Watergate 'hero' has let opportunities pass him by

October 25, 1993|By ROGER SIMONROGER SIMON

To James Kilby, raising money for Frank Wills was simply the Christian thing to do.

"I'm a Christian, and it's Christians against the world, so to speak," said Kilby, who founded TEAR (Treat Every American Right) in Anne Arundel County last year. "Our purpose is to reach back to those people who have made a contribution to society and didn't get full recognition. Frank is an unsung hero."

In reality, however, Wills, the security guard who discovered the Watergate burglary in 1972, has gotten considerable recognition, well as jobs and money over the years.

While it is true Wills has not found success, some people who know him say the reason may lie not only with how society rewards people, but also with Wills himself.

The Rev. A. C. Redd of Augusta, Ga., who has known Wills for more than two decades, told me last week:

"Wills needs someone to point him in the right direction. A baby will not learn to walk if he continues to crawl. At some point a baby must get off his knees and walk."

Does that mean that Wills does not need fund-raisers like the one they had for him in Annapolis? I asked.

"Did he go to that?" Redd said. "Well, no, he doesn't need money and fund-raisers. He needs some stability in life so he can get some self-esteem."

Redd said that Wills did need money following the November 1992 death of his mother, whose monthly Social Security checks Wills was living on. And when Jet magazine published Wills' address in March, help did come in.

"I did get money, food, clothes, shoes and building materials," Wills told me in a recent phone interview.

How much money did you get? I asked.

"I really can't say how much I got," Wills said. "But it's no $50,000 or nothing like that. We can spend millions on Somalia and Haiti, but, hell, I'm right here in South Carolina. People should get rid of the Democratic Party. They are backward and corrupt and liars. They didn't even say thank you to me."

But the Democratic National Committe did thank you, didn't it? I asked. Didn't it honor you with a plaque?

"I couldn't eat a plaque!" Wills said. "I've served my country, and I have been crucified for it!"

While Wills' Watergate role did get him honors, it also got him negative publicity when he was convicted of shoplifting in February 1983, which was his second offense.

(Wills now tells people that his case was dismissed and he never went to jail. When he told me this last week, however, I pointed out that newspaper accounts state that in October 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his conviction and that he spent three weeks in jail. He continued to deny both.)

And yet, as is typical when Wills is written about, Wills got offers of jobs and money from around the country after he was arrested in 1983, and two New Jersey mayors raised $3,000 for his bail.

Nationally known figures, including Dick Gregory, the social activist, who gave Wills a job and bought him eight custom suits, and the late Alex Haley, the author of "Roots," who was going to write Wills' autobiography, also tried to help.

But, as many stories note, things never seem to pan out for Frank Wills.

I asked James Kilby of TEAR, whose fund-raiser netted Wills $750, just what society owes Wills.

"I wouldn't say society owes him, but the [Watergate] crooks wound up being millionaires," Kilby said. "Of course they were already highly educated and powerful, and it was easy for them to capitalize."

Which is a point that seems to escape Wills. The Watergate criminals who did profit not only had college educations, but lifetimes of powerful contacts in business, government and the media.

Wills had none of that. He did gain celebrity status, but instead of trying to use it to finance an education or get into a steady job, he seems to have expected some large lump sum reward. And when he didn't get one, he turned into a professional victim, repeating his tale of woe year after year.

It is clear to some who know Wills that he now needs something other than more "plight" stories and fund-raisers.

"Frank has got to want to gain self-esteem before he can gain self-esteem," the Rev. Redd said. "We must help him strip off the veneer before he can deal with his real problems."

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