Caught in Fate's Trajectory, Along With Gerald Ford
Sunday, December 31, 2006
The accidental hero lived in torment. He didn't ask for fame, didn't even want it. Oliver "Billy" Sipple just happened to be standing in the path of history, right next to Sara Jane Moore, the would-be assassin, as she raised a .38 and aimed it at President Gerald R. Ford outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel.
Sipple, a former Marine and Vietnam vet, saw the gun. He grabbed Moore's arm as she fired and saved a president's life. Afterward, he told people anybody would have done the same.
Only later, after he was outed in the media as a gay man, after his parents back in Detroit were hounded and teased about their gay son -- only then would he realize the personal price to be paid.
"There were a lot of times he wished he had never saved the president's life, for all the anguish it caused him," says his older brother, George Franklin Sipple, 66, of New Boston, Mich. "He only said it when he was drinking. He said life would have been so much simpler if he hadn't have done it."
But history had grabbed and pummeled Sipple, then 33, just as it did to a lesser extent another man, John Ludwig, a 42-year-old taxi driver who stood at the other end of that bullet's wild trajectory.
The two men had nothing in common, didn't even know each other, but are forever connected in the historic tableau into which they stumbled on Sept. 22, 1975.
They shared something else, too -- a sense of bitterness and disappointment over how they were treated during their walk-on roles in a presidential drama. (As for Moore, she is serving a life sentence for the assassination attempt.)
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Sipple was feted as a hero, a man who'd saved the day. But even as he tried to fend off the notoriety, someone passed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen a tip that Sipple, the presidential hero, was gay and a close 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 in its infancy. Author Randy Shilts wrote in "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," that Milk wanted Sipple's homosexuality made public. Shilts quotes Milk as saying, "For once we can show that gays do heroic things."
Caen wrote about Sipple, several newspapers picked up the item, and the news got back to Detroit, back to Sipple's family. If his parents knew he was gay, they did not admit it, says George Sipple. So when the news appeared in the newspaper, it was received as an embarrassing blow.
George Sipple says that he, his father and another brother, who all worked for General Motors, endured taunting and laughter on the factory floor.