Jerry Doolittle has never been exactly the Harvard type. His grades in high school weren't very good, he boasts about his poor attitude, and he was kicked out of prep school. But Harvard wanted him to teach freshmen anyway.
"I was always a discipline problem," says Doolittle, an instructor in Expository Writing. The son of a private school headmaster, Doolittle was kicked out of the Millbrook School for Boys in the spring of his senior year for being "ethically wet behind the ears," he says.
But since graduating from Middlebury in 1955, Doolittle has written speeches for Jimmy Carter, reported for several national newspapers, worked in Morocco and Laos for the U.S. Information Agency, and written several books about his experiences. And now, for the second year in a row, he is teaching Expository Writing.
Not bad for a guy who says he's always had a poor attitude.
As a reporter, Doolittle wasn't interested in editing or writing about politics. Instead, he enjoys writing about popular culture, "Grade Z movies, top-of-the-chart records." Doolittle explains, "no politician had the effect that the guy who invented the shopping center had."
Although the Connecticut native usually prefers culture to politics, he's tried his hand at both. In 1976, he jumped on the presidential bandwagon and joined the Carter press office, but even at the time he wasn't really very interested in politics. "I always thought that presidential campaigns were great theater," he explains.
Speechwriting for Peanuts
When he was working in the speech writing office, Doolittle would get assignments from Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary, or Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan. He would get ideas from talking to White House bureaucrats, and then submit an example. He says that Carter would look at the speech at the last minute and comment on it--usually "a long list of disconnected things" which often had nothing to do with the original subject of the speech.
"Carter took less interest in [speech-writing] than most successful politicians," says Doolittle. "He was not that good with a prepared text. He didn't have any charisma."
Doolittle first got interested in writing while in the army--he was drafted into the military right out of Middlebury. "They had an optional program at that time--you could go into the army or the federal penetentiary. I chose the military option." Quickly realizing that if he could type he wouldn't have to march, he became the editor of his post's newspaper.
Doolittle didn't like the army very much, and he says he made that clear in the newspaper. In one issue, the first letters of the column filler he wrote spelled out an obscene message. The issue sold out in 20 minutes, he says, but he was almost brought up on charges. The thing that saved him was his last name--"they were afraid I might be related to General Doolittle," he says, referring to the American war hero who led an infamous air raid against the Japanese.
The Larry Speakes of Laos
When he was a reporter in the 1960s, newspapers weren't really interested in ideas like "What happens to animals at the zoo when they die? Who gets the rug?" So in 1966, Doolittle started working for the government--first at the U.S. Information Agency in Casablanca, then as the embassy press attache in Laos. "I was the Larry Speakes of the war effort in Laos," he says.
Doolittle says Laos gave him the necessary experience to work as a speechwriter for Carter. He says he was hired by the Carter staff because Press Secretary Jody Powell thought he could lie; when Powell looked at the references on his resume, he said, "This guy's listed all those people he was lying to in Asia--he must be good at it," Doolittle explains.
During the three years that Doolittle, his wife and his five sons lived in Laos, the country was embroiled in a civil war similar to the current conflict in Nicaragua. In fact, the Expos instructor says that many of the same people he knew in Laos are now in Central America. There is a whole subculture, he says, of "people who kind of like wars," journalists and CIA agents alike.
According to Doolittle, the entire budget for the Laotian military effort came from America and was distributed through the CIA. "It was principally a CIA war fought through mercenaries and bombing. There were more bombs dropped in Southeast Asia than in all previous wars combined."
His chief duty in Laos was conducting press briefings. "The function of a press attache is to shield his superiors from the press," he says, explaining the "better me than the ambassador" philosophy.
Doolittle's career as a bureaucrat ended in 1980--"Reagan came in and turned all us rascals out"--and he went back to writing. He wrote a novel, The Bombing Officer, based on his experiences in Laos, and that sparked an interest in playwriting and poetry.
And now, after spending his life writing for newspapers, magazines, and the President of the United States, Jerry Doolittle is teaching his trade to Harvard freshmen.
Doolittle, 53, says that he never planned to teach students how to write--in fact, he says he "hadn't seen the inside of a classroom between 1953 and last year." But three of his five sons went to Harvard--Timothy '84, Ted '86, and Matthew '90--and when Ted was a sophomore, he told his dad that he enrolled in a writing course taught by an actual writer.
Doolittle decided that it would be interesting to teach, and he applied to Expository Writing and began teaching last year. Currently, he works at Harvard for half the year, and spends the rest of his time writing screenplays and poems. "I have no realistic expectation of making money out of these things," he says.
A Harvard Phenomenon
"Jerry's just great," says Richard A. Marius, director of Expository Writing. "He's wonderful at sharing interests with students."
Marius calls Doolittle "our phenomenon," since he teaches his students to write so well. Last year, all three of the entries from Doolittle's class were printed in Expose, the magazine published by Expository Writing.
Doolittle teaches two sections of Social and Ethical Issues: "all political issues are ethical issues at heart," he says. Students in his sections say that Doolittle's anecdotes make class entertaining and interesting. "His sense of humor really helps," says Preetinder Bharara '90. "He doesn't care about the excess stuff--just the writing," Bharara says. "The best thing about Mr. Doolittle is that he's had a lot of interesting life experiences," says Douglas W. Marx '90. "He's very opinionated" and that makes for spirited debates in class, says Marx.
Good Grades, Basic Flaw
Doolittle says that Harvard students are intelligent, but far too diligent. "There are depressingly few poor attitudes here. If I were the admissions office, I would make sure that some people had poor attitudes. Good grades in high school can be a possible indication of a basic flaw," he explains.
He adds that the "students are uninformed. Very few read newspapers." Doolittle says that only two or three people in each section know what's going on in the real world.
Despite the lack of poor attitudes among Harvard students, Doolittle says that he likes Harvard. "I'm very much at ease with all these folks here."
But Doolittle doubts that his sojourn at Harvard will be permanent. "I seem to have about a two-year span of attention," he says pragmatically. Doolittle doesn't know what he'll be doing in five years, or in 20, but he says he knows that one thing will be with him for the rest of his life: "I guess I'll die with a poor attitude."