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Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President and Then Was Cast in an Unwanted Spotlight

February 13, 1989|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The circumstances of Billy Sipple's death came as no surprise to his friends.

Sometime around Jan. 19, Sipple turned on his television and lay on his bed, half-gallon bottles of cheap bourbon and 7-Up within reach, and fell asleep.

Two weeks later, Wayne Friday stopped by Reflections, a Polk Street bar that was one of Sipple's daily stops. The bartender, worried that Sipple had not been by for days, asked Friday to check up on him.

Without even opening the door of Sipple's apartment, Friday, an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney, knew that his friend was dead.

"People shouldn't die like that, alone," Friday said.

Littered With Mementos

Sipple's $334-a month apartment looked like a junk store gone to seed. Mementos of value only to their owner were arranged in no order. Bad paintings covered chipped plaster. His most prized possession, a framed letter, hung on a corner wall.

"Dear Mr. Sipple," the letter began.

"I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation."

Signed, Jerry Ford.

The letter was dated Sept. 25, 1975. Three days earlier, Oliver (Billy) Sipple, a disabled Vietnam Marine veteran, happened to be at Union Square when Sara Jane Moore aimed a .38 caliber revolver at then-President Gerald Ford. Sipple lunged and knocked away the gun. The bullet went wild. The President was whisked away, safely.

Anyone would have done the same thing, Sipple told his friends. It was no big deal.

Others saw it differently. Not only was he a hero, he was gay, and actively involved in gay politics and in causes--a fact known widely here but not elsewhere.

In San Francisco in 1975, gays were seeking political power--and there were many who thought Sipple's heroic act could go a long way toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about gays here and across the nation.

Sipple was about to become famous. In the process, he would suffer. His story was news, but it forever estranged him from his parents. He knew he had problems before the fame but he also maintained that the problems became far worse after: he became more nervous, drank more, considered suicide and thought people were following him.

Right to Privacy

"I have a lot of stress and I take it out on booze," he said in a 1979 deposition, describing what his flash of fame had brought.

Sipple's story is retold in journalism schools and discussions about the right to privacy. There was even mention of it in the movie, "Absence of Malice." The reporter portrayed by Sally Field wrote a story that prompted the subject to commit suicide. The editor tried to console her by telling about "the guy in the crowd" who "saved the President's life."

"Turned out he was also gay. That's news, right? Now the whole country knows that too," the editor in the movie said.

Billy Sipple died of natural causes, according to a coroner's spokeswoman, although the exact cause of death remains unknown. But his friends say he had been suffering from pneumonia. He had a pacemaker and had ballooned to 298 pounds, long ago losing his square-jawed good looks.

Sipple was 47, but many believed him when, for some reason, he announced that he was 59 at a birthday party he threw for himself at Reflections three months ago--and said it would be his last.

About two weeks before his body was discovered, Sipple stopped in at the New Bell Saloon where he told bartender Frank Hagan that he had been by the Veterans Administration hospital, but was told to go home. A hospital spokesman said no record exists of such a visit.

"I'm not a doctor, but I could tell he couldn't breathe," Hagan said. The bartender called him a cab and told him to phone a doctor when he got home. Sipple promised he would.

"I believe that was the last anyone saw him," Hagan said.

"The guy died in pain, with a bottle by his bed. That's pain. That's need for anesthetic," John Wahl said after Sipple's funeral, a simple affair last week attended by 30 people.

Wahl was the lawyer who brought an unsuccessful invasion-of-privacy suit on Sipple's behalf against several newspapers, among them The Times.

Back in 1975, another client of Wahl's, political activist Harvey Milk, a long-time friend of Sipple's, was making a name for himself by making a serious run for the Board of Supervisors, trying to organize gays and urging that they emerge from their closets.

"Bill was part of that outreach. He was a guy who would do anything we asked--cook, walk precincts," recalled Bob Ross, publisher of the weekly Bay Area Reporter.

"Harvey's whole attitude was to show people that not everyone who was gay runs around with lipstick, high heels and a dress," Ross said. Sipple, the ex-Marine, seemed the perfect one to break down the myths. "This was an ordinary American citizen, and he was a gay man."

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