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Oliver Sipple

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 10:31 PM



One morning, Oliver Sipple went out for a walk. A couple hours later, to his own surprise, he saved the life of the President of the United States. But in the days that followed, Sipple’s split-second act of heroism turned into a rationale for making his personal life into political opportunity. What happens next makes us wonder what a moment, or a movement, or a whole society can demand of one person. And how much is too much? 

Through newly unearthed archival tape, we hear Sipple himself grapple with some of the most vexing topics of his day and ours - privacy, identity, the freedom of the press - not to mention the bonds of family and friendship. 

Reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte. Produced by Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte.

Special thanks to Jerry Pritikin, Michael Yamashita, Stan Smith, Duffy Jennings; Ann Dolan, Megan Filly and Ginale Harris at the Superior Court of San Francisco; Leah Gracik, Karyn Hunt, Jesse Hamlin, The San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, Mike Amico, Jennifer Vanasco and Joey Plaster.

Support Radiolab today at


Daryl Lembke, Daniel Luzer, Ken Maley, Sarah Jane Moore, Dan Morain and George Sipple, Jr.


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Comments [40]

Ricardo Turner Hurtado from Longueuil canada

Amazing broadcast....this program like the film about alan turing (the imitation game), will help reduce the misunderstanding on this topic for an amazing amount of people nowadays...hopefully

Jan. 26 2018 07:29 PM
Feefers from montreal

This is a heartbreaking story! I am so glad you shared it with the world. Shame on the media man who betrayed Sipples' confidence and shame on his family for shunning him. I can't understand how anyone could be offended by this story. And to those picking on grammar and the use of present tense. Seriously, get a life.

Nov. 22 2017 10:34 AM
Sue from Illinois

For the first time ever, I turned off your show yesterday. In this era in which there is a shooting daily, I did not need to hear from an assassin, or would be assassin. She said something like, "I'm not here to talk about why I did it, I'm here to be interviewed about Oliver Sipple."

I felt like this was showcasing a murderer and sending the wrong idea. The first few minutes did not highlight Oliver Sipple, it highlighted a woman who decided to go kill another human being. To me, this made your program something I did not want to listen to any longer. I wish it had been thought through more clearly. I don't think it's a good idea to give the stage to someone who has wanted to kill. It felt like sensational journalism, and that's not why I tune in to Radiolab.

Nov. 06 2017 03:21 PM
Greg Bynum from New Paltz NY

Thanks for this report. It gives important history, which is good. Problematizing homophobia (his homophobic family and hometown) as well as the media and the gay rights movement would have been better. Also, more concise reporting, with less emphasis on keeping people in suspense over an hour and less detail about how the reporters gathered information, would have made this show stronger. But thanks for telling an important story.

Nov. 06 2017 02:43 PM
Elizabeth from Mt. Kisco, New York

This was hauntingly beautiful and sad. It addresses issues of free speech, privacy and homophobia. But for me, it is a memorial to a man who deserved better. It might be easy to conclude that today this kind of tragedy could not happen but it is a reminder that individual lives are complex. There are families and relationships and these very relationships bind people together but also are sometimes based on illusions. Not all individuals are embraced by their families even today. The authentic self may not be accepted but to be a part of family sometimes matters more than to express that authentic self fully and it is not for others to judge. I feel so profoundly sad for this man. He wanted to live an authentic life and he wanted to be connected to his family. It required two separate spheres and when those separate spheres were destroyed, he was destroyed. It is a reminder of the need for gentleness. Yes, a free press matters and ultimately, this means that privacy is limited for the public interest but the LGBT community can provide real sanctuary. It can protect people and still advocate for rights. There are people today who have to function in this dual sphere world. Not because they are cowards but because they long for the things that all people long for - a family, even an imperfect family, even a family built upon illusions - a family. May you rest in peace, Oliver Sipple. You had the right to live in two spheres and I am so sorry that you were denied that right. May the Bodhisattva of Compassion bring you to the shores of peace. Om Tara Tuttare Ture Soha

Nov. 05 2017 05:04 PM
Matthew J Cibellis from DC

The first 2 minutes with Ms. Sara Jane just blew my mind. Sweet little old lad...OMG, it's Sara Jane Moore! OMG.

Then for whatever reason, I kept listening...and I was completely torn hither and yon about what was the right journalistic response. I remember this case from law school. But I didn't FEEL this case. I just knew the law stemming from it.

