Oliver Wellington "Billy" Sipple (November 20, 1941 – February
2, 1989) was a decorated U.S. Marine and
Vietnam War veteran. On
September 22, 1975, he actively attempted to stop
Sara Jane Moore
Sara Jane Moore as
she fired a pistol at U.S. President
Gerald Ford in San Francisco,
causing her to miss. The subsequent public revelation that Sipple
was gay turned the news story into a cause célèbre for
activists, leading Sipple to unsuccessfully sue several publishers for
invasion of privacy.
1 Early life
2 Ford assassination attempt
4 Later years and death
6 See also
8 External links
Oliver Wellington Sipple was born in Detroit, Michigan. He served in
United States Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam. Shrapnel wounds
suffered in December 1968 caused him to finish out his tour of duty in
Philadelphia veterans hospital, from which he was released in March
1970. Sipple, who was closeted in his hometown of Detroit, had met
Harvey Milk in
New York City
New York City and had participated in San Francisco's
gay pride parades and gay rights demonstrations. Sipple was
active in local causes, including the historic political campaigns of
openly gay Board of Supervisors candidate Milk. The two were friends
and Sipple would also be later described as a "prominent figure" in
the gay community who had worked in a gay bar and was active in the
Imperial Court System.
He lived with a merchant seaman in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment
located in San Francisco's Mission District. He later spent six months
in San Francisco's VA hospital, and was frequently readmitted into the
hospital in 1975, the year he saved Ford's life.
Ford assassination attempt
Sipple was part of a crowd of about 3,000 people who had gathered
outside San Francisco's
St. Francis Hotel
St. Francis Hotel to see President Ford on
September 22, 1975. Ford, just emerging from the building, was
vulnerable despite heavy security protection. Standing beside Sipple
in the crowd, was Sara Jane Moore. She was about 40 feet (12 m)
away from President Ford when she fired a single shot at him with a
revolver, narrowly missing the President. After realizing she had
missed, she raised her arm again, and Sipple dove towards her and
grabbed her arm, possibly saving President Ford's life. Sipple said at
the time, "I saw [her gun] pointed out there and I grabbed for it.
[...] I lunged and grabbed the woman's arm and the gun went
off." The bullet ricocheted and hit John Ludwig, a 42-year-old
taxi driver. Ludwig survived. The incident came just three weeks
after Lynette Fromme's assassination attempt on Ford. Reporters
hounded Sipple who at first did not want his name used, nor his
The police and the Secret Service immediately commended Sipple for his
action at the scene, as did the media. The national news media
portrayed Sipple as a hero, and noted his status as a former
Though he was known to be homosexual among members of the San
Francisco gay community, and had even participated in gay pride
events, Sipple's sexual orientation was a secret from his family. He
asked the press to keep such personal information off the record,
making it clear that neither his mother nor his employer knew he was
The day after the incident, two answering machine messages outed
San Francisco Chronicle's columnist Herb Caen. One was from
Reverend Ray Broshears, the head of a gay activist group called the
Lavender Panthers. The other message was from local gay activist
Harvey Milk, a friend of Sipple and on whose campaign for city council
Sipple had worked. While discussing whether the truth about
Sipple's sexuality should be disclosed, Milk told a friend, "It's too
good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things,
not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in
bathrooms." Milk outed Sipple in order to portray him as a "gay
hero" and so to "break the stereotype of homosexuals" of being "timid,
weak and unheroic figures". According to Harold Evans,
"[T]here was no invitation to the
White House for Sipple, not even a
commendation. Milk made a fuss about that. Finally, weeks later,
Sipple received a brief note of thanks."
Two days after the thwarted assassination attempt, unable to reach
Sipple, Caen wrote of Sipple as a gay man, and of a friend of Milk
speculating Ford offered praise "quietly" because of Sipple's sexual
orientation. Sipple was besieged by reporters, as was his family. His
mother refused to speak to him.
Gay liberation groups petitioned local
media to give Sipple his due as a gay hero. Caen published the private
side of the Marine's story, as did a handful of other publications.
Sipple then insisted to reporters that his sexuality was to be kept
confidential. Reporters labeled Sipple the "gay ex-Marine", and his
mother disparaged and disowned him. Later, when Sipple hid in a
friend's apartment to avoid them, the reporters turned to Milk,
arguably the most visible voice for the gay community. Of President
Ford's letter of thanks to Sipple, Milk suggested that Sipple's sexual
orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an
invitation to the White House.
Sipple sued the Chronicle for invasion of privacy. Sipple filed a
$15-million invasion of privacy suit against Caen, seven named
newspapers, and a number of unnamed publishers, for publishing the
disclosures. The Superior Court in
San Francisco dismissed the suit,
and Sipple continued his legal battle until May 1984, when a state
court of appeals held that Sipple had indeed become news, and that his
sexual orientation was part of the story.
