A new crop of biographies and a possible feature film have brought the 1960s icon renewed attention. But it was at Holy Cross that Tim Leary first learned to "drop out."
By James Dempsey
A decade has passed since the gaunt and ailing Timothy Leary, stricken with prostate cancer and surrounded by friends and supporters, woke up to ask two questions: "Why?" and "Why not?" Then he smiled at his stepson, said, "Beautiful," and drifted into death.
So ended the unlikely life of a man who was a seer to some and a scoundrel to others. In the 1960s, with his oft-quoted exhortation to "turn on, tune in, drop out," he championed the use of psychedelic drugs as a shortcut to psychological and religious epiphany. He teemed with contradictions: icon of the peace-loving flower children, comrade of the violent radicals of the Weather Underground; staunch anti-totalitarianist, conductor of drug experiments on prison inmates. President Nixon called him "the most dangerous man in America," and many viewed him as a corruptor of the young. A born attention-getter, he loved the notoriety.
The most famous moment in Leary's variegated higher education career was his dismissal from Harvard after it was alleged that students had ingested drugs that were supposed to be used in his psychological experiments. Leary later joked that he had been "involuntarily graduated" from the school.
Less well-known is the fact that Leary's college career began at Holy Cross. Indeed, in some ways, his lifelong battle with authority was prefigured by his tenure on Mount St. James.
Leary came to Holy Cross in the fall of 1938. Living on the fourth floor of Fenwick Hall in room 38, he took courses in Latin, Latin composition, English, English composition, religion, history, math and French. By his second semester, according to Robert Greenfield's Timothy Leary: A Biography, Leary was taking bets on sports events and running a continuous poker game. He did so well that he was able to buy himself a car, which enabled him to explore the bars of Worcester and pick up local girls. Soon he was traveling to Boston and New York. It was at Holy Cross that he is said to have lost his faith in Catholicism.
The summer after his first year, Leary passed the entrance examination for West Point and planned to spend the intervening time in New York. His mother insisted, however, that he return to Holy Cross, and apparently his second year was another one of little study and much drinking and womanizing. The College has no records of Leary being disciplined, however, and his transcript simply states that he voluntarily withdrew.
West Point seems a strange choice for a man who had a history of butting heads with authority, but evidently Leary did well there, until telling a lie about liquor resulted in his court martial. The court martial found him not guilty, but, because of the mark against the honor of the school, he was shunned or "silenced" by the other recruits. Nobody would sit next to him, and he had to make even the simplest requests of others in writing. Leary eventually resigned.
He finally received his bachelor's degree from the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. Leary joined the faculty at Harvard in a part-time position in 1959 — and was dismissed in 1962 — but, by this time, he had attracted various devotees, and, with the help of a rich supporter, opened a commune in Millbrook, N.Y. The parties and the drug-taking scandalized both the neighbors and the nation. The 1960s were and remain Leary's heyday.
Hell-raising came to him naturally. After being convicted on a marijuana charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison in the early 1970s, he escaped and fled to Algeria; recaptured in Afghanistan, he was returned to prison, where he remained until his release in 1976 by then California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.
In 1974, Leary was publicly denounced by a group that included Arthur Miller, Dick Gregory, Judy Collins and Country Joe McDonald — after hearing that he had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. At a press conference that included Leary's son, Jack, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Alpert (who goes by the name of Ram Dass) and Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, Leary was called an "informant," a "liar" and a "paranoid schizophrenic."
Following his release, he made his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., and spent time writing and lecturing. One lecture series featured the unlikely coupling of Leary and G. Gordon Liddy, former legal counsel to Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President. They had first met when Liddy, then a prosecutor, burst into Leary's commune looking for drugs. The pair met again while serving terms in prison — Leary, for running drugs and escaping from custody, and Liddy, for his part in the Watergate burglary. They became fast friends.
Leary returned to Worcester Nov. 28, 1978, to speak at Clark University on the benefits of "egg wisdom" over the "hive mentality." He warned against the authoritarianism of public advocates such as Ralph Nader and envisioned orbiting "mini-Earths," each of which would be populated by like-minded people — bikers on one, drug-users on another, and so on.
And, on April 6, 1993, with surprisingly little fanfare, Leary returned to Holy Cross to give a talk, titled "How to Use Your Brain." The local newspapers ignored the event, as did The Crusader — the latter perhaps because of vacation. The only references to the event are a letter in The Crusader published two weeks later, arguing with Leary's religious positions, and a lone feature that showed up almost two months after the fact in Worcester Magazine.
The talk, which was sponsored by The Cross & Scroll Society, was scheduled for 8 p.m., but Leary didn't take the stage until after 10 p.m. He told the audience his flight had been delayed. "I've waited 50 years to come back here," he said, "and I end up two hours late."
Leary was in a prophetic mood that night, arguing that "interactive computing" would be the language of the future. The slogan "turn on, tune in, drop out" had become "turn on, tune in, boot up; format and reprogram."
Afterward, in the campus pub, Leary reflected on his days at Holy Cross.
"Back then there was no choice in anything," he said. "You couldn't choose a roommate, a major, even what time you went to bed. But I was brought up Catholic and the Jesuit education was always held in high regard and learning rhetoric like we did back then has been beneficial."
Leary, who said he was "thrilled" to learn he was terminally ill, died May 31, 1996. The following year, seven grams of his cremated remains were carried into orbit in a Pegasus rocket.
"I can hear Timothy laughing," said a friend.
James Dempsey was a columnist for The Evening Gazette and The Telegram & Gazette for 18 years. The winner of awards from the Associated Press and United Press International, he now teaches writing, journalism and literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University.