Frank Wills (February 4, 1948 – September 27, 2000) was the security guard who alerted the police to a possible break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.. His actions eventually led to the discovery of the truth about the Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.
After dropping out of high school in eleventh grade, Wills studied heavy machine operations in Battle Creek, Michigan and he earned his equivalency degree from the Job Corps. He found an assembly-line job working for Ford in Detroit, Michigan. He later had to give up his assembly-line job due to health issues, namely asthma. Wills then traveled to Washington D.C. and worked at a few hotels before landing a job as a security guard at the Watergate hotel.
In June 1972, Wills, at the age of 24, was working as a private security guard at the Watergate office building on the shores of the Potomac River. This was the location of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters. In the one year that Wills had worked here, there had been only one attempted burglary so his job was not of major importance. It was also considered so safe that security officers in the building only carried around a can of mace.
On the night of June 17, Wills noticed a piece of duct tape on one of the door locks when he was making his first round. The tape was placed over the latch bolt to prevent the door from latching shut. He removed the tape and continued on his patrol. Thirty minutes later, Wills came back to the door and he noticed there was more tape on the door. Without hesitation, Wills rushed up to the lobby telephone and asked for the Second Precinct police. Five men were found in the DNC offices and arrested. Details that emerged during their questioning and trials triggered the Watergate scandal. The five men arrested were Bernard L. Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr., and Frank Sturgis.
One story reports that after the Watergate break-in, he received a raise of $2.50 above his previous $80 per week. Another story states he wanted, but did not receive, a promotion for discovering the burglary.
Sometime after the botched burglary, Wills quit his security job at the DNC headquarters and found another security job that paid him a little bit more money, but the second security job was still not enough to live on so he had to leave that job as well.
Wills played himself in the film version of the book All the President's Men. The book and film were based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of the Watergate scandal. Wills also appeared briefly on the talk show circuit.
Wills' log entry made on June 17, 1972 at 1:47 a.m. is memorialized in the National Archives.
Over the next 20 years, Wills struggled to establish and maintain roots and stability while suffering bouts of unemployment. He shuttled between Washington and other southern cities, with some time spent in the Bahamas. He said in an interview that Howard University feared losing their federal funding if they hired him. A security job with Georgetown University did not last long. Also, he worked in a failed stint as a diet food spokesperson for the comedian Dick Gregory.
In the mid-1970s, Wills finally settled in North Augusta, South Carolina, to care for his aging mother, who had suffered a stroke. Together, they survived on her $450 per month Social Security checks. 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 sentenced to one year in prison. 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.
Only when significant anniversaries of the Watergate break-in occurred did the waning spotlight reach out towards him again. In 1992, on the twentieth anniversary of the burglary of the DNC headquarters, reporters asked if he were given the chance to do it all over again, would he? Wills replied with annoyance, "That's like asking me if I'd rather be white than black. It was just a part of destiny." That same year, Wills told a Boston Globe reporter, "I put my life on the line. I went out of my way. . . . If it wasn't for me, Woodward and Bernstein would not have known anything about Watergate. This wasn't finding a dollar under a couch somewhere." Wills was quoted saying, "Everybody tells me I'm some kind of hero, but I certainly don't have any hard evidence. I did what I was hired to do but still I feel a lot of folk don't want to give me credit, that is, a chance to move upward in my job.
Otherwise, Wills tended his garden, made the local library his study, and led a quiet life with his cats. Frank Wills died at the Medical College of Georgia hospital in Augusta, Georgia at the age of 52 from a brain tumor.
The Democratic National Committee gave Wills an award, and the chairman said he had played "a unique role in the history of the nation."
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