[Hpn] Street smarts:Homeless, college-educated, and content: ... ;Boston Globe;6/25/01
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 25 Jun 2001 21:44:25 -0400
Monday, June 25, 2001
Boston Globe <http://www.boston.com>
City & Region section
Homeless, college-educated, and content: Leo Buck finds fulfillment in a
By David Abel, Globe Staff, 6/25/2001
Leo Buck dropped out of Harvard and is now homeless. (Globe Staff Photo /
The streets are home to many people like Leo Buck, reduced to roaming from
soup kitchen to shelter in search of sustenance.
But don't feel bad for the old man with the long, gray beard smoking his
A valedictorian of his high school class, a graduate of the University of
Pennsylvania, and a onetime PhD candidate at Harvard's Divinity School, Buck
has spent much of the past 15 years living on his own terms, as he is now,
sitting on a park bench and enjoying the shade of a maple tree in the
To be sure, there is little glamour in his story, one of the homeless
community's many victims of alcoholism and depression. But the sunburned
60-year-old is like a priest without a parish, a man of the streets who has
helped hundreds of college students refine their poetry, inmates of halfway
houses learn to live on the outside, and anyone from yuppies to elderly
immigrants deal with life's hardships.
''This isn't as much the life that I have chosen, but the life that has
chosen me,'' he says between greetings to others in Russian, French, German,
and Greek, all languages he claims to speak. ''But I refuse to make the
compromises that would change my situation. Maybe I love to suffer.
Masochism has its own rewards, you know.''
Lugging a satchel stuffed with books, an old Dunkin' Donuts cup in which he
hides beer, and a recorder he uses to raise about $10 a day for alcohol and
tobacco, Buck rises at 5 a.m. at either the Pine Street Inn or the Back Bay
train station, and uses a cane to walk to the Haley House in the South End.
After breakfast, he moves on to read the papers at the station, eventually
making his way to the Fenway, a neighborhood he has returned to ever since
he visited its onion-domed Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral years ago. ''I've
made many friends here,'' he says, enunciating his words with the care of an
English professor, ''so I keep coming back.''
Sipping beer now from two oversized cans of Steel Reserve, a cheap brew with
high alcohol content, he greets joggers with a friendly smile. He bids good
morning to elderly Russian immigrants with a cheerful ''dobroye utro,'' and
waves at Latino inmates from the halfway across the street, telling them
''vaya con dios,'' or go with God.
Some of them stop and sit with Buck, whose scent betrays the length of time
since his last shower and whose cuffed white trousers are brown from months
of wear. They talk to him about religion, politics, literature, the news, or
just their lives.
Buck listens with curiosity and launches into his lectures, veering from
medieval history to the writings of Dostoyevsky, from Oscar Wilde to
President Bush's environmental record.
Buck asks Jeff Conrad, a 39-year-old artist, ''How's mom?''
''She's doing better,'' he answers. ''Thanks.''
Conrad's mother is recovering from major surgery, Buck says.
The two chat for a bit and Conrad explains his five-year friendship with
Buck. ''He helps me reflect on life,'' he says. ''We have a kind of mutual
psychoanalysis. It's always interesting what he says. I never realized the
homeless could be so intelligent.''
Actually, many of the homeless are quite educated. Of the nearly 6,000 in
shelters or on the streets of Boston, more than 25 percent have a college
education, according to city figures. ''Most people have the wrong idea
about the homeless,'' says Kelley Cronin, director of the city's Emergency
Shelter Commission. ''Many of them are intelligent, but they have mental
illnesses that keep them from improving their lives.''
Born into a middle-class family in a suburb of Scranton, Pa., Buck grew up
playing the clarinet and the piano. While earning a master's degree in
theology at the University of Pennsylvania, he married and had a son.
In part to avoid the Vietnam War and to continue his religious studies, Buck
moved to Boston in the late 1960s to study at Harvard. After two years, he
dropped out. ''It was an oppressive environment,'' he says. ''People were so
uptight. No one laughed.''
For several years, he worked as an administrator at a few hospitals in
Boston, until he was fired from a job at McLean Hospital in Belmont. ''There
was a personality conflict,'' he says.
In the early 1980s, his wife left him, he went on welfare, and his landlord
eventually forced him out of his home in Quincy. He has been living on the
streets ever since and he hasn't spoken to anyone in his family in years.
Puffing his old pipe, the bright-eyed Buck says he's content with his lot in
life. ''The alternatives seem much worse,'' he says. ''I know many who are a
lot less in tune with themselves.'' But some aren't so sure he's telling the
''This isn't an idyllic existence,'' says Ann Potter, Buck's psychiatrist at
the Tri-City Mental Health and Retardation Center. ''He is not carefree. He
is always worrying where he is going to stay. Life on the street is
dangerous. He has been mugged, beaten up, and things of his have been
Sitting cross-legged on his shaded bench, the scruffy shaman of the Fenway
pulls out his prize possession, his recorder, and plays a tune from the
Beatles, ''All My Loving.''
An old acquaintance, a Cuban exile, stops by and the two chat about Fidel
Castro and the man's granddaughter. The man shuffles off and Buck stretches
out, swigs some more beer, and then reveals his dentures with a great,
Before leaving his perch in the park for another old haunt, Buck slides a
decorative twig in his winter cap and offers this about how things have
turned out: ''There are some limitations,'' he says, ''But it's not a bad
David Abel can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 6/25/2001.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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