By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.)
* * *
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.
And Ethel Sipple, Oliver's mother, was harassed by neighbors.
"It was partly the neighbors, partly the reporters, partly the papers," George Sipple says. "For two days they hassled her, wanting to know about her gay son and all this stuff. . . . And they didn't believe her when she said he was in the Marines."
"It never really hurt me. I lost some friends, so I figured they weren't really worth being friends anyway," George Sipple says.
He says he remained proud of what his brother had done, saving the president's life.
Oliver Sipple flew to Detroit to try to put his parents at ease, to explain "that he wasn't embarrassing my father in any way, because he wasn't in the same state with him and he was an adult and should be able to live the way he wanted to."
The family became estranged.
"For a period of time, she didn't want to have nothing to do with him," George Sipple says of his mother. Oliver was not disowned, as some reports of that time said. But the family needed to absorb what had happened.
Back in San Francisco, Oliver fought a battle on another front, against the media. He filed a $15 million lawsuit against seven newspapers, accusing them of invading his privacy.
"He told me he wasn't interested in suing the papers for saying that he was gay," his brother says. "He was interested in suing for the right that he could be gay, that it was his lifestyle, he chose that, and it was nothing wrong."
Oliver was convinced, according to his brother, that the press was motivated by anti-gay sentiment. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed in 1984 after five years, but the ethical issues it raised are highlighted in legal and journalistic textbooks to this day.
While the lawsuit dragged on, Sipple's health deteriorated. From his service in Vietnam, Sipple suffered from what he called shell shock, his brother says. The war had made Oliver very emotional, George says, and he received treatment at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
In Vietnam, he had been wounded and hospitalized; then his hospital was bombed. In San Francisco, he spent the Fourth of July holidays at the VA hospital, away from the sounds of firecrackers and explosions.
And he drank more and more heavily. His bar friends rallied round the local hero, giving him rides home when he couldn't drive. And he returned the generosity by buying rounds of drinks, especially when he received his disability checks, says Wayne Friday, an old friend.
"I think about him a lot because he was well liked," says Friday, a former San Francisco police commissioner. "People really liked the guy and not only because he spent a lot of money on drinks. But after the incident, and after his family disowned him, there were people . . . who would always make sure he had a place to go on a holiday."
Eventually, the family tensions eased and Oliver Sipple was welcomed back into the fold, says his brother.
"They accepted it," George says of his late parents. "That was all. They didn't like it, but they still accepted. He was welcomed. Only thing was: Don't bring a lot of your friends."
Oliver died in 1989 of pneumonia. His family collected his effects from San Francisco, including a framed letter from President Ford that he had hung on the wall of his apartment.
"I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday," it read. It was signed, "Jerry Ford."
Presidential letters are the stuff of history, often treasured by those who receive them. But the letters sent to Sipple and to Ludwig, the man who was hit by Moore's bullet, were reminders of bitterness and disappointment.
"My brother always felt he [Ford] could have at least shook his hand or at least stood up someplace and had him appear with him and congratulate him," George Sipple says.
Talking about the letter, Sipple says, "It's not really a big deal anymore."
After talking about the letter, he went into his basement to retrieve it and discovered it was missing.
* * *
Ludwig's letter is gone as well. He sold it long ago. Sold it out of anger.
His life was not nearly as impacted by the events of Sept. 22, 1975, as Sipple's was, but his brief period in the public eye left him disillusioned.
Now 73, living in Sacramento and promoting a book about his journey from Nazi Germany to the United States, Ludwig describes how his brush with history unfolded.
On his usual taxi rounds that day, he noticed the crowd at the St. Francis Hotel. A police officer told him President Ford would soon come out to greet the crowd, so Ludwig joined in the wait.
He was still standing next to the cop when he heard a loud cracking sound. Then he felt a sharp pain in his groin. When Sipple hit Moore's arm, the bullet whizzed wildly, crashing into the hotel's facade and ricocheting toward Ludwig. It didn't penetrate his skin, but left a bruise as if Ludwig had been hit by a rock.
In the pandemonium that followed, Sipple and Ludwig were taken in for questioning. Ludwig was checked at a hospital emergency room, too. And both were released back into their private lives.
The press wrote their stories. The White House made contact. As Ludwig recalls, he was asked if he needed any help. All Ludwig wanted was to meet the president. But he was told the president had no time in his schedule.
Embittered by the apparent brushoff, Ludwig told a newspaper reporter, "To hell with Ford." After the article was published, the FBI came calling. Ludwig, an escapee from Nazi Germany as well as from the Japanese occupation in Shanghai, found himself facing American interrogation for his comment.
He did not get his meeting with the president, but he did receive a White House letter expressing regret for Ludwig's injury. For him, it wasn't enough.
"A letter is so informal, to me," says Ludwig, who wished the president had called him personally. "He didn't do much else."
So the letter is gone.
"A guy offered me a hundred bucks and I took it," he says.
It was an impulse he now regrets. But history cannot be undone.