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As Watergate Fades From US Memory, So Does Watergate Hero Frank Wills

IF it weren't for Frank Wills, we might remember Richard Nixon differently. We might recall more of his triumphs: opening China, achieving detente with the USSR, and getting a cease-fire in Vietnam.

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On June 17, 1972, Mr. Wills, then a security guard, discovered the necktie-clad burglars in the Democratic National Committee's Watergate offices. It was a discovery that helped bring down a president.

Today Wills lives in a small house without a phone in North Augusta, S.C. In an interview from his aunt's house, he is clearly resentful that he's become little more than a historical footnote. ''Somebody who's doing his job and intercepts a situation,'' he says of Watergate, ''should be recognized.''

After his picture was splashed across the nation's front pages, he was offered a book deal. It later fell through. And he eventually quit the security firm, but did play himself in the Watergate film drama ''All the President's Men.'' After occasional speeches and jobs as a product spokesman, he moved South to take care of his mother. He's now ''cutting grass'' to make money.

The resentment Wills feels, however, is tinged with social concern. Civil rights groups talk about ''black youths needing to have a role model,'' he says. ''But they're looking to rap stars and sports stars.'' He prefers more everyday heroes. ''Why couldn't they have a Frank Wills day?'' he says half jokingly.

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