Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

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.

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006

Page 4 of 5

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.

After a couple of years, Leary returned to New College. Having the old president and founder come back as an employee was awkward, however, and it just didn't work out, was how one New College teacher described it to me.

New College pressed on without their founder, seemingly forever in a battle against scandal, debilitating ideological or labor strife, financial crisis, or some combination of these. Hamilton, Henry, and Gabel somehow kept the institution afloat, gradually replacing Leary's original hires, until today they and Kushner are the sole remnants of the old guard, who were hired during the 1970s when Leary was still at the school.

With New College behind him, Leary set out to start another experimental education program, this time in Reno.

In 1980, with the help of the gambling magnate who brought Keno to America, and with a trustee of a Reno-area boy's club, and other Reno business leaders, Leary founded what was to be an even purer culmination of his progressive education ideas in Nevada called Old College. Once again, he kicked his charisma, and fundraising prowess, into high gear.

"He was very good at befriending people," recalls Manasia, who served as admissions director at Old College.

Among the new friends was Reno businessman Paul Havas, currently owner of the Havas Subaru car dealership.

"The New College experience in California carried with it a great reputation, and we tried to replicate it in Nevada," recalled Havas, who served on the Old College board of trustees.

The school raised millions of dollars, got a major building, held classes, gave out degrees, and was chugging along when, in 1985, the board of trustees held an urgent meeting in which an unopposed vote was called to ask Leary to leave.

Warren Nelson, the Keno pioneer who owned the Club Cal Neva and chaired the board of trustees, recalled the day of Leary's ouster. Warren dodged the question when Jebbie author Van Hollebeke asked the reason behind Leary's ouster.

"We had a meeting. Someone called for a vote and moved that Leary be asked to resign, immediately," Van Hollebeke cited Warren as saying. "Every man voted 'Aye.'"

About The Author

Matt Smith


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"