The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dr. Leary vs. Dr. Seuss

A tale of two doctors.

I'm not sure what the date of this essay is, having found it recently simply among one of the entries in an anthology of some of my Baystate Objectivist pieces entitled The Worst of Tom Devine that was released around 1997. Here is what the cover looked like (click to enlarge).

I was surprised when someone emailed me last year and said they bought a copy of that anthology for ten dollars at a tag sale, although it was originally distributed throughout the city for free. Go figure. The image on the front is of Jay Libardi. In the following essay the troubled legacies of both of Springfield's most famous doctors are explored.

Jaws dropped at the Quadrangle last month when Audrey Geisel, widow of the legendary Dr. Seuss, whipped out a check for one million dollars to donate to Springfield's Seuss Memorial Project. The sputters of surprise were due not just to the unexpected size of the donation but to the fact that the Seuss Estate had made any contribution at all.

City leaders were bitterly disappointed several years ago when the will and testament of Dr. Seuss was first read. Seuss died as wealthy as an oil baron since what parent in the past 40 years hasn't bought their kids at least one Dr. Seuss book? But while his will spread financial gifts far and wide, there wasn't one red cent granted in the will to his old hometown of Springfield.

Explanations for the good Doctor's stinginess toward Springfield vary. Some pointed out that Seuss left Springfield as a young man and almost never returned, despite repeated pleas from the city over the years that he lend his name or presence to various local events and activities. Once his parents died, he never returned to Springfield again for any reason for over 22 years.

Shortly before his death however, Seuss made a controversial trip to Springfield to visit his old hometown one last time. Unfortunately the notoriously publicity shy author found himself trailed throughout his visit by publicity hungry politicos and local dignitaries looking for autographs and photo-ops. A limousine tour of Springfield with then Mayor Richard Neal and others backfired when Seuss was said to have exclaimed in dismay when seeing the "revitalized" downtown, "What have you done to my city? This is not my home!"

Some feared that by turning an old man's sentimental journey into a public relations and publicity spectacle, the city had blown whatever chance it had to work its way into the Seuss inheritance. The complete absence of any mention of Springfield in the author's will seemed to confirm those fears. Yet the widow Geisel was here last month with a million dollar freebie in her purse, so maybe a meaningful relationship between Springfield and the Seuss Estate will be possible after all.

If Dr. Seuss was the favorite son Springfield always yearned to claim, then the opposite could be said for Springfield's least favorite son, Dr. Timothy Leary. The self-proclaimed "high-priest" of the 60's LSD movement, Leary was once declared by President Richard Nixon to be "the most dangerous man in America."

Springfield has always been a bit shy about claiming such an outlaw as its own, but for his part Dr. Leary was always very upfront about discussing his Springfield roots. His extensive autobiographical writings provide us with one of the best accounts we have of what it was like to grow up in Springfield in the 1930's, and in interviews Leary always spoke of his years in Springfield in positive terms.

There is no attempt underway to erect any kind of shrine to Dr. Leary, although radical Attorney J. Wesley Miller (above) disrupted the main address at Springfield's Economic Summit recently by crying out for the erection of a "Timothy Leary Hall of Fame." The reaction of the dignitaries in attendance, which included Mayor Albano and Congressman Richard Neal, was dismissive laughter, although some in attendance welcomed Miller's outburst as one of the few genuinely entertaining moments of an otherwise dull affair. In any case there are no expectations of million dollar checks from Leary's heirs since he died almost penniless.

Yet are we missing an opportunity here? The fact that Leary was once one of the nation's most wanted fugitives, who ultimately spent years behind bars (at one point occupying the cell next to Charles Manson) should not completely discourage us from considering exploiting his Springfield origins. After all, there are places out West where people spend good money to see sites associated with Jesse James and Billy the Kid, and those guys were cold-blooded murderers. All Doctor Leary did was liberate some minds. Surely there are plenty of old acidheads out there who would spend money to come to Springfield to visit a shrine to Dr. Leary. It's worth thinking about.

Speaking of J. Wesley Miller, in his later years he was notorious for, among many other eccentricities, appearing at public events in an electric orange jump suit. He had a reason for that (no matter how odd his acts, Wesley always had his reasons) and he explained it to me in a letter when he first began his orange jumpsuit phase. Notice how the envelope had a little commentary in the corner about Johnson's bookstore.

Here is the letter that was inside.

The excellent blog Exploring Western Massachusetts has this picture of 195 State Street taken in 1905. It was an insurance company then.

Today it is the Springfield School Department, and this is how it looks 103 years later in 2008.

I like this trippy little cul-de-sac located across from the Calvin Coolidge Tower at UMass.

A psychedelic mandala and a golden Egyptian God oversees all.


Anonymous said...

Funny thing: my father, his 3 brothers and 2 of my friends fathers, (born 1917 - 1926) all grew up in the North End of Springfield and several went to Classsical High. Not one of them, (and I asked this question multiple times over the last 30 years..) remembers ever seeing or hearing of Timothy Leary prior to his rise to fame, (or infamy) in the 1960's

Mary E.Carey said...

I didn't know any of this stuff about Seuss, Leary or the lawyer. This is great material for a book about Springfield in which all of your stuff is compiled on paper. By the way, do you ever wonder whether something could happen and everything on the Web disappear?