The death of former President Ford brings to mind a story about Vietnam War veteran Oliver “Billy” Sipple, who was in the crowd on Sept. 22, 1975 when Ford came to San Francisco and was nearly assassinated. Sipple pushed away the 38-caliber pistol of would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore, becoming an instant hero to the nation.
The first reporter to interview Sipple was the (Hearst) Examiner’s Norman J. Melnick, who realized during the interview that Sipple was gay. Sipple asked Melnick and the other reporters who would later interview him not to mention that fact. Melnick and the others did not.
Then fabled Chronicle columnist Herb Caen (pictured) decided to publish the private side of Sipple’s life, including the fact that he was gay.
Sipple’s family back in Michigan — even his own mother — turned away from him. He sued the Chronicle and the six other papers which carried Caen’s column for $15 million, but the newspaper’s lawyers got the case dismissed.
In a ruling upheld later by the California Supreme Court, a Superior Court judge said publishers can “satisfy the curiosity of the public as to its heroes, leaders, villains and victims.”
Sipple’s health deteriorated and he drank himself to death. He was found dead Feb. 2, 1989 in his Mission District apartment. Police at the time said they believed he had been dead for two weeks.
The Web site 365Gay.com noted yesterday that not far from where Sipple’s body was hung a framed letter of gratitude from President Ford.
“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,” it read, according to 356gay.com.
Only 30 people attended Sipple’s funeral. He was laid to rest in Golden Gate National Cemetery.