A Reluctant Hero

On September 22, 1975, Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Ford as he left the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Unlike in the attempt on Ford’s life 17 days earlier by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Moore’s gun did not misfire. Moore simply missed on the first shot, but then attempted a second. As she pulled the trigger, her arm was grabbed by bystander Oliver Sipple, and her shot missed the President. It ricocheted and hit a local taxi driver instead (who was okay, by the way). Moore was then arrested before she could make any more attempts.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Sipple was a former U.S. Marine who was wounded in Viet Nam. When he was released from the Veteran’s Hospital in 1970, he moved to San Francisco, where he became an active member of the LGBTQ+ community. After Sipple saved the President’s life, Ford returned to Washington, and soon sent a personal letter of thanks.

Ron Nessen Papers, Box 130, “Jones, Jerry (5).”
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Had the story ended there, it would have been a happier one. Instead, Sipple was outed to a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle by multiple members of the LGBTQ+ community, including activist and politician Harvey Milk. Milk stated that he wanted the country to see a gay man as a heroic figure. However, Sipple had not yet gone public with his sexuality outside the gay community, nor had he told his family back in Michigan.

The resulting attention, especially regarding his sexuality, caused Sipple no small amount of personal problems, but there was no way for him to go back into the closet. He attempted to sue the Chronicle and other papers for invasion of his privacy, but he lost the suit when a judge ruled that his sexuality was a newsworthy part of the story. In later years, he struggled with mental health issues, and passed away in 1989.

Over the years, many people, ironically including Harvey Milk (who “helped” out Sipple in the first place), questioned why President Ford never invited his savior to the White House to recognize his heroics. What most people don’t know is that this was because Ford had received a letter from Sipple about the problems the attention was causing.

White House Central Files Name File, Box 2932, “Sipple, Oliver.”
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Unfortunately, we are unable to find any evidence that President Ford made that call in his phone records. We simply know that, having seen this letter, President Ford stopped shining a national spotlight on the man for whom the attention brought by an act of bravery created so much trouble.

Author: Dr. Richard Weld