Detroit to Mr. Sipple’s family and friends about his lifestyle. He had, in effect, been “outed”.
Back in Detroit, Sipple’s family became the subject of ridicule and abuse by former friends and neighbors. When Sipple tried to talk to his mother, she refused his calls. In local circles, she complained that she couldn’t even go out in public anymore. When she died in 1979, his father told him not to bother to come to the funeral.
As a result of all of this, Oliver Sipple sank into a downward spiral of depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. He tried to sue the San Francisco Chronicle and six other newspapers for their role in his predicament. The suit was finally dismissed after five years.
By the time he was 47, his physical condition had also began to deteriorate. His weight ballooned to over three hundred pounds and he was getting by strictly on his government pension and tending bar in a neighborhood saloon. His apartment in the Tenderloin District was perhaps indicative of his feeling towards life and how it had treated him. It was littered with press clippings denoting the events of that fateful day on September 25th, 1975.
Oliver Sipple was found dead in his apartment on February 2, 1989, an empty bottle of bourbon by his side. Estimates put his actual date of death as January 19th, 1989. About 30 people attended his funeral. There was little, if anything, mentioned in the press. A note addressed to the “Friends of Oliver Sipple” from Gerald Ford was received shortly after the funeral. It simply read.
"Mrs. Ford and I express out deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend's passing..." President Gerald Ford, February , 1989