…Oliver Sipple (1941-1989)

Oliver Sipple

Oliver Sipple was born in November of 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, where was wounded twice. His friends knew him as Billy. Sipple received an honorable discharge in 1970 as a private first-class, and received a 100% veteran's disability pension for psychological and physical reasons.

Sipple moved to San Francisco after the war to begin a new life. He made new friends, and became active in local causes, including the political campaigns of openly gay City Council candidate Harvey Milk. His friends knew something that his family didn't. Billy Sipple was a homosexual.

Billy, Don't Be A Hero

On September 22, 1975, Sipple went to Union Square in the heart of San Francisco to get a glimpse of the President of the United States who was attending an event at the St. Francis Hotel. At 3:30 p.m., President Ford emerged from the hotel and was greeted by a sea of onlookers. Sipple was standing next to Sara Jane Moore when she pulled out a gun and fired it in the President's direction. Before she could fire a second round, Sipple grabbed her arm and prevented her from hitting her target just 35 feet away.

"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." -- President Gerald Ford/September 25, 1975

On September 24, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a story that alleged that the White House was delaying their expression of gratitude to Sipple because they found out that he was gay. Only a handful of newspapers followed the Chronicle's lead and disclosed Sipple's sexual orientation as a part of the story. One of the papers was the Detroit Free Press.

When the news reached Michigan, the heroic tale turned tragic. Sipple's mother was reportedly harassed by her neighbors. When her son called to talk to her, she hung up on him. Sipple's split with his family never healed. When his mother died in 1979, his father refused contact with him.

Billy Sipple the Journalism Subject

The "outing " of Billy Sipple is a popular topic for journalism students. Was reporting details of his private life appropriate? Did the gay community in San Francisco take unfair advantage of Sipple in celebrating his heroism?

"My sexual orientation has nothing at all to do with saving the President's life, just as the color of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel." -- Billy Sipple

Sipple sued the San Francisco Chronicle and six other papers for damages, and for the mental stress he experienced from the reaction by his family. The lawsuit was dismissed after five years in the courts. Sipple drank heavily to ease his pain.

"To the friends of Oliver Sipple."

Sipple's physical condition continued to decline as his alcoholism worsened. He survived on his pension, supplemented by a night job at a bar. He had a pacemaker, and weighed approximately 300 pounds at the time of his 47th birthday. His $334 per month apartment near the Tenderloin District of San Francisco was plastered with newspaper clippings of his actions on the fateful September afternoon in 1975. His prized possession was the framed letter from the White House.

Oliver Sipple was found dead on February 2, 1989 in his apartment. It was estimated that he probably died on January 19. On that day, Sipple visited a friend and spoke of his being turned away at the Veterans Administration hospital when he went concerning his difficulty in breathing.

A small funeral for Billy was attended by 30 people, and he was laid to rest in Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.

A letter addressed to the friends of Oliver Sipple was on display for a short period after his death at one of his favorite hang outs, the New Belle Saloon.

"Mrs. Ford and I express out deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend's passing..."
President Gerald Ford, February , 1989

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