At a rural cemetery here today, mourners gathered in the bright sunshine to bury a nearly forgotten man who changed American history with a phone call--and died penniless and disillusioned with the system he had helped to protect.
Frank Wills, the security guard who notified police about a suspected break-in at the Watergate office complex on June 17, 1972, that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, was remembered today by friends and relatives who knew him best as "a good neighbor," "a nice man" and "a struggling soul." Wills, 52, had fallen ill several months ago with a brain tumor.
"Frank told me he had a premonition," said the Rev. Nathaniel Irvin, who taught Wills history at a then-segregated high school here and led this morning's eulogy. "He knew something was happening at the Watergate that was not on the level. That's why he went back and checked, and it opened up a whole can of worms and they all came crawling out--even the attorney general, the chief of staff, and the president of the United States came crawling out. I never thought I would teach history to one who would make history."
But that is exactly what Wills did when, as an $80-a-week security guard making his after-midnight rounds, he noticed a strip of tape holding a door unlocked within the complex that held the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Wills removed the tape, but when he returned a while later to find another piece in its place, he decided to make the pivotal phone call to the D.C. police. On the sixth floor, officers discovered an unusual group of burglars inside the Democratic offices, some of them with former CIA connections and bugging equipment.
Although it was some time before the full impact of that moment would become apparent, Wills had set in motion an investigation that would ensure the downfall of the Nixon administration--and perhaps forever change the way Americans viewed their government and its political leaders.
"He's the only one in Watergate who did his job perfectly," said Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who, with Carl Bernstein, did the investigative reporting that resulted in the book and movie "All the President's Men." ". . . Calling the police was one of the most important phone calls in American history, and it was so simple and so basic."
Then a young, hopeful man of 24, who had left his home in the South for the opportunities he thought available in the nation's capital, Wills never seemed to recover from his brief moment in the limelight and the promises that never materialized. But he also apparently never lost his decency and his kindness toward others. Those qualities were in evidence the morning after the break-in when Washington Post reporter Karlyn Barker awakened him at his District rooming house to get more details about the curious event.
"I remember going there and knocking on the door, and he was carrying a kitten," Barker said. "He was very nice--he told the same story we all know."
Friends and relatives today also remarked on how kind Wills was: how he tended his stroke-debilitated mother during the final years of her life; how he did shopping errands for his elderly neighbors on his bicycle because he could not afford even an old car; how so many of them did not know he was ill because he never complained about his health.
Convinced he was in effect blackballed from employment in Washington, he returned home shortly after Watergate, growing more bitter with time as he saw the white-collar criminals of the era serve relatively short prison terms, then reemerge and prosper. In 1983, he was arrested for shoplifting a $12 pair of tennis shoes from a discount store in Georgia, and although he protested he was just hiding them as a present from a youth who was with him until he could manage to sneak away to the checkout counter, the episode sank him further into regret and shame.
"It sure was sad he didn't get the credit he deserved," said his neighbor, Beatrice Lee. "It was a struggle for him, but he was always respectful. He had a sweet spirit; he just didn't feel like he was wanted anywhere."
Wills lived alone in the shabby house in this Augusta, Ga., suburb, that his mother left when she died in 1993. Unable to afford electricity or water, he used candles as lighting and hauled drinking water in plastic jugs from neighbors' houses. Elderly women in the neighborhood delighted in feeding him, they said, and he returned the favor by sharing the potato chips and snack cakes he cycled to the nearby store to purchase. What little money he had came from odd jobs, such as mowing lawns.
JoAnn Hooper, the mother of Wills's only child, 15-year-old Angel Brown, was a neighbor whom Wills teased relentlessly until, she said, she fell for him.
"He used to walk through the yard and he would always get on me about leaving rollers in my hair," Hooper said. "He would say, 'Why do you women come outside in your house slippers and your rollers? Who are you getting ready for?'
"He was a good man," she said, tears in her eyes. "He was the best friend you could ever have."
Some of the mourners here today expressed regret that they had not done enough to help Wills in recent years.
In his part of the eulogy, retired chaplain Alfred Redd read the first verse of a song that he said summed up Wills's attitude toward his life and approaching death: "I did my work, I've sung my song. I've done some right and I've done some wrong. And now I go where I belong."