The hero of Watergate: Frank Wills

Posted: June 14, 2022 by chrisharper in Uncategorized
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By Christopher Harper

As talking heads and journalistic wannabes pontificate about this week’s anniversary of the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, few will mention Frank Wills.

“If there is no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time, there may be no watchman in the night,” said U.S. Rep. James Mann (D-South Carolina) of the House Judiciary Committee as he cast his vote to impeach Richard Nixon.

Wills was that watchman at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, when five men tried to plant electronic listening devices.

Then 24, Wills called the police after discovering that locks at the complex had been tampered with. Five men were arrested inside the Democratic headquarters, which triggered the Watergate scandal and eventually the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Although hailed as a hero, Wills spent much of his life jobless and in poverty.

Wills was born in Savannah, Georgia. His parents separated when he was a child, and he was raised by his mother, Margie. After dropping out of high school, Wills studied heavy machine operations in Battle Creek, Michigan, and earned his high school equivalency degree from the Job Corps. He found an assembly-line job at Ford in Detroit, Michigan, but had to give up the position because of asthma. Wills then traveled to Washington, D.C., and worked at several hotels before landing a job as a security guard at the Watergate complex.

On the night of June 17, 1972, Wills noticed a piece of duct tape on one of the door locks when he was making his rounds. The tape was placed over the latch to prevent the door from shutting. He removed the tape and continued his patrol. Thirty minutes later, Wills returned to the door and noticed there was more tape on the same door. Without hesitation, Wills called the police. 

The police turned off the elevators and locked the doors while accompanying Wills to search the offices one by one. Five men—all with ties to the Committee to Re-elect the President—were found in the offices and arrested. “When we turned the lights on, one person, then two persons, then three persons came out, and on down the line,” Wills recalled.

According to media reports, Wills quit his job because he did not receive a raise.

After his brief fame, Wills had difficulty keeping a job. He said in an interview that Howard University feared losing its federal funding if it hired him. A security job with Georgetown University did not last long. Also, he worked for a brief time for the comedian Dick Gregory.

In the mid-1970s, Wills settled in North Augusta, South Carolina, to care for his aging mother, who had suffered a stroke. Together, they survived on her Social Security checks of $450 a month. In 1979, Wills was convicted of shoplifting and fined $20. Four years later, he was convicted of shoplifting a pair of sneakers from a store in Augusta, Georgia, and served one year in prison. By the time of his mother’s death in 1993, Wills was so impoverished that he had to donate her body to medical research because he had no money to bury her.

Only when significant anniversaries of the Watergate break-in occurred did the media remember him for a bit. In 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the burglary, reporters asked if he would do it all over again. “That’s like asking me if I’d rather be white than black. It was just a part of destiny,” he replied.

At 52, Wills died in Augusta, Georgia, from a brain tumor with neither fame nor fortune–little more than a footnote in history. 

But he was the hero of Watergate. Without his actions, it’s unlikely anyone would know what the Nixon administration was up to. 

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