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'Now What Am I Known For?' Trying to Find Oliver Sipple's Legacy

Monday, September 25, 2017 - 02:05 PM

Our latest episode tells the story of Oliver Sipple, a Vietnam vet who went for a walk one day, and ended up saving then-President Gerald Ford from an assassin’s bullet.  A day later, renowned gossip columnist Herb Caen - in conjunction with the activist Harvey Milk - outed Sipple as gay. Sipple hadn't told his family.  The revelation made national news and he eventually sued several newspapers for invading his privacy.

As we reported this story out, we were curious to hear what those headlines about Sipple meant to those who read them back in 1975. What did it mean for a young person living in the closet back then to learn that a gay man saved the President’s life? What did it mean to someone serving in the Marines, since Sipple himself was a former Marine? What did it mean to someone who had never met an openly gay person before? Further, we were interested whether Sipple’s story ever made a lasting impact on anyone’s else’s life, either at the time or since. 

Trying to capture something so evanescent as a reaction to a headline forty years after the fact is no small challenge, but we started calling up some organizations we thought might be able to help.  Turns out, we didn’t have much luck.  But in all those calls, we did talk to two people who shared what Sipple and his story meant to them. And - although we had to cut them from our story for time - we still wanted to share snippets from those conversations.

Denny Meyer, also a Vietnam veteran, lived in San Francisco at the same time as Oliver Sipple.  He now works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Transgender American Veterans Association, and the American Veterans for Equal Rights.  Here’s our phone call with him about San Francisco in the 70s, a time when he says “the gods of the gay revolution walked the earth like ordinary mortals”: 

Allen Jones is a longtime San Francisco resident and activist. Although he lived in the city back in 1975, he only heard about Sipple’s story many years after the fact, doing research in the San Francisco Public Library.  Our phone call with Allen was particularly touching and powerful.  We were especially moved to hear how much Sipple’s story meant to him, and how reading it compelled him to become an advocate for Oliver Sipple. Back in 2011, he worked tirelessly to get the city of San Francisco to recognize the deceased hero and it worked. The city declared September 22nd Oliver W. Sipple Day. Here’s our phone call with Allen:  

Of course, we’d love to hear more reactions to Oliver Sipple'sstory. Whatever your sexual orientation, wherever you live, however old you are, whether you first heard the story today or back when it happened, we’d love to know what it means to you.  Comment below!


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Comments [30]

Nancy from Illinois

I realize that the thrust of this story is about Sipple's homosexuality and the invasion of his privacy, but in attempting to learn more I came upon Charles Gundlach, who claims that he was actually the person who should have been recognized as the hero who saved Ford. In this page on his website he said that he deflected the first shot. Were the producers of the Radio Lab episode aware of Gundlach and did they attempt to verify or debunk his story?

Feb. 25 2018 06:46 PM
Roger from Port Orford

Re: Oliver Supple podcast

It is important to realize that Mr. Supple was not ostracized because he was gay. This is demonstrated by the fact that if he were alive today, he could be ostracized for being black, Muslim, Jewish, Arabic, for a variety of other nationalities, colors, preferences, etc. The question for ourselves is not, “what is our hangup with people who are gay, or people who are Muslim”, but rather, “why do we ostracize people who are different?” This is an important distinction, because as soon as a perceived group of people achieve a critical mass(numbers of individuals) within the boundaries of a specific culture and geography, they are no longer perceived as different. Quantity and proximity has something to do with this human behavior we are struggling to understand.

Oliver lost his right to privacy about being homosexual when he disclosed to anyone other than himself that he was homosexual. I gather from the podcast this occurred prior to his action resulting in the saving of the President’s life. Anyone can do anything they want with that information. There are no laws prohibiting the transfer of that information once disclosed by the originator once released. If he would (could have somehow) refrained from sharing that information, no one else would have ever known about it, and therefore could not have been shared publicly.


Jan. 29 2018 02:16 PM
Dndiz Khenaton from New york New york

(Face of the god King) Out Now!

The best book of the year Myth, Fact, Breakthroughs. This book offers the many questions ask not only of African American people, but from mankind in general. I believe the answers in this unique neoteric piece of work are the first step to solving many of life’s paradoxes and complexities.
Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is our past legacy, history, and religion? What is our place and purpose on this earth? What is our destiny?

Jan. 11 2018 07:47 AM
Mrs. G

Like, you know, I like read like the you know transcript and like you know? I like wish like the professionals who like like do you know this show were forced like to read their like transcript and like listen to like their own like show and you know be like zapped every time they like waste our like time talking like valley girl tweener speak?

Dec. 30 2017 03:03 PM
Christina from California

I was an 8 year old girl living in Northern California during this time. We subscribed to the SF Chronicle and I vividly remember reading about the attempt on President Ford's life. My mom was an avid reader of Herb Caen's column. I had no idea that Caen was the one that outed Oliver Sipple. I wonder how Caen and Harvey Milk felt after the events in Sipple's life unfolded the way that they did? Your story was fascinating and heartbreaking. I was driving to my sister's while listening to it and couldn't wait to tell her to listen. Thank you for telling Oliver Sipple's story.

