Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
The man who did his job
'I really wasn’t thinking about anything. Just getting a better job and making some money.' Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
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The man who did his job
This is a story about a man who did his job. He was 24 years old, six feet tall, and weighed 155 pounds. He was Black, and he grew up in Georgia, pre-Civil Rights Act.
He’d dropped out of high school after his junior year, went to Michigan, worked for a while on a Ford assembly line. The factory conditions aggravated his asthma, and so he hit the road once more.
Eventually, he landed in Washington, D.C., where he found a roommate to split the rent on a $160-a-month apartment in Dupont Circle, and he took all kinds of jobs to pay the bills: hotel worker, security guard.
With zero seniority, he caught the graveyard shift, walking his rounds from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
I’m wondering how far to go into this story before the big reveal, but now seems like the time.
The man we’re talking about here was named Frank Wills, and he was the security guard who discovered the Watergate burglars in flagrante delicto, so to speak, as they attempted to bug the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972.
Without Wills, the burglars succeed, there’s no scandal, President Nixon serves two full terms, and history follows a different path.
But with Wills—well, we wind up on the route we’re on.
He found tape over the latch on a basement door during the middle of the night, removed it (thinking someone must have been moving furniture earlier in the day), but later discovered it had been replaced.
Suspecting intruders, he called the police; officers arrived and arrested five men who had broken in, wearing business suits for the felonious occasion.
The next morning, my then-future boss, Bob Woodward, was assigned by The Washington Post to cover the arraignment, and the rest is history.
I’ll likely have a few things to mention about the Watergate break-in and its aftermath over the next few days, since it all started 50 years ago this Friday, and also because it had an indirect effect on my life.
“I really wasn’t thinking about anything. Just getting a better job and making some money. A white fellow came in after I did and they made him a lieutenant. I was a corporal making $80 a week.”
Wills became famous, but he remained stuck in poverty even after some of the Watergate burglars rehabilitated their reputations and became wealthy.
He got a tiny raise at the security job—so small it was almost an insult: 40 cents per week after taxes. He played his own bit role in the 1976 movie, All the President’s Men, and he did the talk show circuit for a while.
(Jet highlighted his role. “Imagine a Black cat,” the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Simeon Booker, wrote, “watching over the empty offices of some of the nation’s powerful businesses, government agencies, and a major political party…”)
On later anniversaries, newspapers and magazines sought him out: the 10th anniversary of Watergate, the 20th anniversary, the 25th.
But, I’m sorry to say that there was no happy ending for Wills. There’s no payoff.
Eventually, he returned to Georgia, where he lived in near-poverty, taking care of his elderly mother, living on odd jobs and her $450 a month Social Security check.
By the 30th anniversary of Watergate, he’d passed away: age 52, after suffering from a brain tumor.
I explored this hoping I could find some silver lining in the end—some quote from Wills saying he was proud to have played the role he did in history, or that the fact that he never saw any payday, or had his own home, or had a family, didn’t matter.
But there isn’t much that I can find.
So, I guess that’s why I decided to write about him. Without him, there’s nothing—no story, no Watergate—and probably no “Bill Murphy Jr. develops a geeky interest in journalism as a teenager, eventually meets Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, leaves the Army JAG Corps on a Friday and goes to work for Woodward on the following Monday, and ultimately winds up writing this newsletter to you, today.”
The man did his job. Nothing more, nothing less. I think it’s worth us taking a minute to remember him.
7 other things worth knowing today
Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase is cutting its workforce by 18% as the crypto market continues to get hammered, and blaming it all on external economic forces. The company’s CEO, who I’m just going to say, bought a $133 million compound in Bel Air six months ago, notified employees via personal email, so that it could cut off their access to Coinbase systems without warning, and in the CEO’s words, “ensure not even a single person made a rash decision that harmed the business or themselves.” (Coinbase, Dirt)
Amazon says customers in Lockeford, California, an unincorporated area about 50 miles south of Sacramento, will be the first place to begin receiving some shipments via drone later this year. Amazon said it is working to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local officials. (The Hill)
Canada will “suspend” COVID-19 vaccine mandates for domestic and outbound international travelers and federally regulated workers. The new rules come into effect on June 20, though the requirements for foreign nationals coming to Canada will not change. (National Post)
A Louisiana mother who says she was raped when she was 16 by a 30-year-old man and gave birth to her daughter as a result, has now been ordered by a judge to give full custody to the father/alleged rapist, and to pay him child support. After this story was first reported, officials asked the court for a further review. (WBRZ)
The entire city of Odessa, Texas, population 122,000, now has no potable city water during a heat wave with temperatures hitting 100 degrees Fahrenheit, after a water main break. “The loss of potable water is expected to be forty-eight hours at this time,” the disaster declaration said. (NY Post)
Good headline, fun story, interesting guy: Meet the Navy-SEAL-Astronaut-Harvard-Doctor-Pilot Who Is Way Better Than All Of Us In Every Way. (Barstool Sports)
I like this website. At first, I wasn’t going to share it because it asks how much money you have and then compares your life to Elon Musk’s, and that gets us nowhere. But put in a number and scroll down to the bottom, and you realize how much we all have to be grateful for. Preview: “If you earn more than $59,000 per year, you're in the richest 1 percent of the world's population. If you earn at least $29,000, you're in the richest 5 percent.” (You vs. a Billionaire)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Public domain contemporary work. Want to see all my mistakes … oh man, I STILL haven’t updated this, but I’m going shame myself by continuing to include this … Click here.