And then he killed himself.

What a think piece. Maybe high school kids need to hear stories like this on how to make decisions, and the consequence those decisions have on those impacted.


Nov. 05 2017 01:58 PM
LH from NY

I would probably donate for any episode but this. It felt dishonest and wrong, starting with an interview of someone who attempted to assassinate a President and then justifying the media’s actions. Fail. Bring back the old radiolabs.

Nov. 05 2017 01:45 PM
Patty from Bay Area

Why no mention of Gordon Pinsent in the credits for the episode on this page? I recognized his voice immediately. He is credited in the show but not here.

Nov. 05 2017 03:07 AM
Ron Wasserman from New York

For a podcast that pretends to have high scientific and journalistic standards, Radiolab this week has abandoned both. Letting the Wayne Friday trashing of Mr. Sipple stand as an un-verified sole source is the essence of bad journalism and made me furious. Getting an actor to add even more of a sense of un-compassionate pity, viewing Mr. Sipple in his later years as a weak-willed drunkard is even worse.

You built up a great sense of sympathy for him. I know you like twists in your podcast, but that is decidedly why I have been liking it less and less over the last few years.

I guess you needed SOMETHING to "end" the piece, but haven't you journalists learned the lesson of Rolling Stone and their one sidedness oh so recent ago? Since you had no real ending, you could have made the main focus of the piece not a bio, but about the sorry state of homophobia in this country, which has only improved a bit in the intervening decades.

For shame Radiolab.

Nov. 04 2017 08:46 PM

I am frequently reminded about why I listen to NPR above all. Today's Radio Lab was an excellent but sad commentary on a man's innocent quest for privacy in his life. It is reassuring to note how differently people view homosexuality today. It is inconceivable to me that Sipple's loved ones and others punished him for his personal choices.

Nov. 04 2017 04:21 PM
Rebecca Johnson

What an excellent report. It is so important to tell these stories; how do we learn but through our terrible mistakes? Thank you.

Nov. 04 2017 04:01 PM

Why I contribute to NPR.

Nov. 04 2017 02:38 PM
Mateo from N. Maine

That was an amazing episode!! I liked that it was much mellower than your usual episodes. I usually love the cool sound effects you use but I was just in the perfect mood for this today. THANX>LUV!

Nov. 04 2017 01:04 PM
ollie singleton

WOW!!! What an excellent production on Oliver Sipple!

Nov. 04 2017 11:04 AM
Al Nyhart from White Sulphur Springs, Montana


for Bill Sipple

A ten year love affair with San Francisco
& I'd had enough of Truth, Beauty,
the austere furniture whispering innuendos
inside the Divisadero Detox Center,
the whole goddamn mess accorded first love
& broke it off--
moving to the Northwest
where the Columbia River escapes from Canada
only to be caught, tamed
& renamed by Bonneville Power--
lackadaisical Lake Roosevelt,
a lobotomy of water.
Up here, I've stayed busy,
married, six kids born
under the sign of Reagan
where twice a week i attend meetings,
hold hands, chant the serenity prayer
& wait for the spiritual orgasm
that keeps me sober.
Up here, I resemble someone I once would have disdained--
businessman, well-fed, reasonably happy
when I read your name again in the newspaper,
dead two weeks in your Tenderloin apartment,
just around the corner
where a madwoman took aim at America.
Though the article doesn't say,
I suspect it had something to do
with all the pink Chablis
you raised in a toast to the city
too beautiful to care;
or perhaps you too had had enough
& declined to wake up
& heed the incessant demands of your particular affection:
men loving men
I don't know what that's like
only, like myself, you fled the Midwest
& came to the edge of a continent
to act out your private drama--the end
or the beginning of everything we imagine that's real.
At Ft. Miley,
the Veterans Hospital that was like a bad mother,
I watched when they brought you to our ward,
eyes glazed,
shuffling in like a sleepwalker in lead shoes
who awoke at midnight
to phone the congressman
who'd shook your hand,
praised your unselfish valor,
slipped you his card,
offered his assistance, anything,
he said, just call me
As if suddenly realizing the price of your good name
or foreseeing the peninsula
sinking into the bay,
uninsured & worthless
as a rich man's dying words,
you told him you'd settle for 3 or 4 million,
slightly less
than what the lawyers surmised,
reading the slanderous print
in the Chronicle,
who'd called you a hero,
three paragraphs later,
a queer,
so you had them all by the balls.
& if that fell through,
you borrowed some of my sperm
when I told you I'd tested sterile:
Agent Orange would give us our disability,
the monthly government check
we'd cash down at Popeye's Club
waiting for Godot.
It might have been that way
if we'd kept on with all that healing
like Sunday in Ohio
& the soul closed.

