Oliver Sipple, the Marine who saved Pres. Ford's life on Sept. 22, 1975, is no longer "just a bystander."
Because of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by Pres. Obama and Congress, Sipple is now a well-known hero. A Marine hero, a Gay Marine hero.
The woman who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore, has had her name out there. For years, we heard nothing about the person who foiled Moore's second shot. He was just a bystander.
Just a bystander?
On that warm September day, Sipple was among the thousands of people who waited around San Francisco's Union Square for hours waiting for Ford to exit a meeting of the World Economic Council. His presence was purely coincidental. A Vietnam veteran and a former Marine, he was taking a walk. Something he did every day.
As soon as Ford walked out of the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, there was a loud bang. Those nearby most affected turned and saw the "neighbor lady" raise her arm, gun in hand, getting ready to fire again. Sipple, a former U.S. Marine, jumped into action and grabbed at her arm just as Moore pulled the trigger.
To correct a common error, Sara Jane did get off one shot at Ford before Sipple knocked her arm and caused the bullet to miss by several feet. No one was looking at Moore when Ford first appeared. All eyes were on the President.
He saved Ford's life. Sara Jane's first shot missed Ford's head by a mere six inches and only because the gun had a faulty sight.
Richard Vitamanti, the lead FBI case agent working with Superior Court Judge Samuel Conti, Judge Conti himself, the U. S. Secret Service and the San Francisco Police, specifically Tim Hettrich, will confirm, the only reason she missed was due to her using a gun she was not familiar with.
The chilling fact is that Sara Jane Moore was a southern girl with three brothers. She knew her way around firearms. She was in the Women's Army Corp and she had been practicing with her .44 Charter Arms revolver.
He refused to call himself a hero was a very private person trying to live below the radar of San Francisco's Gay community. He was involved with Gay activist events, but kept his personal life very circumscribed and did not want his sexuality disclosed.
So what of this bystander, Oliver Sipple, who happened to be nearby? His life was ruined.
Suddenly Sipple's life became public fodder for the press and local government. News reports mentioned that he was gay even though Sipple had not yet come out to his family. His mother disowned him and he filed a $15 million dollar invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the newspapers that outed him.
He was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1941. His parents were devout Baptists and Sipple was one of eight children. He moved to New York's West Village.
By 1975, no one would have recognized this overweight, emotionally unstable person was a former football star and ex Marine. He had a very unhappy childhood: He was dyslexic so he was unhappy he couldn't read very well, that he had dropped out of high school, and he was gay
Now he was a hero among gay organizations. There has been speculation from sources who wish to remain anonymous that Harvey Milk was responsible for the public outing of Sipple. The reason, some say, is that his actions were motivated by revenge. Sipple had been involved with an ex-lover of Milk's, Joe Campbell. When Sipple and Campbell broke up, Campbell attempted to kill himself.
Milk took advantage of the opportunity to illustrate his cause that public perception of gay people would be improved if they came out of the closet. He told friends that Sipple being gay was too good an opportunity. "For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms." (Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1989).
Although many in the Gay community told Milk it was not his place to out Sipple, Milk would not back off. The San Francisco Chronicle exposed Sipple as gay and a friend of Milk's. (Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, St. Martin's Press.
Sipple was found dead in his bed in 1989 with a half-gallon bottle of bourbon at his side. He had been dead for two weeks. President Ford sent a note of condolence to the family.
Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim At The President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who Shot at Gerald Ford. Palgrave Macmillan Spieler is working on a new book about "San Francisco Values," www.gerispieler.com