I read a piece of forgotten history recently that moved me. It was story about a Marine veteran who, in 1975, stopped a woman from taking a second shot at then president Gerald Ford. It took place outside of a hotel in San Francisco and the woman, Sara Jane Moore, had pulled a .38 cal pistol from her purse and fired directly at President Ford’s head, missing it by a few feet and chipping the wall behind him. Before she could pull the trigger again, a large blond man standing behind her grabbed her arm and threw her to the ground. He was just another in the crowd, someone who wanted to see the President. His name was Oliver Sipple and he was completely shaken by the event. Oliver had served two tours in Vietnam and, while injured in the service, was suffering the subtle, yet more devastating effects of PTSD. Springing into action had opened wounds inside him, but the worst was yet to come…

In all the media fanfare, reporters dug deep into this hero. Oliver went by Billy Sipple and was originally from a conservative Michigan town. Billy was also friends with Harvey Milk and was a quiet, however connected, member of San Francisco’s gay community… A membership his family in Michigan had no idea about. Without his consent, the media made his sexual orientation the headline. He was completely outed and his family back east found out this way. His parents disowned him publicly. As his fame rose in the community and people were trying to get a hold of him, most inquiries were directed to the police’s sex crimes division. In 1975, it was assumed by a misunderstanding world that gay men were pedophiles and perverts and in San Francisco, the gay community was monitored by that section of their police force. As his life was unraveling for his heroic deed, the President hadn’t even called to thank him.

In time, President Ford did write a letter thanking him and asked if he could do anything in return for his selflessness. Oliver Sipple asked the President if he could have something nice to say to his mother and father, in a phone call or letter, to try and patch up some of this mess that was becoming his life. Ford did not. The last family member to remain in Sipple’s life was his brother George. Ultimately, Oliver sued the newspaper for $15M for exposing such a private element of his life without his consent. After it drug on for nine years, the case was thrown out. Oliver didn’t win. There were elements of the gay community who were pleased that his heroics, and orientation, were so public. They felt it was an equalizer that showed gays were capable, strong, and confident. Oliver took the brunt of that publicity and it destroyed him.

He spent his veteran’s disability check at the bar as soon as he got it and lived a life circling the drain after he saved the President. The trauma was too much. When his mother died, his father wouldn’t even allow him to attend the funeral. The gay friends he had in San Francisco had mixed reviews about him then. Some thought he wanted to be closeted because of his lawsuit against the newspaper and turned their backs on him. Those that accepted him were dying at an alarming rate because of the AIDS epidemic that overtook the gay community in the 1980s. In the end, Oliver was found in a chair in his one room apartment, a bottle Jack Daniels sitting by him, television on and severely bloated. He had been dead for roughly ten days by the time he was found. Oliver’s friend, Wayne Friday, had noted that Oliver would buy rounds of drinks at the bar for more people than were at Sipple’s funeral. He was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno at the age of 47.

“I believe in human life and I believe that this country stands for human values… including life and freedom. I am first and foremost a human being who enjoys and respects life, but I feel that I… I feel that a person’s worth is determined by how he or she responds to the world in which they live, not on how or what or with whom a private life is shared. These are my words and they’re my feelings.” – Oliver Sipple

by Rory Andes

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