BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Years before Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America,” Timothy Leary was already making trouble in Alabama.
During the 1960s, Leary became an icon of the growing counterculture through his study and near-evangelical work promoting psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, at a time when much of the public knew little about them. Leary pointed to the benefits these drugs could have on broadening the mind’s potential and the human experience. Since his death in 1996, Leary’s philosophies have continued to reach millions around the world through his books, lectures, and art.
The renowned psychologist and activist would’ve turned 100 years old Thursday.
However, there was a time in Leary’s life long before LSD and “turn on, tune in, drop out” took hold of America when he was trying to find his way in the world. When he was 22 years old, that plan took a detour when he was kicked out of the University of Alabama.
Leary arrived in Alabama, in his typical fashion, through trouble. By 1941, Leary had already dropped out of school after two years at College of the Holy Cross and had recently left West Point after breaking the military academy’s honor code. At his family’s insistence, Leary decided to go back to college, sending 48 admission letters to every state college in the country. The University of Alabama was the first to accept his application.
“Aunt Mae was distressed,” Leary wrote in his 1983 autobiography “Flashbacks: A Personal and Cultural History of an Era.” “All she knew about the University of Alabama was that Huey Long, the non-conformist governor, had created some scandal there. When other relatives criticized my new alma mater as a play school, I smiled with lustful anticipation. After four years in monastic cells it couldn’t be too coed for me.”
By August 1941, Leary had ventured down to Tuscaloosa and enrolled as a psychology major. By his own account, Leary made good grades and took an interest in biology. However, other interests would soon get in the way of his studies.
“Biology became my paramount interest,” Leary wrote. “Accordingly, I changed my interest to girls.”
Specifically, there was one particular girl who caught Leary’s eye. In “Flashbacks,” Leary called her “Betty Harlowe,” although she was also referred to as “Betty Herwig” in his letters. In “Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life,” author Robert Greenfield wrote at length on Leary’s early girlfriend. Greenfield’s book contains details about a list Leary wrote out in 1994 called “Women Teachers,” where he used the following description of her:
“Betty Herwig!!! 1941 TO 1943: Fantastic, voluptuous, bawdy, comic, sex-sex. I climbed in the girl dorm (Tutwiler Hall) to spend the night. Got kicked out next day. Her Dad was Army officer. She used to scam enlisted men!! Alabama football games– we walked in front of the stands. Eat your heart out. Wild nights in our hotel room in Birmingham!! She was a fab tutor.”
In “Flashbacks,” Leary wrote that he and “Betty” often hung out with her sister “Ann” and his Theta Chi fraternity brother Don Sherwood.
“On Saturday afternoons, the four of us would drive to the next county, hang out at low-ceilinged roadhouse, drink beer, dance to the juke box playing ‘I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time,’ walk in the woods, roll blankets,” he wrote.
The early toll that partying took on Leary’s education was in the classes he missed. According to letters obtained by CBS 42 from the Timothy Leary Papers at the New York Public Library, Leary had already missed class 12 times by April 1942.
“It is our conviction that regular class attendance and good college work are inseparable,” wrote H.H. Mitchell, assistant dean of men at UA, in a letter to Leary’s mother, Abigail. “Consequently, we believe that his work will suffer materially if he is lax in meeting his classes.”
In her subsequent letter to her son, Abigail was quick to spell out her frustration.
“It does not make me feel good to have a letter like this,” Abigail wrote.
Despite the stern warning, Leary’s poor attendance never culminated in expulsion. The cause of his dismissal was another matter entirely.
In “Flashbacks,” Leary wrote about how on the night of Nov. 21, 1942, he and Betty were talking through her screened-in window outside her room at Tutwiler Hall, the school’s female-only dormitory.
“We flirted through the wire mesh,” Leary wrote. “As I tugged playfully at the corner of the screen, Betty’s eyes locked with mine, and she laughed. I tugged some more, and the wanton screen let go its fastenings. I climbed into Betty’s honeysuckle chamber. Don, talking to Anne at the next window, followed.”
Both he and Don spent the night at Tutwiler and returned to the Theta Chi house the next morning. However, news of their sleepover soon reached J.H. Newman, the dean of men at UA. That morning, Leary was called into his office.
“Don, already inside the dean’s sanctum, came out with a stricken look on his face,” Leary wrote in “Flashbacks.” “The dean waved a finger coldly at me to enter. ‘I have been informed that you spent the night in the girl’s dormitory.’”
After answering several of Newman’s questions, it became evident to Leary that despite his grades and support from different professors, he and Don would be expelled from school. “Betty” and “Anne” soon went back home to Washington, D.C.
“The dean shouted that this scandalous behavior had no precedent in the long history of the University,” Leary wrote. “I had sullied the honor of southern womanhood.”
Following Leary’s expulsion, Newman wrote a letter to Leary’s mother saying that although he was in the wrong, he could live down the mistake.
“He is a person of fine sensibilities and I am hoping that he will conduct himself in accordance with the teachings you have given him and the ideals you have set for him,” Newman wrote in the letter dated December 8, 1942.
Some attempted to defend Leary’s actions. A few days earlier on Dec. 5, UA psychology department head Donald Ramsdell wrote a letter to Abigail, partially chalking up the situation to Leary’s falling in with the wrong crowd.
“It was unfortunate that he was associated with the particular group which led to his misdemeanor, but he was only trying to know a particular group of students who are really very foreign to his own nature,” Ramsdell wrote. “I had advised him only the week before that he had a chance to see that there was nothing particular to be gained by such associations, and he was planning on not spending further time with them.”
Leary later corresponded with officials at the University of Illinois with the intent to enroll there that December. However, based on the Tutwiler incident, the school denied his enrollment request.
“The committee took the attitude that if one of our own students had committed a similar offense here we would have dropped him, and not allowed him reentrance at so early a date,” one letter from UI stated.
That same month would also mark one of the final correspondences Leary had with Don, who had planned to enroll at Illinois with him.
“Tim I sure wish we could go to school together, but it seems it isn’t in the cards,” Don wrote. “I smoothed out the story considerably here and didn’t mention any names. Told them I got caught putting a girl in a window after I had brought her home late. If only that dean dismissed for misconduct on our records, it would be easy.”
With his expulsion, Leary lost his deferment and was drafted into the Army, where he rose to the rank of a non-commissioned officer. During this time, he also took psychology courses at Georgetown University and Ohio State University. In 1943, Leary reunited with Ramsdell, who was serving as the chief psychologist at Deshon General Hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania. Saying he would look out for him, Ramsdell found work for Leary as a psychometrician at the hospital, where he worked with the deaf.
By 1944, Leary married his first wife, Marianne, and decided to appeal his expulsion from the University of Alabama. On October 4, 1944, Leary received a letter from UA that changed his academic status from “dismissed for conduct” to “suspended for conduct,” ultimately reinstating him.
With only a handful of history and English credits left to complete his psychology major, Leary finished his studies through correspondence and received his degree in August 1945.
In one letter published in Greenfield’s book, Leary reflected on his time at Alabama, saying he was too satisfied and content with both his academic and social life early on.
“I was getting too extroverted & too socialized & did not have the chance to study & read as much as I wanted to since there were so many delightful companions to see + Psychology duties + fraternity + military + schoolwork+ (Betty),” Leary wrote.
However, not everyone believed Leary’s rationale.
“(Aunt) Mae was not impressed,” Leary wrote. “Jesus would never spend the night in a girls’ dormitory.”
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