September 22, 1975 -This is the sad story of Oliver “Billy” Sipple: It was a beautiful, warm day in San Francisco. He didn’t ask for fame, didn’t even want it. Sipple just happened to be standing right next to someone named Sara Jane Moore, a wannabe assassin, as she raised a gun and aimed it at President Gerald R. Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel.
Sipple, a former Marine and Vietnam vet, saw the gun out of the corner of his eye. He grabbed Moore’s arm as she fired, saving the President’s life. Afterward, he told people anybody would have done the same. Moore’s first shot missed Ford’s head by a mere six inches. Sipple just happened to be there, he reacted, and his life was ruined for it.
He refused to call himself a hero. He was a very private person trying to fly below the radar in 1970s-era San Francisco’s Gay Community. Sipple was involved with Gay Rights events, but he wasn’t much of an activist himself. He kept his personal life personal.
Sipple was celebrated as a hero, even if he didn’t like it. He became known as that Vietnam War vet that saved a president’s life. He attempted to elude notoriety, but someone passed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen a tip that Sipple was gay and an associate of Harvey Milk, then a candidate for San Francisco city supervisor and one of the first openly gay candidates for public office.
The Gay Rights movement was taking its first few baby steps at that time. Writer Randy Shilts wrote in The Mayor Of Castro Street: The Life & Times Of Harvey Milk (1982):
Milk wanted Sipple’s homosexuality made public. For once we can show that gays do heroic things.
Milk was probably responsible for Sipple’s life becoming public fodder for the press. Milk:
“It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”
Milk outed Sipple in order to portray him as a “gay hero” and so to “break the stereotype of homosexuals” being “timid, weak and unheroic figures”. There was no invitation to the White House for Sipple, not even a commendation. Milk made a fuss about that.
News reports mentioned that he was gay even though Sipple had not yet come out to his family. His mother disowned him, and he filed a $15 million invasion of privacy lawsuit against the newspapers that outed him. Sipple was convinced that the press was motivated by anti-gay sentiment. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed in 1984 after five years, but the legal and ethical issues it raised are still being discussed to this day.
His parents in Detroit were tracked down and teased about their gay son. His older brother George Sipple wrote:
“There were a lot of times he wished he had never saved the president’s life, for all the anguish it caused him. He only said it when he was drinking. He said life would have been so much simpler if he hadn’t have done it.”
George Sipple said that he, his father and another brother, who all worked for GM, were met with taunts and jokes at the factory. Sipple’s mother was harassed by neighbors. The family became estranged.
Because of the stress brought on by his notoriety, Sipple’s health deteriorated. From Vietnam, Sipple suffered emotional problems like Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and he received treatment at a VA hospital. In Vietnam, he had been wounded and hospitalized; then his hospital was bombed. In San Francisco, he spent every July 4th at the VA hospital, away from the sounds of firecrackers and explosions.
Sipple began to drink heavily. His bar friends rallied round the local hero, giving him rides home when he couldn’t drive. Sipple returned the generosity by buying rounds of drinks, especially after he received his disability checks.
Presidential letters are usually treasured by those who receive them, but the letter received by Sipple was a memento of bitterness and disappointment. It read simply:
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.
Sincerely, Jerry Ford
“My brother always felt Ford could have at least shook his hand or at least stood up someplace and had him appear with him and congratulate him, thank him.”
Sipple was found dead in his bed in 1989 with a half-gallon bottle of bourbon at his side. He had been dead for two weeks. He had died of pneumonia. His family collected his stuff from San Francisco, including the framed letter from President Ford that he had hung on the wall of his apartment. Ford sent a note of condolence to the Sipple family.
In addition to a condolence letter to the family, Ford sent a letter and flowers addressed to “The friends of Oliver Sipple” to Sipple’s favorite hangout, the New Bell Saloon:
Mrs. Ford and I express our deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend’s passing. I strongly regretted the problems that developed for him following this incident. It saddened me to learn the circumstances of his death.
Before his own death in 2006, Ford had embraced the call for LGBTQ Rights.
“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.”
Sipple’s funeral was attended by 30 people. Moore was given a life sentence, but was released from prison on December 31, 2007, after serving 32 years. Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme are the only two women to have attempted to assassinate an American president; both of their attempts were on Ford and both took place in California within three weeks of one another.