Later years and death
According to a 2006 article in The Washington Post, Sipple went
through a period of estrangement with his parents, but the family
later reconciled with him. Sipple's brother, George, told the
newspaper, "[Our parents] accepted it. That was all. They didn't like
it, but they still accepted. He was welcomed. Only thing was: Don't
bring a lot of your friends." However other sources indicate that
Sipple's parents never fully accepted him. His mother, just after news
broke of Sipple's sexual orientation, hung up on Sipple saying she
never wished to speak to him again. His father is said to have told
Sipple's brother to "forget he had a brother." Finally, when his
mother passed away, his father did not allow him to attend her
Sipple's headstone at Golden Gate National Cemetery
Sipple's mental and physical health sharply declined over the years.
He drank heavily, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, fitted with a
pacemaker, and gained weight. The incident brought him so much
attention that, later in life, while drinking, he would express regret
towards grabbing Moore's gun. On February 2, 1989, an acquaintance,
Wayne Friday, found Sipple dead in his
San Francisco apartment, with a
Jack Daniel's next to him and the television still
San Francisco coroner estimated Sipple had been dead
for approximately 10 days. Sipple was 47 years old. Sipple's
funeral was attended by about 30 people. President Ford and his wife
sent a letter of sympathy to his family and friends. He was buried in
Golden Gate National Cemetery
Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.
His $334 per month apartment near San Francisco's Tenderloin District
was found with many newspaper clippings of his actions on the fateful
September afternoon in 1975. His most prized possession was the framed
letter from the White House. A letter addressed to the friends of
Oliver Sipple was on display for a short period after his death at one
of his favorite hangouts, the New Belle Saloon:
"Mrs. Ford and I express our deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow
involving your friend's passing..."
Former President Gerald Ford, February, 1989
In a 2001 interview with columnist Deb Price, Ford disputed the claim
that Sipple was treated differently because of his sexual orientation,
saying, "As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the
matter was ended. I didn't learn until sometime later – I can't
remember when – he was gay. I don't know where anyone got the crazy
idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays."
According to Castañeda and Campbell:
The Sipple incident has been referred to, in passing, in a major
motion picture and in a prime-time television program. Several law
review articles and more than a dozen books and commentary pieces have
also mentioned the perplexing ethical dimensions of the case.
A September 2017 episode of the radio program
Sipple's act of foiling the assassination of then President Ford. The
episode goes into Sipple's act of heroism, his outing by Harvey Milk
Herb Caen and the news media, and the ethics of his outing in
spite of his opposition.
United States Marine Corps portal
United States presidential assassination attempts and plots
^ Ancestry.com has 'Wellington' for his middle name, sourced to
'California, Death Index, 1940–1997'
^ a b c d e Castañeda, Laura; Shannon B. Campbell (2006). News And
Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity. Sage Publications Inc;
ISBN 1-4129-0999-6. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
^ a b Shilts, Randy (2005). Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in
the U.S. Military. Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-34264-0. Retrieved
^ a b c Sadler, Roger L. (2005). Electronic Media Law. Sage
Publications Inc. ISBN 1-4129-0588-5. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
^ a b Johansson, Warren; William A. Percy (1994). Outing: Shattering
the Conspiracy of Silence. Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56024-419-4.
^ a b
Radiolab Podcast (2017-09-23),
Oliver Sipple [Daryl
Lembke, Daniel Luzer, Ken Maley, Sarah Jane Moore, Dan Morain],
^ a b c d Morain, Dan (February 13, 1989). "Sorrow Trailed a Veteran
Who Saved a President and Then Was Cast in an Unwanted Spotlight", The
Los Angeles Times, p. 1.[dead link]
^ a b c Caught in Fate's Trajectory, Along With Gerald Ford, Lynne
Duke, The Washington Post, December 30, 2006, p. D01.
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 31, 2007.
Retrieved May 23, 2007. "
Oliver Sipple 1941-1989". Accessed May
Oliver Sipple 1941–1989". Accessed May 23, 2007. Archived
February 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
^ a b Shilts, Randy (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and
Times of Harvey Milk, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-52330-0 p.
^ a b c
Oliver Sipple -
Radiolab especially from around 16:30 to 20:00
^ Harold Evans, The Imperial Presidency: 1972–1980', Random House,
^ a b c http://www.radiolab.org/story/oliver-sipple/
^ a b
^  The original article used to be at: 
^ Laura Castañeda, Shannon B. Campbell, "News and Sexuality: Media
Portraits of Diversity", SAGE, 2006, ISBN 1-4129-0999-6, page 66.
The movie referenced (chapter notes in the book) is Absence of Malice,
and the TV program is an episode from
L.A. Law from May 1990.
^ "Radiolab, Oliver Sipple".
WBEZ 91.5 Chicago. September 22, 2017.
Archived from the original on September 22, 2017.
American Century article
Oliver Sipple Saves President Ford's Life
Gerald Ford – Assassination Attempts (02) on YouTube
Video: Media Ethics
Oliver Sipple on YouTube
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