Frank Wills' brush with fame began on the night of June 17, 1972, when he ripped a piece of tape off a door lock in a Washington office complex called Watergate.
But unlike other, better-known players in the greatest American political debacle in history, Wills--the security guard whose discovery of a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee unloosed a scandal that toppled a president--did not get rich off his role as Watergate hero.
Fame, as he experienced it, was not merely fleeting. It was a curse.
When he died in an Augusta, Ga., hospital Wednesday after losing a battle with brain cancer, Wills, 52, had little to show for his role in history but a life of hardships that turned into bitterness.
"You fight for your country and stand up for it and what does it get you?" he told an interviewer in 1974, when he was out of work and asked to comment on President Richard M. Nixon's recent pardon. "Here I did my best on the job and I get slaps in the face for it."
The drama began on a summer night 28 years ago, shortly after Wills, then 24, had started his rounds as lone night watchman at the Watergate, a posh office-apartment complex overlooking the Potomac. He had 11 floors to inspect, marking off each office in a book as he passed.
On his way out of the building for an orange juice break, he noticed something.
Someone had taped back the lock on a basement door.
Wills stripped the tape off, thinking little of it at the time, but noted the irregularity in his log. Maintenance engineers often taped or blocked open doors when they were working and neglected to lock them when they were done.
The security guard ordinarily would not have inspected that area again for another hour or more. But something--he could say later only that it was a sixth sense--made him return after his break.
Only about 15 minutes had passed, but the door had been taped open again. Why, Wills worried, had someone put the tape back on so quickly?
He alerted his supervisor. Then, just before 2 a.m., he called the police.
A team of plainclothes detectives arrived with guns drawn. They locked the exterior doors, shut down the elevators and proceeded up the stairs. At the sixth floor, they found what they were looking for.
A door had been jimmied open, perhaps with a crowbar. It led directly into the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
The officers entered the suite quietly, with Wills trailing. Something moved in the darkness. The police ordered the shadowy figure to come out while Wills located the light switch.
When the lights came up, "one person, then two persons, then three persons came out, and on down the line," Wills recalled. He saw that they were wearing suits and ties and rubber gloves--not the usual attire for typewriter thieves.
Even more suspicious were the tear gas guns, bugging devices and thousands of dollars in consecutively numbered $100 bills found on the five men arrested that night. They were James McCord, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis and Virgilio Gonzales.
Reporters later told Wills that the men had numbers to the White House on them when they were captured. But that night, he said, "We didn't have any idea about who these people were and what they were up to . . . what this was connected to. I had no idea."
When news accounts of the break-in and the White House ties began to emerge, the clock started ticking on Wills' 15 minutes of fame. Invited to give speeches and make appearances, he was called the hero of Watergate.
But he soon became the forgotten hero, the embittered hero.
At the Watergate, he earned a raise--from $80 to $82.50 a week. He tried to talk his superiors into a promotion and better working conditions for guards, as well as for help in publicizing his role in the growing scandal.
At the same time, he was overwhelmed by the clamor of reporters wanting details of the fateful night and uncomfortable with co-workers envious of his celebrity.
"There were a lot of jokes at the start," he told the Washington Post about a year after the break-in. "The other guards called me 'the Watergate hero,' 'the Watergate bug snatcher.' I got to the point where the joke was too damned much. I was tired of being asked so many questions, of being in the public eye. I was ready to explode, like a dinosaur ready to blow fire on everyone."
Nothing in his life had prepared him for the hot lights of fame. He was born in Savannah, Ga. His parents were poor and broke up when he was a child. He dropped out of high school but eventually earned an equivalency degree through the Job Corps. He was working for Chrysler in Detroit when he met some people from Washington who invited him out for a visit. He took a Greyhound bus to the nation's capital in the spring of 1971 and promptly fell in love with the city.
An employment agency sent him to a firm called General Security, which placed him in the Watergate job.