The Gospel According to John

As other graduating seniors anticipate summers abroad, five-figure salaries, and advanced degrees, John Timothy Leary doesn't expect to go very far. Depending upon the mercy of the Massachusetts judicial system, he may have no choice. John faces up to two months in the Billerica state correctional facility for distributing peace leaflets at Cambridge's Draper Laboratory (a leading center for research and development of nuclear missile accuracy systems). It's doubtful, however, that time in prison will "correct" John's activism. Many previous brushes with authority have proven him to be a shameless agitator.

The Draper action, which John insists was not a deliberate attempt to get arrested, continues a pattern of activism he began in seventh grade with his eyebrow-raising nomination to the environmental board in his home town of Vernon, Connecticut. Since coming to Harvard, he has coordinated, among other programs, the Phillips Brooks House prisons committee and the Catholic Student Center social action committee, practiced civil disobedience at nuclear plant sites and abortion clinics, and lived with his door open to anyone without a home.

John's characteristic reaction to recognition for all this is evasive, self-effacing and joking. The soft-spoken Religion concentrator calls the Ames Prize, for which he was nominated this year, "a reward for drowning do-gooders." His good works, however, spring not from a knee-jerk urgency but a deeply spiritual and thoughtful analysis.

The source of his activism and moral vision can be found. John says, in his upbringing. The youngest son of an Irish working class family recalls a representative symbol of his parents' attitude hanging in their living room: a picture of John F. Kennedy '40 and Pope John XXIII sowing the seeds of peace. Catholicism and liberal values were "part of the environment." John says. "There was a sense (in our home) that you looked out for people in need, and there was a great openness in our house," he remembers; hard-up relatives often stayed there.

"I remember freshman year, if I didn't bring back someone for a holiday, I would feel kind of guilty. It was expected." When John extended the hospitality concept to homeless people he didn't know, allowing them to stay in his various dwellings in Cambridge, Dorchester, and the South End, his parents reacted with surprise. "Now I think that some of the things I'm trying to do are living out values they had. They might think I'm a little extreme at times, even if they think it should be done."


Looking out for people in need has motivated John through a political and spiritual quest that has taken him places few Harvard students go. He entered college expecting to major in Government and "graduate from here, go home, get elected to a little thing, and work my way up. Since about age six," he said, "I decided I should be president, that that was the way to help people--and I did, in fact, do all the right things. I'd gotten involved in local politics at a pretty young age.

On a list of extracurricular activities two pages long, John includes a stint as local youth coordinator for the 1976 Udall for President a Campaign. The candidate's two-vote loss in a town primary kept the young pol from attending the Democratic national convention that year. In addition to his political involvements, John led what he calls "a double life" as a troublemaker--despite a good academic record--and waited for the Harvard admissions officers to discover they'd made a real mistake. After his first set of midterms, he "realized it wasn't as demanding as I'd thought."

Shortly thereafter, he ventured into Phillips Brooks House and signed up to tutor prisoners at Walpole. "More than anything else, that moved me from being liberal to losing faith with liberal politics. I walked into PBH looking for a place to do good and ended up getting my whole understanding of what our society was like changed by spending a good amount of time in the prisons." Sophomore year he became chairman of the prisons committee, an experience which was highlighted by "the process of making connections."

"I started out saying, 'Well, there's somebody in prison who needs some help reading; that's a good thing to do, to help him out.' Then I started thinking about why mostly illiterate people are in prison.... Then I started thinking about the violence and brutality and injustice of prisons, and what connection that has with the structure and bias of our society--of how, while Black people are a small percentage of the population, they're the over-whelming majority in prison. You can develop a theory of racial inferiority, but that doesn't make sense once you get to know people." The experience moved John "past the stereotypes and romanticism by being involved in relationships with some of the people in there and seeing what the existence of such places meant about our society."

This radicalized view of society led John to participate in a variety of political activities off and on campus. He helped organize a Harvard human rights group, and became involved in peace work. "I did a 72-hour vigil and fast with Mobilization for Survival at Faneuil Hall, and that was an introduction to a tradition of opposition to nuclear weapons. That really led me in another direction." The intensity of his involvement also introduced him to "burnout" by the middle of his sophomore year. "I started realizing that from seven in the morning until one the next morning (I was) spending most of my time calling people or going to meetings or working out at the jail. Studies got squeezed in. I couldn't continue that way.

"It wasn't, at that point, a question of leaving for a year. It was...leaving with no expectation of returning." John had intended to move to Washington, D.C., live in a communal house, and organize tenants. "But later that year," he said, "I became involved with the abortion issue."

"It's something I didn't want to do," he recalls, lowering his voice. "It was pretty clear to me that I could find nothing I wanted to identify with in the traditional right-to-life movement or the pro-choice movement. Then I met some people through the peace activities who were coming at it from a different perspective.

"Some of them had been very much involved in the civil rights and peace movements, some of them were feminists, who felt there was something wrong about abortion--that it was a form of violence and injustice." He chooses his words carefully, fully aware that some matters of conscience are harder to talk about than others.

"Some of them were doing sit-ins at abortion clinics. The idea had come from some civil rights activists who were saying, 'Look, here's a place of violence right in our neighborhood.' Even if you believe, which I don't, that changing the laws is the way to change society so abortion is unnecessary, you're walking to the legislature past a place where, every day, 30 or 40 unborn children are killed." He clears his throat, blinks water our of his eyes. "Women are being pushed, or going to, that choice with a degree of hopelessness and pain. You're accepting that (when) walking by.

"I really struggled with the thing. My inclination was not to want to participate, because of some past personal experiences and because I have known well-and loved and respected--women who have had abortions and people who were pro-choice activists. But ultimately I came to the point where I had to participate in some way. I felt called, in a sense...."