Book cover

This past June 17 was the fiftieth anniversary of the break in of the Watergate Hotel. A surfeit of books have been written about this sorry episode in American history; indeed, two new ones have been published in the last few months. However, Adam Henig’s Watergate’s Forgotten Hero, propitiously timed, is the first biography to explore the life of the unassuming security guard.  

The break in was ordered by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) as part of his strategy to discredit the Democratic party and its eventual nominee and win re-election in 1972. Furthermore, the Nixon administration was afraid that the war in Vietnam would become the center of the campaign, and he did everything he could to keep that from happening. So of course, Nixon was especially furious at the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret report that detailed America’s involvement in Vietnam from President Harry S. Truman through Richard Nixon, by Daniel Ellsburg. Ellsburg had formerly been a United States military analyst. When he leaked the report, he was working for the RAND Corporation, a think tank that provided research and scrutiny of military issues and programs to the United States Air Force. The Nixon administration sued to keep the New York Times from printing the report, but lost. Tremendous efforts were made to discredit Ellsburg, including breaking into the office of his psychiatrist. It was this episode that precipitated the development of a group known as the Plumbers, who spent their time trying to thwart additional leaks, digging up dirt on Democratic officials, and disseminating lies and misinformation.

Frank Wills was born in 1948 in the virulently segregated city of Savannah, Georgia. He was reared by a single mother and attended a segregated school. He was smart and did well in school, but he was a prankster and had a short attention span. That last issue would be one reason why he was never able to capitalize on his fame from the Watergate burglary.

Wills dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. After being trained by the Job Corps, a program of the War on Poverty, he got manufacturing jobs at Ford and then Chrysler, but they didn’t last long. After drifting from job to job, he discovered private security work. He liked it and took it seriously. Indeed, he once chased a suspected burglary out of the store, and the man threatened him with a gun.

Hearing that there were lots of well-paying security jobs in Washington, D.C. Wills relocated. He found work at General Security Services, a private security firm, where he was paid $80 a week. It was enough for him to rent a single-room apartment. A loner, he pretty much kept to himself. Promoted in May 1972, he was assigned to work at the Watergate Office Building where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters.

As he was making his rounds on level B-2 of the building, Wills found an unlocked door. On close inspection he noticed that a piece of tape had been placed on the latch. He had seen this before because office workers often used this method to keep the door open so as not to need a key when they re-entered the building. He pulled the tape off and locked the door. He found the same thing with a second door on level B-3 and repeated the action. In all, he found four doors unlocked, and three of them had paper and cotton packed into the latch openings. Wills phoned a supervisor but had to leave a message. He then went to dinner with an intern from the DNC. When he returned, he decided to recheck the doors on levels B2 and B3 and found that the latches had been retaped. He discussed the situation with a guard at an agency on the eighth floor and was advised to call the police. After the police arrived, there was a short conversation, and they decided to shut off the elevators to prevent anyone from leaving the building and began a floor-by-floor search. On the sixth floor the police hit pay dirt as five men obeyed their command to come out with their hands up.

The next morning, the Washington Post printed an article in which Wills was identified as the security guard who reported the break in. From that point, his life changed forever in ways that were surprising, heady, baffling, annoying, and just plain sad.

For a while, Wills was treated like a hero and celebrity. The public liked his quiet and unassuming manner, and the fact that an average, everyday American had stumbled onto such an important story also had great appeal. The only African American to be involved with Watergate, he appeared on the cover of Jet, a famous African American publication. Wills was interviewed by numerous other magazines and newspapers and appeared on talk shows. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League honored him. Ron Turner, a songwriter, and country singer, wrote “The Ballad of Frank Wills.” People interrupted him at work, asking for his autograph, and wanting to take his picture. His colleagues teased him unmercifully. But Wills’ fame was becoming a burden, and his life seemed, in his eyes, to be turning into a freak show. He quit his job but had trouble landing and keep another. He came to feel that he had been tainted by his connection to the burglary and had difficulty understanding this. After all, he had merely done his job.

The next year, Wills thought it prudent to try to cash in on his celebrity before the story blew over. He was put in touch with Dorsey Evans, Jr., who was a graduate of the prestigious Howard University Law School. Their relationship would prove to be a most unfortunate development for Wills. Evans was inexperienced in public relations, and Wills was not used to the limelight. Evans repeatedly made grandiose promises of Wills’ earning potential. When opportunities didn’t materialize–sometimes due to Evans’ duplicity and mismanagement–he convinced Wills that it was because of racial discrimination. Indeed, he took advantage of Wills at every turn during their relationship. It was later discovered that his unscrupulous ways had got him disbarred in Washington D.C., for misconduct.

Wills thought he had caught a break when he portrayed himself in the blockbuster movie All the President’s Men. Numerous takes were shot in two cities, but most of the footage was cut from the film. He made only $1,500 for his role; the film grossed $70 million dollars. Tired, dispirited, and bitter, Wills went back down south to his mother’s home in North Augusta, Georgia. Still unable to get or keep a job, his life continued to spiral downward, and he had a few minor scrapes with the law. In 1992, Wills lost his beloved mother, who had been his anchor. Fortunately, she left him her house and a small amount of money, so homelessness was never an issue.

Wills’ health begin to falter, and he complained of excruciating headaches, had trouble with his memory, and expressed bizarre conspiracy theories about his downfall. He could often be seen walking the streets of his neighborhood, seemingly confused. Sometime between 1985 and 1990, he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. He kept his diagnosis of secret, so many people contributed his physical and mental decline to cancer. He died on September 7, 2000.

Watergate’s Forgotten Hero is a slim but meaty account of Wills’ role in one of the most significant crimes in our nation’s history. Henig’s prodigious research enabled him to painstaking reconstruct Wills’ life and the unusual circumstances in which he found himself after June 17, 1972. The life of the quiet, unassuming loner is expertly fleshed out by Henig, and we see Wills in all his complexity.

The one thing Wills seemed to fear, that he and his crucial role in the Watergate saga would be forgotten, never materialized. On every anniversary, people sought him out for commentary on the incident and updates on his life. Even his decline was generally spoken of in respectful terms. Although he did not profit financially from Watergate in any way, shape or form like many of its participants–they included a president who barely made it out of town ahead of the posse and convicted and disbarred felons–there can be no doubt that his diligence, curiosity, and instincts served America extremely well at a very crucial time.

Damn right Frank Wills was a hero.