top of page

Bill Headley

Bill Headley and I were friends in graduate school in sociology at NYU in the early 70’s. Bill gave me two of my favorite stories. We were both writing our dissertations at the time, and we were having such different experiences. 

I had gotten it in my head that I was going to write a theoretical dissertation, partly to impress my dad. He was the best-read, self-educated person in my life. He was into radical political economy and read difficult stuff. He admired theorists. Alan Blum was the other force pushing me to theorize. Alan was a junior member of the NYU faculty in those days and was shaking things up. He was exciting. His lectures were thronged. He was the closest thing that we had to a rock star in the department. Alan made rigorous thinking exciting and even glamorous.

Bill Headley was a Catholic priest, and he was writing a classically empirical dissertation. It struck me as almost anthropological. Bill had a great story to tell. It was post-Vatican II. We had been through the Civil Rights Movement. We were still in the midst of the Viet Nam War. Protest politics were everywhere. America, the world, was changing. The Catholic Church was going through an upheaval. Many priests were leaving the priesthood. Bill was interviewing them. He was asking them why they left, collecting their stories.

I’m sure Bill connected his story to role theory. How do you leave a role? How do you leave the priesthood? I could have gotten into the theory with him. While writing my dissertation on Max Weber, I was working mornings as a social worker on a psychiatric in-patient unit. One of my tasks was discharge planning. I was interested in how a person became an ex-patient. And once an ex-patient, was it possible to escape that status? How about ex-convict? Can you ever stop being an ex-conflict? How about an ex-priest?

I really could have gotten into this with Bill, but I was completely swept up in his stories. One of the questions he asked every one of guys he interviewed was, “What was the hardest thing about leaving the priesthood?” Every one of them told him, “The hardest thing was telling my mother.” I loved that story. I have been retelling it now for 50 years. 

The faculty loved Bill’s stories too. No one argued with him. At least, it seemed that way to me. He zoomed through his dissertation and defense. My experience was so different. Faculty members felt free to argue my every point. I had to spend an extra year re-writing my dissertation, to soften my argument. Every point, it seemed, required a caveat, “Maybe I’m wrong.” I paid a big price for me theoretical dissertation. I bowed to the pressure.

I hated knuckling. I knew I didn’t have to. I had a choice. I could fight the bastards and remain an ABD — All But the Dissertation — probably forever or I could give them what they wanted and get on with my life. I gave them what they wanted. My Dad had died the winter before I finished the first draft. I thought he might want me to stand my ground. Alan had left NYU for York University. I didn’t know what Alan would have advised, but I didn’t know him well enough to pick up the phone and ask him.

I surrendered. I wrote my maybe-I’m-wrong dissertation and moved on. I had to drag myself through it. It seemed that every other sentence contained an apology. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I met Roshi Bernie Glassman. Not too long after I met him, Bernie was talking once about Zen students who had ordained. Almost all of them had disrobed, he said. It seemed that many Zen students went through Tokudo, the head-shaving, home-leaving ceremony which is the first step on the path to the Zen priesthood as a way of deepening their practice. But American Zen, Bernie thought, had nothing for all these priests to do. There weren’t nearly enough temple jobs to employ them. 

Bernie’s story reminded me of Bill’s dissertation. I wanted to spend more time with Bernie, so I suggested that we collaborate on a sociological study, interview a bunch of these former Zen priests, and find out about their experience. I thought it would be publishable in a sociology journal, far more publishable than my dissertation had turned out to be.

Bernie wasn’t interested. I would have to find other ways to get to spend time with him. It’s still an intriguing project and, for someone, an easier and more productive way to get a doctorate than my theoretical exegesis which no one has ever read.

It was more years before Bernie began using his “Just my opinion, man” catchphrase. Bernie’s teaching created a major opening in my life. I used his “just my opinion, man” to temper my arrogance. And I began to feel better about my “maybe I’m wrong” dissertation.

By the time I finished my dissertation, Bill was teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburg. I had my first academic gig at Finch College. Bill and I managed to stay in touch. While I was at Finch, I wrote a grant proposal — I’m not sure any longer, but I think it may have been a proposal for new approach to teaching undergraduate social work — which Finch submitted to the Exxon Foundation. Participation in an Exxon-sponsored conference would somehow contribute to the Foundation’s final funding decisions. Finch was pleased that I made it to the final round and paid my way for the weekend at West Virginia University in Morgantown. 

There were no direct flights to Morgantown. I flew Allegheny to Pittsburgh and Allegheny Commuter on from Pittsburg. I would be laying over for a couple of hours in Pittsburg. I called Bill once I knew the itinerary. He would meet me at the airport for a drink. We hadn’t seen each other in person in a year. When I met him, he was wearing his collar. I don’t remember him ever in his priest garb at NYU.

It was great to see him. When it was time for my flight, Bill walked me to the gate. I could feel people looking at me as we walked through the airport. I figured it was my imagination. I was a little self-conscious. Bill may have been my only priest friend at the time. 

I waved and walked through the rain across the tarmac. I’d never flown Allegheny Commuter. It was a tiny plane, one seat on each side of the aisle. A curtain hanging in the doorway separated the cockpit from the passenger cabin. We took off into the rain. Through the loosely hanging curtain I could see the dashboard, the rows of illuminated dials. We flew into a thunderstorm. The plane shook. The dashboard went dark. Was I holding my breath? The pilot banged the dash with his fist. The dial lights came back on.

That was a scary flight. Maybe the other commuters knew what to expect. Maybe they made this trip regularly. Maybe as I walked through the airport with Bill, they had been looking at me. Had I received last rites before getting on the plane? What did I know that they didn’t know? Maybe they should have brought their priests with them too.

I love that story too. Two stories that I have been telling again and again. It is so strange how someone can appear in my life, so briefly flash through and yet leave me with great stories. As I was writing this blog, I thought I should try to find Bill. I thought I found him. Alive. With an email address. I wrote him, but I haven’t heard back. I hope he’s okay.

32 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Great story.

bottom of page