Nov. 03 2017 12:45 PM
JC from Sacramento

While listening and looking up on google, read that Ford sent a sympathy letter to friends and family of Oliver after his death. Did this happen?

Nov. 01 2017 04:09 PM
JoJo from Sacramento CA

This is the saddest story I've ever heard. God Bless him, not so much for saving a president's life; but for all he endured afterward.

Nov. 01 2017 04:08 PM
Rian from Seattle

This is a pretty Sad Story. But the controversial part seems to be the lawsuit against the media.
Strangely this scenario is an exact true-life scenario for the "do you push a man off a bridge to save 5 other" from the other podcast about self-driving cars.

I commented there that the third option there that for some strange reason, no one considers, is that you have the option of throwing yourself off the bridge to stop the train and save the workers. But you don't have the right to decide that the person next to you is worth sacrificing.
Similarly, the media (at least according to their defense, I somehow doubt they thought about the virtue of their actions at the time) decided to sacrifice Sipple for for good of painting a better face on the gay community. I can agree with this sentiment. But what they should have done is pay the price for their decision. They should have paid Sipple off to at least try to atone for their actions. If it was so important that they get the word of Sipple's sexuality out for the greater good then THEY should have paid the price, not force someone else to pay that price. They should have thrown themselves off the bridge to protect the workers, instead of throwing someone else off the bridge.

Remember this people, never ever, think that it is OK to force someone else to pay for what you believe is the right thing. Make sure you are willing to (and DO) pay the price as well.

Oct. 30 2017 06:43 PM
cindy from brooklyn

the end song sounds a lot like Sarah Lipstate / Noveller for those who are asking (not 100% certain). i recognized it from the oliver sacks tribute episode when she performed live.

thank you for this story.

Oct. 23 2017 07:45 PM
Felix from colorado.

To the fellow who likes the show because it's about the human experience, but who is mad that they are talking about a 'sodomite':

jump in a hole. a deep hole.

This was an amazing story, a humane story. A story about philosophy, about thinking, about heroism, and about experience.

Oct. 19 2017 02:45 PM
Christopher Holdorf from Orlando, FL

I would also like to know what that final instrumental music piece was at the was dark, minimalist synth-based pulses and droning, very emotive and beautiful.

Oct. 16 2017 11:36 AM
robin Hectors from Europe

What a story, thanks for this. I feel so bad for him...

Oct. 07 2017 12:31 PM
p.a. from Toronto,On

Gordon Pincent was brilliant! Wonderful choice.

Oct. 06 2017 08:15 PM
Elisa Menendez from Miami, FL

Thank you for doing this great story about this American hero.

Oct. 06 2017 11:37 AM
Stanislaus Goings from Chicago

Oliver Sipple was a "former marine" NOT an "ex marine" big difference. Change the caption on the photo at least. Great story otherwise.

Oct. 05 2017 11:00 AM
Brandon from Minneapolis, MN

This is one of the best stories your show has ever done. Excellent reporting by Mr. Nasser and your team. There was, however, one glaring omission to your reporting that caught my attention.

I'm no Ford historian but I'm surprised your story did not make any mention of Larry Buendorf, the Secret Service agent who saved President Ford's life from an earlier assassination attempt just two weeks prior. The praise and fanfare Mr. Buendorf received couldn't be any more different than what Mr. Sippple experienced. Not only did Buendorf receive official honors from the U.S. Treasury, Ford maintained contact with him over the years and even skied with him on occasion. Sipple, as we now all know, received an official statement to the press and a letter of appreciation. Why the disparate treatment? Sipple and Buendorf were both your salt of the earth Mid-Westerners and military veterans. They even had similar appearances. Buendorf, as you might guess, was heterosexual. I think a comparison of the two would have added a lot to your narrative. Thank you.

Oct. 04 2017 09:55 AM
Lana from Tokyo

I appreciate stories that make you think. It's not about emotions but more on morality and society. Thanks for this.

