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Frank Willis was an African-American security guard who discovered duct tape on an exit door in the Watergate Hotel that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. His brief moment of fame did not improve his financial situation and he spent most of his life below the poverty line. He should not be confused with Police Chief Frank Willis from the West Covina Police Department.

Early Years

Frank Willis was born on February 4, 1948, in Savannah, Georgia. His mother, Margie Willis, was a domestic worker who raised Willis alone. She bore one child before him, but the boy died as an infant. Margie moved back to North Augusta, Georgia when Willis turned 10. He attended Mount Transfiguration Baptist Church as a child and sang in the junior choir. Willis and his mother maintained a close relationship throughout his youth and she encouraged him to stay “out of trouble”. He dropped out of high school during his junior year and joined the Job Corps.[1]

Frank Willis found it difficult to find reasonable employment throughout his life, both before and after the Watergate Scandal.

Frank Willis studied how to operate heavy machinery in Battle Creek, Michigan. He could not work after being refused union membership, but eventually secured a job with the Ford Motor Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. He worked on the assembly line before being forced to quit due to complications with asthma. Willis then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1971. He worked in several different hotels and spent his free time cooking soul food and assembling model planes.[2]

The Watergate Hotel

Frank Willis worked the night shift, from midnight to sunrise, as a security guard for the Watergate Hotel. The complex housing the hotel lies on the Potomac River and cost millions of dollars to build. The office building contained the offices of many important government agencies, business executives, and the Democratic National Party. During Willis’s first year, only one person attempted to break into the hotel. Other security guards considered the Watergate to be so safe they only carried mace and a nightstick on occasion. Willis did not receive any raises or promotions during his first year. He survived on a corporal’s salary of $80 per week.[3]

The Watergate Whistleblower

On June 17, 1972, Frank Willis became the Watergate Whistleblower. During his first check of the Watergate Hotel and its premises, he discovered duct tape over the lock of a door connecting the firewell to the garage. This prevented the door from closing correctly. He removed the duct tape and left to get a snack at a nearby restaurant. Willis returned within half an hour and discovered tape blocking the lock on the door again. He assumed a burglar entered the building in his absence and called the Second Precinct since he was only armed with mace. The police arrived at the Watergate Hotel a few minutes later and Willis took them to the duct tape-covered lock. On the way to the sixth floor, a tenant buzzed for Willis to let him out the building. The police continued without him and found five persons in the dark Democratic National Party headquarters. Willis saw the men as they exited the building and George McCord asked him for a glass of water.[4]

Fame and Recognition

National papers reported Frank Willis’s name for his help in discovering the Watergate Scandal, but did not include any pictures. The security guard company increased his salary by 40 cents a week, after taxes, and promoted him to sergeant. He felt they cared more about promoting their firm than helping him and downplayed his role as much as possible.

Frank Willis’s role as the Watergate Whistleblower did little to help raise him out of poverty.

The Federal grand jury investigating the Watergate incident took his testimony. He was shocked to find most of the jury was made up of African Americans. Instilled with this knowledge and the anger of such a meager raise, he quit working for the security firm. He found another job as a security guard with better working hours, 4pm-12am, and paid $85 per week.[5]

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered a connection between the five men arrested, Bernard L. Barker, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis, James W. McCord, Jr., and Virgillio Gonzalez, and a fund utilized by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, Frank Willis shot into the spotlight.[6][7] Reporters and television personalities all interviewed him for helping discover one of the biggest political scandals of the century. Despite his fame growing, Willis received no support from any law enforcement organizations or the White House. He quit his job not long afterward and lost his apartment when his roommate unexpectedly moved out.[8] The Watergate Scandal resulted in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 9, 1974.[9] Frank Willis’s part in this was memorialized in both the book and 1976 film adaptation of All the President’s Men, written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. He played himself in the film, but only appeared for a brief moment. Some of the interviews paid him up to $300 and the NAACP gave him a truck.[10] Frank Willis the security guard is not the same as Frank will the Police Chief of the West Covina Police Department.[11]

Later Years and Death

Frank Willis struggled to maintain employment the rest of his life. In 1983, he was convicted of shoplifting. He lived in the Bahamas for a while and worked for Dick Gregory, a comedian, who promoted a diet product that failed.[12] Willis returned to Augusta in 1990 to care for his mother when she had a stroke while cleaning houses. They pair survived on $450/month from her social security checks before she passed in November 1992. Since he could not afford a burial, he donated her body to science.[13] Frank Willis died on September 27, 2000, in Augusta’s University Hospital after suffering a brain tumor. He was survived by his daughter, Angel Brown, who lived in Aiken, South Carolina at the time of his death.[14]


References

Bibliography

Booker, S. (1973, May 17). Untold Story of Black Hero of Watergate. Jet, 44(6), 20.

Clymer, A. (2000, September 29). Frank Wills, 52; Watchman Foiled Watergate Break-In. The New York Times. 
South Carolina Bureau. (2000, September 30). Watergate Guard Led Quiet Life. The Augusta Chronicle.

Footnotes

  1. South Carolina Bureau, 2000
  2. Booker, 1973
  3. Booker, 1973
  4. Booker, 1973
  5. Booker, 1973
  6. Congressional Quarterly Inc, Dickinson, W. B., & Goldstein, J. L. (1972). Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis. Washington: Congressional Quarterly.
  7. Clymer, 2000
  8. Booker, 1973
  9. Clymer, 2000
  10. South Carolina Bureau, 2000
  11. Moore, S. C. (2013, July 5). WCPD Chief Wills Retires. Eastvale News.
  12. Clymer, 2000
  13. South Carolina Bureau, 2000
  14. Clymer, 2000

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