Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President and Then Was Cast in an Unwanted Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

The circumstances of Billy Sipple's death came as no surprise to his friends.

Sometime around Jan. 19, Sipple turned on his television and lay on his bed, half-gallon bottles of cheap bourbon and 7-Up within reach, and fell asleep.

Two weeks later, Wayne Friday stopped by Reflections, a Polk Street bar that was one of Sipple's daily stops. The bartender, worried that Sipple had not been by for days, asked Friday to check up on him.

Without even opening the door of Sipple's apartment, Friday, an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney, knew that his friend was dead.

"People shouldn't die like that, alone," Friday said.

Littered With Mementos

Sipple's $334-a month apartment looked like a junk store gone to seed. Mementos of value only to their owner were arranged in no order. Bad paintings covered chipped plaster. His most prized possession, a framed letter, hung on a corner wall.

"Dear Mr. Sipple," the letter began.

"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."

Signed, Jerry Ford.

The letter was dated Sept. 25, 1975. Three days earlier, Oliver (Billy) Sipple, a disabled Vietnam Marine veteran, happened to be at Union Square when Sara Jane Moore aimed a .38 caliber revolver at then-President Gerald Ford. Sipple lunged and knocked away the gun. The bullet went wild. The President was whisked away, safely.

Anyone would have done the same thing, Sipple told his friends. It was no big deal.

Others saw it differently. Not only was he a hero, he was gay, and actively involved in gay politics and in causes--a fact known widely here but not elsewhere.

In San Francisco in 1975, gays were seeking political power--and there were many who thought Sipple's heroic act could go a long way toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about gays here and across the nation.

Sipple was about to become famous. In the process, he would suffer. His story was news, but it forever estranged him from his parents. He knew he had problems before the fame but he also maintained that the problems became far worse after: he became more nervous, drank more, considered suicide and thought people were following him.

Right to Privacy

"I have a lot of stress and I take it out on booze," he said in a 1979 deposition, describing what his flash of fame had brought.

Sipple's story is retold in journalism schools and discussions about the right to privacy. There was even mention of it in the movie, "Absence of Malice." The reporter portrayed by Sally Field wrote a story that prompted the subject to commit suicide. The editor tried to console her by telling about "the guy in the crowd" who "saved the President's life."

"Turned out he was also gay. That's news, right? Now the whole country knows that too," the editor in the movie said.

Billy Sipple died of natural causes, according to a coroner's spokeswoman, although the exact cause of death remains unknown. But his friends say he had been suffering from pneumonia. He had a pacemaker and had ballooned to 298 pounds, long ago losing his square-jawed good looks.

Sipple was 47, but many believed him when, for some reason, he announced that he was 59 at a birthday party he threw for himself at Reflections three months ago--and said it would be his last.

About two weeks before his body was discovered, Sipple stopped in at the New Bell Saloon where he told bartender Frank Hagan that he had been by the Veterans Administration hospital, but was told to go home. A hospital spokesman said no record exists of such a visit.

"I'm not a doctor, but I could tell he couldn't breathe," Hagan said. The bartender called him a cab and told him to phone a doctor when he got home. Sipple promised he would.

"I believe that was the last anyone saw him," Hagan said.

"The guy died in pain, with a bottle by his bed. That's pain. That's need for anesthetic," John Wahl said after Sipple's funeral, a simple affair last week attended by 30 people.

Wahl was the lawyer who brought an unsuccessful invasion-of-privacy suit on Sipple's behalf against several newspapers, among them The Times.

Back in 1975, another client of Wahl's, political activist Harvey Milk, a long-time friend of Sipple's, was making a name for himself by making a serious run for the Board of Supervisors, trying to organize gays and urging that they emerge from their closets.

"Bill was part of that outreach. He was a guy who would do anything we asked--cook, walk precincts," recalled Bob Ross, publisher of the weekly Bay Area Reporter.

"Harvey's whole attitude was to show people that not everyone who was gay runs around with lipstick, high heels and a dress," Ross said. Sipple, the ex-Marine, seemed the perfect one to break down the myths. "This was an ordinary American citizen, and he was a gay man."

