Former Watergate guard's complaints lack conviction

ROGER SIMON

October 24, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

When Frank Wills came to Annapolis recently for a fund-raiser in his honor, he was portrayed as a forgotten man, an unsung hero and a victim.

It is a role that Wills, the guard who discovered the Watergate burglary 21 years ago, has cultivated.

But for a man who is supposed to be "unsung," his saga has been told and retold so many times it could make a small opera.

Wills, 46, got a check for $750 at the fund-raiser and more national publicity. But people who have known Wills for years say that while he once was in financial straits, fund-raisers are not what he now needs.

"He has a feeling that the world owes him something," Simeon Booker, the Washington bureau chief of Jet magazine, told me. "And that isn't true. He's had opportunities offered to him: for jobs, for education. But he hasn't taken advantage of them.

"When I heard they were going to give him a fund-raiser in Annapolis, I said: 'For what?' He doesn't need fund-raisers. I've tried to get him a job and training and on the right track, but to this point he hasn't done it."

It is Wills' personal view that he contributed greatly to the nation and has been "crucified" for it.

"I laid my life on the line that night," he said. "I saved this country from God knows what. I never got the publicity that the others got. I thought I did a million dollars' worth of service for this country."

What Wills, a high school dropout netting $85 a week as a security guard, did was discover tape on a garage door at the Watergate complex in the early-morning hours of June 17, 1972.

He removed the tape, thinking the building engineer had put it ZTC there. Only after the burglars taped the door a second time did Wills discover it again and call police.

And that is where Wills' role in uncovering the Watergate scandal began and ended. But he did become a national celebrity.

He played himself in the movie "All the President's Men" -- "It was a small part," Wills complained to me in a phone interview from his home in North Augusta, S.C., last week -- he gave lectures, he received plaques, was given jobs and has been interviewed scores, if not hundreds, of times.

But Wills had extremely high hopes for what his celebrity status would gain him, and as those hopes have remained unrealized, he has grown bitter.

"I know definitely that if I was of yellow color my circumstances would be different," he told the Washington Afro-American in April.

"I know if I had a white face things would have been different," he told Jet last year. "It is the same thing as the Rodney King beating. . . . While I didn't get beat, I felt abused."

But when I spoke to Wills, he cited only one example of abuse: He said that after he quit his job at the Watergate (even though he had been given a 15 percent raise and a promotion), he was turned down for a security job at Howard University.

"They told me they were afraid of losing their federal funds," Wills said. "Nixon was still in office. They deny doing this now, but it is a true fact."

Wills admits, however, that he then got a security job at Georgetown University and that he got it due to his Watergate fame.

"Some people read articles about how I had done my job and the way I was treated, and they said: 'We think you did something for your country, and there should be more Americans like you,' " Wills said.

And what happened to that job? I asked.

"I worked there for about two years and then I quit," he said. "I was spending a lot of time on speaking engagements, and it was conflicting with my job."

Haven't many people tried to help you over the years? I asked.

"Yeah, but no movie stars," Wills said. "No big names in the Congress or Senate. And the so-called [Congressional] Black Caucus and Jesse Jackson, they are so concerned with everybody else all over the world, but I was crucified, and they don't do anything for me."

Booker of Jet, whose articles have helped get financial aid for Wills, said this: "Blacks still have a certain regard for Wills, but you can go to the well too often. Every story I've done on him has been about how he's in need. Well, he needs to find himself. And he hasn't done it."

MONDAY: Stripping the veneer

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