On the day that the U.S. Senate voted to shed one more discriminatory shackle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein paused for a moment to remember a Marine veteran of Vietnam, a hero named Billy Sipple.
Sipple had become a troubled man at the end of his days in 1989. He got by on disability checks; his square-jawed good looks long since had disappeared into his 298-pound hulk.
He spent too much time in the bars along Polk Street, and lived in a $334-a-month apartment at the edge of San Francisco's Tenderloin. The place was cluttered with junk, but for one keepsake, a framed note on the wall.
Feinstein had known Sipple only by deed. I didn't know him either. But 22 years ago, I traced the final days and lonely death of a man who probably saved the life of a president.
Sipple, the son of a Detroit autoworker, had been discharged from the Marines in 1970 and made his way to San Francisco in search of acceptance, like so many others.
On Sept. 22, 1975, Sipple was on the sidewalk outside the St. Francis Hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of another Michigan native, Gerald Ford. Sipple looked up as a woman named Sara Jane Moore pulled a revolver from her purse. Without a second thought, Sipple lunged at her.
Feinstein, then the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, didn't see the assassination attempt but had been Ford's host at the St. Francis.
"It was a gay man who grabbed her gun, which deflected the shot aimed at our president," Feinstein said on Saturday, the day that the Senate voted to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that had forced countless military men and women to remain closeted.
Perhaps the prejudice and fears that led to the policy fed the demons that haunted Sipple. Sipple surely suffered. Sipple's brother, George, told me that the Marines at one point denied Sipple was ever in the service. There were, after all, no gay Marines.
In San Francisco in 1975, Harvey Milk was running for office and pushing to help gays gain political power. Sipple was one of his campaign workers. Upon hearing of Sipple's heroics, Milk saw an opportunity.
Two days after the assassination attempt, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen disclosed Sipple's sexual orientation, and quoted Milk and another gay man "who claim to be among Sipple's close friends described themselves as 'proud – maybe this will help break the stereotype.' "
Sipple had been out of the closet in San Francisco. But like so many others who sought freedom by settling in the city, Sipple had not told his family back in Michigan. His parents were shocked at the news. His father never got over it, he later said.
Sipple filed an invasion of privacy suit against the Chronicle and other news organizations that reported about his orientation. A state appellate court ruled against him, finding his sexual orientation was a legitimate part of the story.
It took a toll. "I have a lot of stress, and I take it out on booze," he testified in a deposition given in the suit.
Sipple was 47 when he died. But for some reason, he said he was 59 at a birthday party he threw for himself at a Polk Street bar three months before his death. He told his bar friends it would be his last.
Wayne Friday, then an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, stopped by one of Sipple's Polk Street hangouts in February 1989. The bartender asked that Friday check in on Sipple, who hadn't been around.
Friday found Sipple dead on his bed, half-gallon bottles of bourbon and 7-Up nearby. He had been there two weeks. The framed note was on a wall.
"Dear Mr. Sipple,
"I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation."
President Gerald Ford signed it.
Sipple would claim he retired from Marines as a colonel. In fact, his highest rank was corporal. He was discharged as a private first class. He was wounded twice in Vietnam, once in the head, and lived on full veteran's disability.
"He was a Marine who saved the president's life. Being gay doesn't matter," George Sipple, 70, a retired autoworker, told me by phone Wednesday.
President Barack Obama last Wednesday signed the law that will permit gay men and women to openly serve their country.
"Unfortunately, my brother didn't live long enough to see this come about. I think he would have been proud," George said.
George and I spoke in 1989 when he came to San Francisco to lay his brother to rest and empty his apartment.
Back then, George told me that his brother was honored to have left a mark on history, knowing that on occasion, "somebody will pick up a book and see Oliver Sipple saved President Ford's life."
Or maybe, on a historic day when the United States broke down a barrier that caused untold pain, a United States senator might take time to remember a Marine's act of heroism a long time ago.