Dec. 26 2017 10:14 AM
Chuck Marshall from Houston, TX

The reason what happened to Oliver Simple feels wrong is that it *was* wrong. Regardless of the rationalizations and legal arguments to the contrary, what Harvey Milk and the journalists did to Simple was immoral and unethical. Sipple didn't make an issue of his sexuality. On the contrary, he made it clear his sexuality had nothing to do with actions. Milk and the press selfishly exploited Sipple for their own purposes. The arguments that sacrificing Sipple was justified because it was for some abstract "greater public good" or because it was to explore the "issue" of whether President Ford was prejudice against homosexuals are inadequate.  There are people on organ transplant waiting lists waiting for hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys andi don't know what else.  Would I be justified in killing someone for their organs because the harvested organs would help many other people? Do the needs of the many people waiting for organs outweigh the needs of the person I kill?

Further, self-sacrifice for a cause is noble, but sacrificing someone is not. If Sipple had wanted to sacrifice his personal interests for a cause, he could have done that. He should have had the right to make that decision for himself.  Would it be noble of me to force you to give up one of your kidneys for someone else?

Nov. 26 2017 09:26 PM
Carl James from Brooklyn, NY

This piece was very moving. Thank you so much for sharing Oliver Sipple's amazing story. More people deserve to know about his heroic actions. It's unfortunate that his life ended in solitude as a result of being outed. Given everything that he had done including saving President Ford's life...he most certainly deserved better than he got. Thank you for your great work here.

Nov. 14 2017 10:13 PM
Jason Grpss from Rochester, NY

Thank you for your amazing work. This podcast in particular has stayed with me. I never even knew about the Ford assassination attempt - let alone Oliver Sipple. I hope Oliver had some solace in his lifetime for perhaps changing people's minds by showing that people are people regardless of who they love.

Nov. 12 2017 11:47 PM
Stuart from Baltimore, MD

I enjoyed the story about Oliver Sipple.

I wonder why the producers didn't see fit to mention that not only was Gerald Ford's life saved by a gay man, but Gerald Ford was the father of a gay man. This truthful tidbit is relevant to the overall story, ESPECIALLY when reporting that Sipple had requested that Ford speak to his (now) estranged parents.

If you are reputable journalists, you will follow up on this.

(I'm not holding my breath.)

Nov. 09 2017 07:38 PM
Maureen A Sestito from Lansdale, PA

I had never heard this story. This poor man. There have been so many stories in our past where innocent bystanders have had their reputations destroyed by the media jumping to conclusions without all of the facts. Remember the Olympic city bomber. This is so much worse because they intentionally hurt this poor man to stir up the public for sensationalism and ratings.

Nov. 05 2017 08:29 PM
Xinxin from Seattle

Thank you for making this story. It's so rich and stayed in my heart for many days.

Nov. 05 2017 07:05 PM
Cathie Briggette from Boston, MA

Thank you so much for this story I had never heard of Oliver Sipple, and today he came to life as I listened to his story. It makes me sad what he did and how he suffered for his selfless act. And in the end at his funeral, no one remembered who he was or celebrated his life. Thank you again for giving us all a reason to celebrate his life.

Nov. 04 2017 08:20 PM
Sherri from San Jose ca

I was 15 when the attempted assasination happened and I knew little about the man that saved the presidents life. Sadly, Mr Sipple was used by gay activists and the press to further their cause. Although things are a lot better now, we seem to be heading backward when it comes to being a gay person in America.

Nov. 04 2017 06:22 PM
John from Mankato, MN

His legacy lives on in me now that I have defensively pulled back the rainbow flags into my bedroom as the small Midwestern City I live in descends into chaos where breathless rhetoric (and ample seeming evidence) of kulturkampf, jihad, police brutality, and race war all abound. The world I actually live in, today, is not the world as boldly envisioned by Harvey Milk.

And yet, the shame is gone, forever. It's never coming back, either: not even if, in these days of vicious blowback, none of us can live wholly "out", and we all go back to surviving, living double lives in countless little ways. It isn't shameful to be smart enough to outfox the misguided moralistic hypocrites who want you dead.

There is no longer any shame in surviving. That's Sipples' gift to us.

We have our dignity; that much remains, if nothing else, indelibly marked on our hearts by stories such as these of worthwhile lives, like Sipples', lived, of which it is enough to simply know they lived. My life matters because his life mattered: a fact that will not go away or change because his family threw him out, his friends betrayed (and then abandoned) him, the life he saved was not worth half his own, nor finally because he was but little mourned and ultimately forgotten. The mere absence of adulation -- indeed, of meagre respect -- accorded him does nothing to detract from his impact on people's lives. His life *is* history.

Gay men like me don't breed. We don't live on through DNA. We live on through our shared stories and by examples passed down mostly through oral transmission, in which proud tradition this broadcast does now fall.

