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1970s / Oliver Sipple - The Man Who Saved Gerald Ford
On September 22, 1975, 33-year-old Oliver Sipple (the man with the sideburns in the left of the photo) was walking past the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where President Gerald Ford was scheduled to speak. As Sipple moved forward to better hear Ford's speech, he noticed a woman standing next to him (later identified as Sara Jane Moore) reach into her raincoat and pull out a revolver. Sipple yelled, "Gun!" and instinctively grabbed for her arm and deflected it as she pulled the trigger. The bullet, intended for the president who was just 40 feet away, ricocheted off a wall and slightly wounded another bystander. Sipple, a decorated Vietnam vet, tackled Moore, prevented her from shooting again, and handed her over to the Secret Service. Oliver Sipple now became a reluctant celebrity. He was immediately hailed in the national press and received thousands of letters praising his heroics. However, President Ford only sent him a short note and avoided a personal meeting. News organizations wondered why the White House was avoiding Sipple. Although he was openly gay, Sipple’s sexual orientation was a secret from his family and employers. Accordingly, he asked the press to keep his sexuality off the record. However, news organizations refused to comply. The gay community saw the situation as a great opportunity. While discussing whether or not Sipple’s sexuality ought to be disclosed, prominent gay San Francisco's councilman Harvey Milk noted: “For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.” Milk further suggested that Sipple’s sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note from Ford rather than a formal invitation to the White House. Herb Caen, a columnist at The San Francisco Chronicle, outed Sipple as gay. The Chicago Sun-Times called him a ‘Homosexual Hero’; The Denver Post used the more pithy term ‘Gay Vet’. In Detroit, Sipple’s staunch Baptist family became the subject of ridicule and abuse by friends and neighbors. His mother refused to talk to him. When she died in 1979, his father told him not to attend the funeral. Sipple filed a $15-million invasion of privacy suit against seven newspapers and various publishers, but after a long and bitter process, the courts held that Sipple himself had become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story. Oliver Sipple sank into a downward spiral of depression, alcoholism, obesity and drug abuse. By the time he was found dead with an empty bottle of bourbon in 1989, Oliver Sipple was already a forgotten footnote to ethics and freedom of press. His apartment was littered with press clippings about that fateful day in 1975 when he saved a man’s life and subsequently ruined his own.