The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leary in Springfield

His Childhood in the City of Homes

Probably the most infamous person to ever come out of Springfield, Massachusetts was Dr. Timothy Leary, the internationally known LSD advocate once called "the most dangerous man in America" by President Nixon and who once occupied the prison cell next to Charles Manson.

But before all that Leary was a resident of Springfield and a graduate of the former Classical High School Currently I'm reading the 2006 book Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield. When I finish it perhaps I'll write something about the book as a whole, but today I just want to share with a few of the most interesting passages from the book relating to Springfield and what it was like to grow up in the city in the 1920's and 30's.

The title of the first chapter is called Dreaming of Heroes: Springfield, Massachusetts, 1920-1938. It begins:

Late at night, a young boy lies in bed in his room. By all rights, he should be sleeping. Outside his window, the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts, a small industrial city ninety miles west of Boston, are quiet. All the movie theaters have already let out for the night. The restaurants have long since locked their doors. Even the trollys have stopped running. Because Prohibition has been the law of the land for more than a decade, there are no boisterous downtown nightclubs or loud neighborhood bars where people can drink legally. Yet as everywhere in a nation that professes one code of morals in public while practicing another in private, many of the good citizens of Springfield are out drinking just the same....

Each week, the boy checks out and reads ten books from the public library, a big granite and marble building constructed with Carnegie money.... Flesh of the same flesh and blood of the same blood, the boy and his father, Timothy Francis Leary - called "Tote" by all who knew him in this city where he was born and who now works as a dentist at 292 Worthington Street - share the same name. In speakeasies all over Springfield where people drink openly but not legally, Tote is well known. Late at night, after the speakeasies close, he can often be found buying liquor on the darkened front porches of nearby houses in Winchester Square, where bootleggers live. What began as a fondness for drink has become for Tote Leary in the past few years something darker and more self destructive.

Classical High School is described in the book as "a four story yellow brick building with a long vaulted roof topped with steeples and a green copper trim that looked like part of the Sorbonne. Behind a high wrought-iron fence, stately steps led up to three sets of glass doors above which the words "Classical High" were carved in stone. At the time Tim enrolled as a freshman, there was no more prestigious high school in the country. Alumni of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton regularly named Classical High as the number one college preparatory school in the nation."

What a sad reminder of how far the Springfield school system has fallen since Leary's days. There is one minor detail in the description of the building however which the author Robert Greenfield got wrong. He describes the "wrought-iron fence" in front of Classical, but actually that fence never existed when Classical was a school, but was added as a security measure after it was closed and turned into condos in the 1980's. Here is Classical as it appeared in the 1930's when Tim Leary attended. Note that there is no fence.

This is the fence and wall that was added after Classical was closed in 1986.

Leary would clash with authority figures his entire life, and his years at Clasical were no exception. The authority figure at Classical was the principal William C. Hill, whom Greenfield describes as "a towering man with a Supreme Court Justice shock of white hair whose influence with the deans of admission throughout the Ivy League was legendary." The book gives this account of the Hill/Leary confrontation:

Classical Principal William C. Hill

It was Hill's custom to welcome each new freshman class to Classical High by elaborating on the school motto: "No one has the right to do that which if everybody did would destroy society." In his autobiography, Timothy Leary calls this the "Kantian Categorical Imperative." Although Kant phrases the concept in different ways, the actual Categorical Imperative reads: Act only on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law." For Kant, the Categorical Imperative was the supreme principle of morality, a philosophical rephrasing of the Golden Rule. While escorting adult visitors around the school, Hill would often stop students in the hallway and have them repeat the schoool motto from memory. As editor in chief of the school newspaper, Tim wrote what he would later call "a particularly fiery editorial suggesting that the Categorical Imperative was totalitarian and un-American in glorifying the welfare of the state over the rights of the individual." His real aim in the editorial was to challenge the principal by attacking the philosophy on which the school was based.

A strict authoritarian who demanded utter respect from all his students, Hill immediately summoned Tim to his office. Pointing out that Tim has skipped school during his senior year more than any other student in his class, Hill said that he could and should expell him. Because he had known Tim's family for a long time, Hill explained that he had decided to spare them this crushing pain. Instead, Hill told Tim not to ask him for a letter of recommendation for college. On June 14, 1938, when Timothy Francis Leary graduated from Classical High, he had already been rejected by every Ivy League college to which he had applied.

Of course ultimately this did not stop Leary from successfully moving on to "higher" education, but since I haven't finished the book as yet I'll stop here. No doubt I will have more to share about Springfield's least favorite son later.

Shop Whole Foods

Hey, shopping at Whole Foods Supermarkets helps to fund libertarian causes! According to OpenSecrets:

A LIBERTARIAN STREAK IN WHOLE FOODS: As part of an hour-long interview with libertarian media outlet Reason TV this week, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods discussed the role of the private market in the health insurance reform debate. The Huffington Post notes that during the interview Mackey also disclosed that he was both fond of 2008 Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and that he ultimately voted last November for Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, a former Republican Congressman from Georgia. Mackey's libertarian-leanings may not come as a surprise to reviewers of campaign contribution records. According to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis, Mackey's sole contributions to federal candidates and committees have been to Libertarians.

Hamp Film Trailer

The ads are out for the Mel Gibson film shot last year in downtown Northampton. Note that in this ad at 1:26 you can see protesters at the courthouse followed by Gibson in a car with the famous Hamp trestle in the background. Because of all the Valley landmarks I'm sure it will be a fun film for us locals to see when it debuts on January 29th, but I hope the movie overall is better than Gibson's Boston accent sounds here.

Two Hamp Residents

Man with a smile.

Man with a hat.

Today's Video

Bob Weir joined the Grateful Dead when he was just 16 years old. As Weir himself likes to put it, he ran away from home to join the circus - and did indeed find the Greatest Show on Earth. Robert H. Weir turns 62 years old today.


Hed said...


Larry said...

Also, an insert image of the southerly view from atop Mount Sugarloaf can be seen at 1:22 of the Gibson movie trailer, in an office scene.