I feel for Oliver Sipple for getting screwed over for saving someone's life. I feel that then-President Ford, should have been aware of the ramifications on Oliver's life and maybe done something about it. Harvey Milk, or any of the people who outed him, have no right to do what they did.

Oct. 02 2017 11:39 PM
Rob T from Oregon

This is not about the episode but I have to say this. The podcast drove me nuts.
1. There is a past tense - please use it. It's there for a reason. For some reason there is a trend to use the present tense when talking about the past. For many of us this makes the narrative almost unbearable. Mr Nasser, this was an egregious example of denying the existence of a mandatory aspect of English.
2. Furthermore, Mr Nasser, "this" is not the indefinite article "a". There is a different use for both, they are not synonymous.

Given that RadioLab is a spoken medium I suggest that some effort is put into the quality of the English being used.

Sep. 29 2017 08:43 PM
Max Ferretti from Florida

Can you please link to (or post) the transcript of Mr. Sipple's statement to the press? You ended the episode on it, and it was beautiful and amazing.

Sep. 29 2017 07:10 PM

Thanks for this

Sep. 28 2017 08:46 PM
Peter Ross from San Jose, CA

That voice pro at the end as "Wayne Friday" narrated by Gordon Whatshisname was both compelling and super sobering — Good work to the both's O'yuh!

Sep. 28 2017 04:14 PM
Eric from Tulsa, OK

I know this has been harped on a lot, but I think it bears repeating. Where have the science based programs gone? I got hooked on Radiolab because of the stories about intestinal parasites, stress, brains, space, The Good Show, The Bad Show, etc.

Radiolab is turning into This American Life. I wanna hear less about feelings, and more about blood flukes.

Sep. 28 2017 10:40 AM
Jim from NYC

Guys. Love the podcast. I listen to it when I walk my dog around NYC, when I run, or when I am walking somewhere. Now the bad part. STOP THE DEAD AIR BREAKS! When you do that, I have to check my equipment to see if something failed. I do not think it is a dramatic pause. Even knowing you do it doesn't fix the problem as I often get a disconnect for a number of reasons. The quality of the shows is not enough to overcome the prank like feel these dead air breaks cause.

Sep. 28 2017 08:53 AM
Peter Ross from San Jose, CA

Oh the irony to reach one percent and be dubbed a one-percenter just like the president -- as Judy Tenuta says "it could happen!"

Sep. 28 2017 04:49 AM
Jennifer Park from Chicago, IL

I would also like to know the name of the song during the credits. Please?

Sep. 27 2017 09:11 PM
Helen F. from New York, NY

This was one of the most heart-breaking and tragic stories I've heard. Thank you to Laatif Nasser and Tracy Hunt for sharing the story of a Oliver Sipple. I am grateful for shows like Radiolab that are constantly expanding the breadth of material they bring to their listeners. Thank you.

Sep. 27 2017 10:16 AM
Alex from Earth

FYI you kept mentioning in the show that Mr Sipple was an 'ex-marine'; though I believe you meant 'former marine'. Someone who has completed their time and retired is a former Marine. Someone who is kicked out in disgrace is an ex-marine. Seems like a small thing - but it's a big deal to those guys.

Sep. 27 2017 09:12 AM
Chade from USA

Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.

Please get back to your core. Why does it matter that he is a sodomite? Sounded like a promising story at first.

Sep. 26 2017 06:06 PM
Mike H from Europe

Man, what a sad story, but I guess the world is full of them. Ford, who I always thought got a bad rap by SNL (best athlete Prez ever was made out to be bumbling fool), sure didn't acquit himself well. He should have called the father and said-

"I may not agree with this much either, but their are many forms of courage- Oliver showed some in his willingness to fight and be wounded in War, and again in saving my life in San Francisco. You know how war can change people. I want to you to dig deep and find the courage to respect him and accept him into your lives. I do. Oliver is an American hero." He should have had him over to the WH and given him some medal, but I guess he would have been afraid of inspiring copycats, which Moore already was.

Journo agreement aside, she was a crackpot witch who should have been executed. You should have said: I don't care what we promised- Why did you do it?

Sep. 26 2017 11:45 AM
Danny Caudillo from Porter Ranch, CA

Would love to know what that song at the very end is.

Sep. 26 2017 09:35 AM

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