The first press mention of Sipple's sexual orientation appeared on Sept. 24, 1975, two days after the attempt on Ford's life. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen reported that Milk and another gay man "who claim to be among Sipple's close friends, describe themselves as 'proud--maybe this will help break the stereotype.' " The item also noted that Sipple worked in Milk's supervisorial campaign.

"In the gay press," recalled Ross, "we were happy to have a hero."

But there was a problem. "Bill didn't want to be a hero," Ross said.

Once the item appeared in Caen's column, the ramifications of Sipple's sexuality added a new twist for other reporters. When President Ford did not immediately thank Sipple, Milk told reporters that Sipple was being ignored because he was gay.

Still, Sipple was evasive when reporters called. When headlines about his homosexuality reached his hometown of Detroit, the reason for Sipple's reluctance became apparent. His parents were shocked that he was being called a prominent member of San Francisco's gay community.

"My father was too old, too stubborn. He couldn't change," said George Sipple, Bill's brother, a Detroit auto worker who came to San Francisco to arrange Bill's burial and clean his apartment.

The estrangement between Sipple and his father was so deep that when his mother died in 1979, his father made it clear that he was not welcome. He could go to the funeral home or the cemetery, but not when his father was there, George Sipple recalled. Sipple stayed in San Francisco.

"His personal life never should have made it back to Detroit," Sipple's brother added.

In the years after he grabbed Moore, Sipple rarely discussed the incident, and downplayed his role when he did. He told his brother that he wasn't even thinking about the President when he grabbed the would-be assassin. He thought that for some reason she was going to shoot him.

In his later years, however, several of his friends would say that when the liquor got him to talking, Sipple would boast about his heroism and inflate his service rank, telling people who would listen that he retired as a Marine colonel. The highest rank he attained was corporal. He was discharged as a private first-class.

Though Sipple believed his notoriety led him to drink more heavily and ruined his life, his life apparently had long been troubled.

He was a high-school drop-out, dyslexic and had been a drinker for years, he said. He was wounded twice in Vietnam, including once in the head, and lived on a 100% veteran's disability pension since his release from the Marines in 1970. The disability was for both psychological and physical reasons. The coroner's report noted that he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

But although he lived on a veteran's pension, he never stopped being generous, his friends said. He would give at least $50 to any worthy charity, or help a Tenderloin derelict.

"I have watched him split his last two dollars. Give one dollar to someone who needed a meal, and use the rest to buy himself a drink," Ross said.

Sipple had come to San Francisco in 1970 knowing that he would be accepted as he never could be back home. But he never envisioned that word of his life style would travel back to his hometown, attorney Wahl said in explaining why Sipple decided to file suit after the publicity that followed his act of heroism.

"There was a principle," Wahl said. "If someone is gay and wants to keep that fact private, then who the hell is Herb Caen or anyone else to say it's not a private fact?"

Sipple's suit was thrown out by a superior court judge in San Francisco. The case dragged on until 1984 when a state court of appeal held that Sipple had indeed become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.

Although the papers won the suit, the Sipple story weighs on Daryl Lembke, then a reporter for The Times whose article was among the first to appear after Caen's column item.

"It is a source of concern that will stay with me--that I attempted to make Oliver Sipple a gay hero," Lembke said. "Instead, I helped estrange him from his mother. . . . If I had it to do it over again, I wouldn't."

Caen doesn't have such second thoughts. In a brief phone conversation, he said: "It was a good item. Members of the gay community wanted it published to show they weren't all a bunch of wimps."

Sipple nonetheless left a mark and that pleased him, said George Sipple, taking a break from cleaning his brother's apartment. George recalled that his brother once said that long after he died, "somebody will pick up a book and see Oliver Sipple saved President Ford's life."

George Sipple felt sorry, however, that he could not honor his brother's wish that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried Wednesday at Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.

His brother also wondered why there had been no message of condolence from former President Ford.

Penny Circle, Ford's chief of staff at his Palm Springs office, said the former President had been traveling since she learned of Sipple's death.

"I couldn't get a hold of the President," she said, "and it just fell through the cracks."

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