Education

‘Private Little Hell’

Art Copleston didn’t notice the man’s stares at first.

It was a summer night in Gainesville, Florida, in 1958. Copleston, then in his mid-20s, was hanging out with some friends at a burger joint near his dormitory at the University of Florida. The evening was pleasant enough — spent drinking beers with jukebox music in the background — until a friend directed Copleston’s attention to the man seated at the bar who was looking in their direction.

His eyes were dark. His face was expressionless. Copleston’s friend whispered a word of caution: There were rumors of an investigation into gay people on campus. The man seemed official, and he’d been looking at Copleston for some time. “Watch out for him,” the friend said.

Copleston would soon learn how prescient that warning was. The man was a university police officer assisting in a sprawling inquest that would devastate countless lives and scare Copleston for the next two and a half years.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of Florida lawmakers commonly known as the Johns Committee scoured public universities for any evidence of homosexuality. Students were plied for information on their peers and instructors. Professors were pressured into spilling intimate details of their sex lives under oath.

Some were shown the door. By the committee’s account, at least 39 faculty members and deans were forced from Florida institutions due to alleged homosexual activity. That number doesn’t include those who fled their campuses during the committee’s reign, who decided that Florida was no place to make a life. It doesn’t account for the terror of being hunted by your own government, for the time spent wondering who knew your secret and who might tell. For living with the possibility of destabilizing your family, of becoming a social pariah.

The constant thrum of fear is something Copleston, now 90, remembers vividly. That, and the silence around the investigation. It was unsettling, and it worked to the committee’s advantage. Copleston’s social life in Gainesville “basically ended,” he said.

“It was just way too dangerous.”

No one knew what was going to happen next — if you were going to be tailed by an officer on campus. If you were going to be discovered and instructed to seek help or be expelled.

Or if somehow despite the paid informants, the surveillance, and the tape-recorded testimony, you were going to make it through. You were going to survive.

In 1956 — the year lawmakers created what became known as the Johns Committee — Florida newspapers carried headlines like “Homosexuals Return, Find Heat’s Off Again” and “Police Swoop Down on Sexual Perverts.” Gayness was generally not understood or tolerated. It was dangerous to be publicly out. Sodomy carried a prison sentence of up to 20 years in Florida, and other laws, like those criminalizing vagrancy and “lewd and lascivious behavior,” were used to target gay people.

How a committee of Florida lawmakers waged a crusade against higher ed and upended the lives of people in it. Read more here.

Spaces that were known to be gay-friendly, like bars or stretches of beach, were routinely patrolled by law enforcement. A lesbian writer who goes by the pen name Merril Mushroom was a student at the University of Florida in the late 1950s. She remembers dancing in nightclubs in Miami Beach when all of a sudden, the music would cut and the lights would flip on. Everyone would rush to grab someone of the opposite sex as police raided the place. Patrons were often subjected to harassment, arrest, or worse.

The Johns Committee, too, believed that homosexuality was a threat worth policing. The conservative lawmakers thought that young people, in particular, were at risk of “recruitment.”

And public universities were full of young people. Gay and queer students, along with employees, on those campuses were left defenseless. The idea that colleges should be a “safe space” where they could express their identity was decades away. Many people working at and running those institutions held similarly negative views about homosexuality. When the committee’s chief investigator arrived in Gainesville to see what he could find at the University of Florida, its president put up little resistance.

Rumors quickly spread of interrogations, of the official-looking men who’d direct students off campus to ask what they’d heard about their English instructor. It didn’t take much to land on the committee’s radar. Maybe it was your demeanor. Maybe it was your clothing. The director of student health was flagged as a potential homosexual because he’d reportedly surrounded himself with “boys” at the university and at home. (The committee used the word “boys” to describe college-age men.) A climate of suspicion and fear engulfed the institution.

Some of those who left as a result, recovered. Mushroom, after dodging questions and pressure to identify homosexuals on campus, transferred to a private college, the University of Miami. Robert Vadheim, the student-health director, fled to New York City after falling on the committee’s radar, and his partner quickly followed. They eventually settled and often entertained friends in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Others caught up in the Johns Committee’s dragnet had a tougher time pulling loose.

Undated photo of Sigismond Diettrich (left)

George A. Smathers Libraries, U. of Florida

Undated photo of Sigismond Diettrich (left)

Sigismond Diettrich was not able to flee. He could only argue with God.

Diettrich, head of UF’s geography department, was a passionate man with full cheeks and thick dark hair. An immigrant from Hungary, he arrived at the university in 1931 and spent the next 27 years studying Florida’s varied landscape and building his department through a blend of, in his telling, “whining, cajoling, persuading” and “pounding on the table.”

By the time the committee found him, Diettrich had constructed a life to be proud of: an esteemed career; a brigade of admiring students; a beloved wife with whom he’d often entertain guests; a grown daughter and now a newborn granddaughter.

