On September 22, 1975 President Gerald Ford was in San Francisco to deliver a luncheon speech to a foreign affairs group at the St. Francis Hotel. Outside, Oliver Sipple, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, was in the crowd waiting for Ford to exit the building. Standing next to Sipple was Sara Jane Moore. Earlier that day, Moore called federal authorities threatening to “test” Ford’s security. The day before, San Francisco police picked her up on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon, but they released her after federal authorities stepped in and said they would handle the matter. The Secret Service interviewed her that night, but let her go.
That day as President Ford left the hotel, Sara Jane Moore pulled a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver from her purse, pointed it at the President, and fired a shot. As she fired, Sipple reached out and grabbed her arm. Moore’s shot missed Ford by just five feet.
Sipple had been a fixture in San Francisco’s gay community for several years had saved President Gerald Ford’s life.
“All I did was react,” he said. “I’m glad I was there. If it’s true I saved the President’s life, then I’m damn happy about it. But I honestly feel that if I hadn’t reached out for that arm, somebody else would have.”
Sipple had worked on Milk’s first unsuccessful attempt at winning a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors. He was out to his friends, but closeted to his family in Detroit. . When reporters asked about his sexuality, Sipple replied with a standard non-answer: “I don’t think I have to answer that question. If I were homosexual or not, it doesn’t make me less of a man than I am.”
But Sipple was well known in the gay community and it was an open secret.
Sipple was never contacted directly by President Ford the man whose life he saved, and Harvey Milk was convinced that it was because Sipple was gay. (The White House mailed a letter of appreciation four days after the assassination attempt.) But Sipple told friends that he wasn’t interested in the attention he “just wanted a little peace and quiet.” But that was not to be. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen broke the story of Sipple being “gay” and it was soon picked up by wire services. Sipple’s Baptist mother publicly disowned him, and he soon found himself besieged by reporters. Sipple sued The Chronicle, Caen, and several other newspapers for invasion of privacy, but lost. The courts ruled that he had become a public figure on the day of the assassination attempt, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.
Sipple, who was on psychological disability because of wounds suffered in Vietnam, declined physically in the years following the assassination attempt. He drank heavily, and told all who would listen that he wished he never grabbed Moore’s gun.
Oliver Sipple died, alone, of pneumonia in his Tenderloin District apartment in San Francisco in 1989.
President Ford and his wife sent a letter of sympathy to his family and friends.
Oliver Sipple was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.