This is the sad song of Oliver Sipple. It was a beautiful, warm day on September 22, 1975, in San Francisco. He didn't ask for fame, didn't even want it. Oliver "Billy" Sipple just happened to be standing right next to Sara Jane Moore, the wannabe assassin, as she raised a gun & aimed it at President Gerald R. Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel.
Sipple, a former Marine & Vietnam vet, saw the gun out of the corner of his eye. He grabbed Moore's arm as she fired & saved a president's life. Afterward, he told people anybody would have done the same. He saved a President's life. Moore’s first shot missed Ford's head by a mere 6 inches. Sipple just happened to be there, & his life would be ruined for it.
He refused to call himself a hero & was a very private person trying to live below the radar in San Francisco's Gay Community. He was involved with Gay activist events, but kept his personal life personal & did not want his sexuality disclosed.
Sipple was celebrated as a hero. He was the Vietnam vet that saved a president’s life. He attempted to elude notoriety, but someone passed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen a tip that Sipple was gay & a close associate of Harvey Milk, a candidate for San Francisco city supervisor & one of the first openly gay candidates for public office.
The gay rights movement was taking its first few baby steps. Writer Randy Shilts wrote in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life & Times of Harvey Milk: “Milk wanted Sipple's homosexuality made public. For once we can show that gays do heroic things."
Milk may have been responsible for Sipple's life being public fodder for the press. News reports mentioned that he was gay even though Sipple had not yet come out to his family. His mother disowned him & he filed a $15 million dollar invasion of privacy lawsuit against the newspapers that outed him. Sipple was convinced that the press was motivated by anti-gay sentiment. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed in 1984 after 5 years, but the legal & ethical issues it raised are still being discussed to this day.
His parents in Detroit were tracked down & teased about their gay son. George Sipple, his older brother: "There were a lot of times he wished he had never saved the president's life, for all the anguish it caused him. He only said it when he was drinking. He said life would have been so much simpler if he hadn't have done it."
George Sipple says that he, his father & another brother, who all worked for GM, were met with taunts & jokes at the factory. Sipple’s mother was harassed by neighbors. The family became estranged.
George Sipple: “He told me he wasn't interested in suing the papers for saying that he was gay. He was interested in suing for the right that he could be gay, that it was his lifestyle & that it was nothing wrong."
Because of the stress brought on by his notoriety, Sipple's health deteriorated. From Vietnam, Sipple suffered emotional problems, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, & he received treatment at a VA hospital. In Vietnam, he had been wounded & hospitalized; then his hospital was bombed. In San Francisco, he spent the 4th of Julys at the VA hospital, away from the sounds of firecrackers & explosions.
Sipple began to drink heavily. His bar friends rallied round the local hero, giving him rides home when he couldn't drive. Sipple returned the generosity by buying rounds of drinks, especially when he received his disability checks.
Presidential letters are usually treasured by those who receive them, citizens that have their own piece of history. But the letter received by Sipple was a memento of bitterness & disappointment: "I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. Gerald Ford."
George Sipple: “My brother always felt Ford could have at least shook his hand or at least stood up someplace & had him appear with him & congratulate him, thank him"
Sipple was found dead in his bed in 1989 with a half-gallon bottle of bourbon at his side. He had been dead for 2 weeks. He had died of pneumonia. His family collected his stuff from San Francisco, including the framed letter from President Ford that he had hung on the wall of his apartment. President Ford sent a note of condolence to the Sipple family.