Recalling Veteran Who Saved President Ford
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Americans love heroes. Celebrating a hero is often our way of making some sense of tragedy. It was just a matter of hours between the shooting rampage in Tucson and Americas introduction to Daniel Hernandez. He is the 20-year-old intern who rushed to the aid of congresswoman Giffords, and he may well have saved her life.
His heroics thrust Hernandez into the national spotlight. At the memorial service last week for the six people killed in the rampage, he sat next to President Obama.
Well, Daniel Hernandez, who is openly gay, got us thinking about another hero more than three decades ago, whose life ended sadly after he prevented a national tragedy. His name was Oliver "Billy" Sipple. He was a Marine, twice wounded in Vietnam, also gay, and he saved President Gerald Ford from an assassin's gun.
Dan Morain has written through the years about Billy Sipple. He's political affairs columnist at the Sacramento Bee, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. DAN MORAIN (Columnist, Sacramento Bee): Thank you, happy to be here.
BLOCK: And Dan, why dont we go back to the day - September 22nd, 1975 - in Union Square, San Francisco. What happened?
Mr. MORAIN: Well, President Ford was addressing a conference at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. And as he walked out, Sara Jane Moore pulled out a gun and aimed. Billy Sipple, who just happened to be there, saw it. He yelled something, and then he grabbed her hand and grabbed her gun.
BLOCK: And Billy Sipple, at the time was, 33 years old. Tell us about his life leading up to that moment.
Mr. MORAIN: Before "don't ask don't tell," there were guys like Sipple in the military, and they simply hid. He served his tour in Vietnam. He was wounded twice - once in the head. Upon his discharge, he moved to San Francisco; he'd grown up in Michigan. He was a high school dropout. He was dyslexic. So he had, you know, he had some issues.
Moved out to San Francisco because he knew there, he'd be accepted. He worked on the campaigns of Harvey Milk and was around town during those years, in the 1970s and then on through this incident in 1975.
BLOCK: Youve written in your stories over the years, Dan, that people in the gay community - some well-known political figures, among them, Harvey Milk in San Francisco saw an opportunity here, that this was someone who was gay, who was a hero. And he was outed in the press.
Mr. MORAIN: Well, thats right. Herb Caen, who was probably the most famous columnist in San Francisco ever, quoted Harvey Milk as saying that Oliver Sipple was gay and they were very proud of this because it showed that - you know, this is 1975; this is before gays were being accepted, even in San Francisco. He was making a point that gays could be heroic figures.
Unfortunately - for Sipple - though, while he was out in San Francisco, at least some members of his family back in Michigan were unaware.
BLOCK: What happened within Oliver "Billy" Sipples family after it became known that he was a homosexual man?
Mr. MORAIN: His father didnt want anything to do with him. I was told that when his mother died, he was not really welcome at the funeral.
BLOCK: It seems pretty clear, from what youve written over the years, that Sipple had a number of psychological problems before this event. After the war, he was on disability pay. By the time he died - he was just 47 years old when he died - what had his life become?
Mr. MORAIN: You know, he had really lost control. As a Marine, he obviously would have been in great shape. But by 1989 when he died, he was 298 pounds. So he had become really, quite obese at the end.
He lived in an apartment at the edge of the Tenderloin - not a very nice part of San Francisco. He would get up in the morning, and he would go to one of two bars over on Polk Street, a few blocks away, and he would drink.
BLOCK: He had in the apartment in the Tenderloin, he had a framed letter hanging on the wall.
Mr. MORAIN: Yes.
BLOCK: What was that?
Mr. MORAIN: Well, he was not discovered until the beginning of February, about -I think - February 3rd, 1989. He died on his bed, and there was one letter signed, framed from Gerald Ford. And it thanked him for preventing violence on that day.
Now, who knows in retrospect why Gerald Ford never invited him to the White House, but he never did. And certainly at the time, there was criticism from Harvey Milk and others that the reason he was not invited and welcomed into the nations house, that the reason was that he was gay.
After his death, you know, I wrote a story a few days later. And I called President Fords secretary to see if President Ford would have anything to say about this and was told, well, we'll see what we can do. I waited a few days and nothing happened, and so the story ran.
A few days later, though, President Ford sent a letter two letters one went to Mr. Sipples brother, and one went to the bar where Sipple had hung out.
BLOCK: What did it say?
Mr. MORAIN: Well, it said that he was very sorry to hear about Oliver Sipples death, and the circumstances of that death.
BLOCK: Did Billy Sipple talk about whether he saw himself as a hero - and the limelight, the attention that came to him - as a result of what he did back in 1975?
Mr. MORAIN: He would, on occasion, talk about it. But he also said that he thought that that was something anybody would have done in that same circumstance. I dont think that thats true, but it certainly is the case that he acted. I think he understated what it was he did.
BLOCK: Dan Morain, thank you very much.
Mr. MORAIN: You're quite welcome.
BLOCK: Dan Morain is political affairs columnist with the Sacramento Bee. We were talking about Oliver "Billy" Sipple, who stopped an assassination attempt on President Ford in 1975.
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