The Double Life of John Leary

The New College founder is promoted as a visionary. The college should openly admit the Jesuit priest was a pedophile.

After he left Gonzaga in 1969, Leary briefly went to Utah, where he was assigned to formulate a grant proposal for education of Native American boys.

In 1970 Leary took a post as vice president for university relations at the Jesuit Santa Clara University. The next year he created a proposal for an experimental college in which students would take time out from the ordinary school curriculum for a year of Socratic seminars on subjects such as Sex and Love, Death and Loneliness. Santa Clara University's education programs committee voted it down. But the idea didn't die.

Leary and a departing Santa Clara professor named Bob Raines plotted together to create a new school untethered from the concepts of physical location, or mainstream university bummers such as sacrificing wisdom for skills, traditional grading systems, faculty tenure, boredom. The new campus was to be "conveniently located inside" students heads, according to an early college bulletin cited in a Leary biography titled Jebbie: A life of John P. Leary, S.J.

Rev. John Leary, the captivating teacher with the penetrating eyes.
art credit Here
Rev. John Leary, the captivating teacher with the penetrating eyes.
The school at 777 Valencia that uses the Leary legend as a recruiting tool.
Paul Trapani
The school at 777 Valencia that uses the Leary legend as a recruiting tool.

The new grading criteria would include "how you measure up against your former self."

"If a young person can climb into the well-tutored head of a professor and see out through his eyes, the reality which is everything, then light-years will have been traversed," Leary wrote in a letter to parents describing his planned new college.

In 1971 more than a dozen students showed up to register for classes that ended up being held in Leary's Sausalito living room.

Leary convinced a group of wealthy Bay Area friends and acquaintances to put up a few thousand dollars, and he began hiring instructors, favoring sharp applicants who bucked convention. In 1972 the school moved into a Sausalito warehouse. And in 1975, Leary acquired a former mortuary at 777 Valencia.

Norman Dayron, who, while a producer at Chess Records had recorded Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Paul Butterfield, and other legends, signed on as what he says was Leary's first New College professor.

"We were interested in providing education that would not necessarily be new, but not new for the sake of being new, but allow a wider variety of students access to the great humanistic traditions — art, literature, and even the natural sciences," Dayron said.

Philosophy Ph.D. Ann Kreilkamp got a job at New College by saying she'd turn education on its head.

"I said that as a college teacher, I would help undo in students everything I'd been taught. The New College people loved it," recalls Kreilkamp. "The school at that time had this wonderful, wonderful practice. They had a community council meeting every Monday morning from 9 to 12. All the students and faculty could attend. There were 100 students, and 50 or 60 would come. We debated everything there."

The debates — in which teachers and students argued over what it meant to have a communally run school, over whether there was really a difference between teaching and being taught — eventually expanded until they seemed to imperil the school.

Started with a few thousand dollars in trustee donations and student tuition, the school never moved far from insolvency.

The hours of talk of community governance, of blurred definitions between teachers and pupils, of the meaninglessness of old academic labels such as "bachelor's degree" and "credits," led a number of students to believe they could learn what they wanted by hanging out with the school community, and not paying tuition.

This, in turn, led to more arguments between teachers and students, described in "The Waterbag Caper," a pamphlet printed by New College co-founder Raines, to protest his 1973 firing: "If I don't pay tuition," the student says, "you mean you wouldn't see me anymore? You don't care about me as a person? Money is all there is to it?"

Around 19 students of similar mind either stopped paying tuition, or cut back to part time, creating a $23,000 deficit. Trustees gave Leary an ultimatum. He had to broaden his fundraising base beyond true believers, fire the most radical of his professors, those with a thin belief in accreditation, teacher authority, and other formalities.

In 1974, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, Leary was eased out of his post as New College president, without a coherent explanation given as to precisely why. (However, I'm not aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct by Leary after he left Gonzaga in 1969.)

The school hired a man named Les Carr, who brought the first big dose of media attention to the school by offering for sale honorary Ph.D. degrees at $25,000 each, home delivery included.

Amid the ensuing publicity and renewed financial crisis, Leary left town in 1977, this time to lead a self-styled program called New College's "Academic Year in New York."

Like the first days of New College, this consisted mostly of seminars in a home Leary rented, attended by fewer than a dozen students with fond memories of Leary.

"He never spoke of himself as brilliant or highly intelligent. But he was," recalled Frank Manasia, a former teacher who lives on Staten Island.

"The best way to describe it was sort of like sitting at the foot of an intellect, and peeking in at all that he had to offer," says Scott Warmuth, a Southern California attorney who also attended the year in New York program.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.