The rarest thing in times like these, for men like me, is role models. Such is Sipples to me. Perhaps it will actually be enough to learn from him not to drink myself into stupors. I don't have to repeat his one fatal mistake.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this story.

Nov. 04 2017 05:13 PM
Jonathan M.P. from Melrose (near Boston), Mass

I listen every weekend, and often listen twice, on each of the NPR stations in Boston.
On Saturday and Sunday (WBUR 90.9 and WGBH 89.7!)
Learning something new with each listing.

'Now What Am I Known For?' Trying to Find Oliver Sipple's Legacy' is a masterpiece! Thank you and congratulations to Latif Nasser and the en tire staff!
I do remember your story of the pigeons finding their way home.

Your RADIOLAB offerings are some of the best on NPR radio. They are very timely and leave one with a lot to think about. Your ART of story telling is superior, you give our emotions a weekly workout.

Oct. 4, 2017 3:33 PM

Nov. 04 2017 05:08 PM
Mike Auciello from Cincinnati

I forgot about this story, and how it made me feel until today. I remember hearing about this as a young gay man who knew he was gay, but, was afraid of his orientation, the story was both empowering and devastating then. I hope it can be empowering now. Great listen.

Thank you for being awesome radio, and thank you for this story. But, screw you for making me cry.

Nov. 04 2017 04:19 PM
Julie Barker from Yakima WA

Perhaps President Ford mailed a letter to Oliver Sipples' parents, but they never disclosed it as they had disowned him. Mr. Sipples is truly a hero. He deserves to rest in Arlington, at least in the public mind.

Nov. 04 2017 02:12 PM
Leslie Patient from Monmouth County

This is a heartbreaking piece highlighting another dark layer in American history when the media was acting on the faith that the public was ready for the truth that good people come in all orientations. But clearly the American public was not ready. In many venues, it still is not ready.

Nov. 04 2017 01:04 PM
Patrick Meyer from Santa Cruz, CA


I stopped in my driveway with my stomach churning over the grief I felt as I heard about Billy Sipple's tragic story. I could relate to so much--especially his terror about being outed.

I was still in the closet when I read Herb Caen's column about him. I remember feeling a sense of relief: 'Oh--maybe "they" will see that homosexuals aren't just the horrible stereotypes we've all seen and heard about.'

My parents also cut me off when I came out to them 4 years later. Luckily my siblings intervened.

But I was viscerally reminded of the pain I felt--the fear of rejection that he experienced and the struggles I had in coming out.

His family's response was exactly what I feared would happen with me.

It is so sad that a Viet Nam Vet would have to endure yet another painful rejection on top of it all.

Thank you for doing this piece--it captures the terror we felt back then in such a palpable way.

May he rest in peace.

Nov. 03 2017 12:39 AM
INC Research from USA

This article has awesome reference esteem, much thanks for sharing, I might want to repeated your article, with the goal that more individuals would see it.

Oct. 27 2017 02:15 PM
Russell Hoban from New Zealand

Hello from New Zealand. This was an incredible story; the production was five star; riveting listening. It was so very moving and I am recommending it to many friends. To astonishing to believe - a window into another time. Thank you so much for not letting this remarkable man and his story be forgotten.

Oct. 27 2017 04:33 AM
Ike Rosenbaum from Elmira, NY

I remember the Ford shooting when it happened, but didn't hear of the outing until the film Absence of Malice was out on video, many years later, during a discussion on ethics by characters behaving unethically. The guy was a Marine, and did the right thing without hesitation. Outstanding.

Oct. 20 2017 05:00 AM
Soliday from Cambodia

This is a very powerful story. I really loved the style you chose to tell the story. I bet he's an inspiration and a hero to everyone especially those who are gay. I'm curious why some people still investigate in this story. Why is it so important?

Oct. 12 2017 09:31 AM

Incredibly powerful story-I was moved to tears, blown away, and angered at times by this hero's life after being publicly outed. Thank you for sharing.

Oct. 11 2017 10:43 PM
Mark from Victoria BC

This is some of the best radio I've heard in a long, long time. Well done! and thank you for telling this story.

Oct. 10 2017 11:48 AM
Beck from Seaside, CA

Wow. Thank you so much for this story.

Sep. 29 2017 05:39 PM
Bob Roach from Niagara, Ontario

Wow. Another great one. Well done!

And speaking of 'wow', I'm with you guys on Gordon Pinsent's reading.

That really blew me away. What a master.

Sep. 28 2017 03:40 PM
Jeremy B. Wise from South Carolina

I had never heard Oliver Sipples tragic story before today; Thank you for sharing. It was heartbreaking to listen to the terrible consequences he faced for such an ill-fated act of heroism.

Sep. 28 2017 06:16 AM
David Gordon from New England

Hate has always been observable. Your story measures it. Given the current political climate, one can detect the aroma returning as the ovens are being re-heated. None of us are as evolved as we like to think. Blessed are the meek.

Sep. 27 2017 09:30 PM
Johan from Wisconsin

Hi: What is the Patrick Cowley track title playing during the final credits?

Sep. 27 2017 07:53 PM

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