This Unknown Hero Saved A US President's Life And Was Rewarded By Having His Life Publicly Destroyed

Everyone is familiar with the overarching details of the JFK and Lincoln assassinations, and those with an interest in history are likely familiar with the death of William McKinley and the attempted shooting of Ronald Reagan, but few remember the attempted Gerald Ford assassination. Even fewer remember the hero who saved him on September 22, 1975: Oliver Sipple. The story of Oliver Sipple and Gerald Ford is a happy one for Ford, who had his life saved, and a terrible one for Sipple, who had his life ruined.

Rather than being recognized as a former Marine who did his country proud on the homefront after serving overseas, most of the media coverage about Sipple focused on his sexuality, which he tried to keep under wraps until then. Instead of being hailed as an American hero who had selflessly protected the President of the United States, Sipple was outed as a homosexual by the media, which had the unfortunate side effect of destroying Sipple’s relationship with his family and ultimately his life.

  • Oliver Sipple Grabbed The Shooter's Arm Before She Could Get Off A Second Shot

    Oliver Sipple Grabbed The Shooter's Arm Before She Could Get Off A Second Shot
    Photo: US Secret Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The 33-year-old former Marine Oliver Sipple was gathered with a crowd of onlookers in San Francisco to catch a glimpse of President Gerald Ford on September 22, 1975. By sheer coincidence, standing beside him was Sara Jane Moore, a troubled woman who was set on assassinating President Ford after a failed attempt by Manson family member Lynette Fromme 17 days earlier.

    Moore pulled out her revolver and fired off a shot that narrowly missed Ford’s head. Sipple then sprang into action, grabbing Moore’s arm just before she could fire a second shot. The second bullet hit a local taxi driver, but he survived. Sipple was initially praised as a hero.

  • Harvey Milk Leaked Sipple's Orientation To The Press Without His Consent

    Harvey Milk Leaked Sipple's Orientation To The Press Without His Consent
    Photo: Ted Sahl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Shockingly, the person who leaked Sipple's sexual preferences to the media was none other than Harvey Milk, a prominent gay activist. Milk and Sipple were close associates and knew each other well. Milk was running for office as San Francisco city supervisor, and Sipple was working on his campaign. 

    Milk wanted to use Sipple's story to give a boost to the fledgling gay rights movement. Milk was reported as saying, "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," before leaking Sipple’s personal secrets to Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle. Milk did not seek Sipple’s consent.

  • Newspaper Stories Started To Focus On Sipple's Sexual Orientation

    Sipple received his 15 minutes of fame, but the media scrutiny extended his time in the spotlight to a lifetime of anguish. Sipple, who lived in San Francisco but was raised in Detroit, was known in the San Francisco gay community. There, he was an activist for gay rights, but back in Detroit, he was closeted back home.

    When the media caught wind of Sipple’s sexuality, that suddenly became the focus of the story - how a gay hero had saved the President’s life. Without having any say in the matter, Sipple was publicly outed by several newspapers.

  • He Was Disowned By His Mother After Being Outed

    Oliver Sipple was a prominent member of the San Francisco gay community, but he had yet to come out to any of his family or friends back home in Detroit. The news came as a shock to them, particularly his mother, who disowned him.

    Sipple’s family immediately became the subject of intense local gossip, and Sipple’s father and brothers found themselves regularly harassed and taunted at work about Sipples’s sexuality. This led to Sipple becoming estranged from his family, and all because he chose to save the president’s life.

  • Sipple Got A Letter From President Ford, But Wasn't Invited To The White House

    Sipple Got A Letter From President Ford, But Wasn't Invited To The White House
    Photo: David Hume Kennerly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Oliver Sipple saved Gerald Ford from an assassin’s bullet, and Ford responded with a polite thank you letter. Instead of inviting Sipple to the White House or throwing him a parade, Ford treated the man who saved his life with an insultingly impersonal touch.

    Ford denied that his practical shunning of Sipple had anything to do with Sipple’s sexuality, and Sipple didn't seem to mind; he treasured that letter for the rest of his life. The lack of public acknowledgement of Sipple's heroism was one of the reasons Harvey Milk leaked Sipple’s secret to the media in the first place. The initial thrust of the coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle was that Sipple was the victim of prejudice. They just didn’t ask his permission to make him the figurehead of their argument.

  • Despite Support From His Brother, Sipple Regretted His Heroism And Slipped Into Alcoholism

    Oliver Sipple’s brother George comes out of this whole affair as one of the few nice guys in the story. Although their father reportedly told George to “forget he had a brother,” George remained proud of Oliver’s heroism in saving President Gerald Ford’s life. Although the reveal of his brother’s sexuality was shocking, George said “It never really hurt me. I lost some friends, so I figured they weren't really worth being friends anyway.”

    Despite this fraternal support, Oliver himself came to regret saving Ford’s life, as his own life continued a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism.