June 17, 1972: Five White House operatives are arrested for burgling the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building.
Frank Wills, then 24 years old, a private security guard at the Watergate office building, noticed a piece of duct tape on one of the door locks when he was making his rounds. He removed the tape, and continued on his patrol. One of the five burglars — Frank Sturgis, Virgilio González, Eugenio Martínez, Bernard Barker and James W. McCord, Jr. — noticed that the tape had been removed, and replaced it with another piece of tape on the door (the tape was placed over the latch bolt to prevent the door from latching).
When Wills returned, he saw that the tape had been replaced and called in the police. The five men were found in the DNC offices and arrested, it was an attempt by some members of the Republican party to illegally wiretap the opposition. This triggered the chain of events which exposed the Watergate scandal and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Frank Wills was born in Savannah, Georgia. His parents broke up when he was a boy, and he was raised chiefly by his mother, Margie.
He was a high school dropout who later earned his equivalency degree from the Job Corps, Wills had migrated north and found an assembly-line job working for Chrysler in Detroit, Michigan. He settled in the nation’s capital after he was invited by friends to come for a visit in 1971.
LIFE AFTER THE WATERGATE SCANDAL:
Wills played himself in the film version of the book All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of their reporting work on the Watergate scandal, but he never recovered from or was able to capitalize on his moments of fame.
After his role in the Watergate incident, Wills quit his job as a security guard. One story insists that he did not get a raise for doing this exemplary service, but another story says that he did receive a $2.00 raise, from $80 to $82 per week. Still another story says that he wanted but did not receive a promotion for discovering the burglary. A more likely reason was that he was becoming increasingly angry over his notoriety and pressure from the media.
Frank Wills was honored by the NAACP. The civil rights organization presented him with a truck. The Democratic Party gave him a plaque in a short ceremony, but party officials had to take it back because the dates were engraved in error. It is unknown whether the plaque was ever corrected and returned to him.
LATER IN LIFE:
Wills also appeared briefly on the talk show circuit, but he was unable to hold down a steady day job. Howard University, he said in a later interview, feared losing their Federal funding if they hired him. He had a dispute with another employer about paid vacations.
He shuttled between Washington, D.C. and other Southern cities over the next 20 years, struggling to maintain and to keep roots and stability, but suffering long bouts of unemployment. Wills returned briefly to the headlines when he was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail in 1983 for shoplifting a pair of sneakers for one of his four reported children.
He finally settled in North Augusta, South Carolina, after a failed stint working as a diet food spokesperson for the comedian Dick Gregory, to care for his aging mother, who had suffered a stroke while still working as a domestic. Together, they survived on her $450 per month Social Security checks.
By the time of his mother’s death in 1993, Wills was so destitute that he had to donate her body to medical research because he had no money with which to bury her. Wills was living in a shack without electricity or telephone, and his pastor was providing him meals and paying for his living expenses when he made a public plea for financial assistance in Jet magazine. In response, another minister with a civil rights background, the Reverend James Kilby, founded an organization, Treat Every American Right (TEAR), to raise money for Wills, but there were few, if any, contributions or offers of work.
Only when significant anniversaries of the Watergate break-in occurred did the waning spotlight reach out towards him again, as when newscaster Tom Brokaw approached Wills in 1997. Otherwise, Wills tended his garden, made the local library his study, and led a quiet life with his cats. When pressed, though, Wills blamed the fact that he was black for his financial troubles; at other times, said the Los Angeles Times, he said that he was “a victim of fate.”
Frank Wills died nearly penniless from a brain tumor on September 27, 2000, at University Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. He was 52 years old.
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