Originally created 09/30/00

Watergate guard led quiet life



NORTH AUGUSTA - The Watergate security guard who toppled a president by just doing his job will be buried today in a simple, quiet graveside service.

Frank Wills' grave is beside the church he grew up calling "Mount 'Figuration," before government scandals rocked the nation and rattled his world. The service will be at 11 a.m.

Only 52, he died this week in an Augusta hospital of a brain tumor he never told relatives he had until forced to, said his cousin, Eddie Wills, who shared Mr. Wills' birthday and life.

To the end, Mr. Wills wondered why the Watergate crooks got rich after he caught them in the Democratic National Committee offices while he washed his clothes in a bucket mowed lawns and performed odd jobs for food money.

Mount Transfiguration Baptist Church is where his enthusiastic, if unskilled, voice could be heard in the junior choir, straining for high notes in What a Friend We Have in Jesus. His burial in the cemetery there is just one way Mr. Wills' circle began to close when he came home to Five Notch Spur.

To walk that street is to know what he valued in life. Several mailboxes read "Wills." The people are kin, one way or another.

The small house on the hill is where Margie Wills, a domestic worker, raised her only son alone. He was born in Savannah, but she brought him to North Augusta near family when he was 10. Another infant son had died before Mr. Wills was born, and she kept him close.

She was "quite the disciplinarian," said Eddie Wills. "She made sure he stayed out of trouble."

Mother and son were so close that everyone on the spur was surprised when Frank dropped out of 11th grade at then-Jefferson High School to join the Job Corps.

They were not surprised when he returned in 1990 after Ms. Wills, still cleaning houses at 82, had a stroke.

"He took care of her like she took care of him all those years," said her sister, Gladys Peterson.

When the door was open, passers-by could see his mother's hospital bed with Frank sitting on the edge, spoon-feeding her and brushing hair back from her face. He would not consider a nursing home.

The two lived on her $450 Social Security check. When she died in November 1992, he couldn't afford to bury her and gave her body to science.

Mr. Wills stayed, with cats for company. He tended a garden and "pretty much kept to himself," said neighbor Preston Sykes, who had played baseball with him as a child and knew him as a private person. "You couldn't get inside his head."

Few realized how rich Mr. Wills was despite his poverty - he had a library card and "was really smart about a lot of things because he read so much," Mr. Sykes said.

He had no car but rode his black bicycle to the library for books. He liked to read in a small patch of woods across the dirt road, leaning against a tree trunk.

Nobody thought much about him being famous, except on anniversaries of the Watergate break-in, when news media invaded the quiet neighborhood. Tom Brokaw's visit in 1997 had residents buzzing.

But Mr. Wills never mentioned Watergate except that "it ruined his life," Eddie Wills said. "He hated the fuss, and he always watched his back. The more that came out about the people involved, CIA and all, he was afraid of revenge."

He rarely talked about himself. Relatives were shocked to hear in 1983, when he was convicted of shoplifting a $12 pair of sneakers, that he said they were for his son. If he had one, they didn't know it. And while some reports mention four out-of-wedlock children, relatives say they knew only a 15-year-old daughter named Angel.

It seemed sometimes that he had never been away, his aunt said. But it was going away that started it all.

He finished high school by correspondence through the Job Corps, which put him in Detroit, building Chryslers. But he'd been laid off when he fell in love with Washington on a visit.

He found upstairs rooms on 22nd Street and a job with General Security on the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift at the Watergate. He guarded 11 floors in the posh office and apartment complex by the Potomac River for $80 a week.

By the end of his life, little about Mr. Wills suggested the important role he played that summer night in 1972 when he saw a piece of gray tape on a basement door latch.

He always said he first thought someone who worked there had forgotten a key. But he removed the tape before going to Howard Johnson's for orange juice.

When he returned, someone had retaped the latch, and Mr. Wills called the capital police. The burglars were on the sixth floor, wearing rubber gloves with their coats and ties. They had White House phone numbers in their pockets and direct links to Richard M. Nixon, who would become the only president to resign when facing impeachment.

The log entry Mr. Wills made in rounded script at 1:47 a.m. is in the National Archives. And the American Civil Liberties Union said that, if not for the 24-year-old watchman, "we would not have learned of this - nor of a constellation of crimes against our people and their Constitution. ...

"Frank Wills' telephone call (to the police) provided us an opportunity to save ourselves, our children and their children. That telephone call was not as dramatic as Paul Revere's cries on an eventful night long ago, but it was as effective and as important."

Mr. Wills got a raise, $2.50 more a week, but left General Security to look for a better job. But it was tough to find work in a political town that didn't know how the drama he'd begun would unfold.

Howard University, he said in Watergate anniversary interviews, feared losing federal grants if it hired him. He got on security at Georgetown University but soon lost the job.

He had trouble coping with both fame and failure.

The few good things that happened had a dark side. The Democrats gave him a plaque but took it back when they found it had the wrong date for the break-in. Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, who hated Nixon, dedicated an album to Mr. Wills, but he received no royalties.

He played himself in All the President's Men, the 1976 Watergate movie, but the part was so small, he said, "if you went to sleep for a second, you missed it."

Some news organizations were willing to pay $300 a crack for interviews, but the most lucrative thing Mr. Wills got out of Watergate was a truck from the NAACP.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.