It all changed with a phone call. In January of 1959, Diettrich was beckoned to the Manor Motel to appear before the committee’s lawyer, its lead investigator, a Florida lawmaker, and a campus cop. At least two people who’d been interrogated before him had suggested, when asked, that Diettrich was homosexual. “We didn’t pull your name out of a hat and ask you to come out here,” Mark Hawes, the lawyer, told the department head. “We have certain information concerning you.”

Hawes pressed Diettrich for details about his sexual preferences and habits. He asked leading, and embarrassing, questions based on gossip the committee had gathered: “Isn’t it true that you’ve gone down there into that restroom for the sole purpose of having some homosexual contact?” And: “You’ve been down on your knees there, haven’t you?”

Nervous and told that this private hearing could happen in public, if the committee so chose, Diettrich admitted to several anonymous sexual encounters with other men. He loved his wife, he said, but about a decade ago, a doctor had instructed them to cease having sex, for the sake of her health. Now and again when they attempted to rekindle things, he found he couldn’t perform. The anonymous encounters were an impulse that would emerge, and then retreat. “I carried my secret, I thought, well concealed, feeling my own private little hell whenever I yielded.” Diettrich would later confide in a friend.

By the end of the interview, Diettrich was humiliated, having been made to sink to “the rock bottom of [his] inner life.” The committee excused him, telling him to go about his life as normal, for now.

Shortly after his encounter with the university police officer in the burger restaurant, Copleston was hauled out of class. In Copleston’s recollection, he was placed in the back of a police car and driven the short distance to the university police station. There, he sat at a wooden table while that same officer, John Tileston, and the committee’s chief investigator, Remus J. Strickland, grilled him for information.

Copleston is gay, but he denied it to the officials and refused to name anyone else. Eventually they allowed him to leave. But Copleston was called in for at least one and possibly two more interrogations while he was a student at UF, he remembers. Each time, he mounted the same strategy: deny, deny, deny.

The committee’s pursuit didn’t stop there. He often saw Tileston lurking in the hallway outside his dorm room. A few times, Copleston would open his door and find Tileston pressing his ear to the other side, he remembers.

A college-aged Art Copleston

Courtesy of Art Copleston

A college-aged Art Copleston

At one point, Copleston noticed his mail was arriving more slowly than usual. It seemed someone was steaming the letters open, and then resealing them. In the fall of 1959, he was paired with a new roommate, named Jim, who acted strangely. Copleston was immediately suspicious. One Sunday afternoon, Jim returned to the dorm seemingly drunk. He lay on his bed and fondled himself, attempting to lure Copleston into a sexual encounter.

Copleston fled the room. When he later confronted Jim about the behavior, his roommate admitted to being a paid informant for the committee.

That angered Copleston, but he also knew he could do nothing about that anger. By that point, he’d been living in a state of abiding fear. He’d felt the eyes and ears tracking his movements for months. He’d been so certain he was going to get kicked out of college that in April of 1959, when he was called out of class to a dean’s office and told his father had died, the first emotion he felt was relief.

He broke down in sobs. His father was dead, but his future was still alive.

Copleston eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial management. He packed all his belongings into his 1953 Plymouth convertible and left Gainesville the morning after he graduated. As he drove north, he wondered if the committee’s efforts would continue to dog him or if he was truly free.

Diettrich knew what was in store for him when, eight weeks after he was summoned to the Manor Motel, he was called to the office of the university president. The professor gave his resignation before the president could ask for it. His dean put an arm around Diettrich and said though he was shocked and confused, he still loved him. “It was a nice and reassuring goodbye,” Diettrich would recall.

But Diettrich was inconsolable. He believed his actions made him a traitor to everyone who loved and respected him. After the meeting, Diettrich, a devout Catholic, went to his church to argue with God that killing himself was a necessity and therefore couldn’t be a sin.

Then he made his way back to campus, where he ingested 85 aspirin pills.

He taught a class and, when he was done, climbed high enough in the building to jump.

He looked down at the cold, wet concrete sidewalk. He found he couldn’t do it.

He made it home, the aspirin dulling his senses. He confessed to his wife, Irén, that he’d lost his job. “I am afraid if I had plunged a knife into her heart, I could not have hurt her worse,” he would recall. After numbness crept up his feet and legs and it became harder to breathe, Diettrich admitted to taking enough aspirin “to kill a cow.” He collapsed in a chair. When he came to, a doctor was there to give him a syrup that induced vomiting.

Diettrich slowly came to grips with his new, diminished reality. Irén sank into a depression, not answering the phone or the doorbell. Diettrich gave half of his library to the department and handed over the keys. For the last time, he surveyed what had been his domain. “It may not be much and not too pretty to look at, but it was mine,” he would reflect. “It was the department, my life, my love, ambition, my everything.”

Diettrich’s anguish over the ensuing weeks was extreme. “When one’s world collapses suddenly without much of a warning, when everything that one has worked for and proudly created turn into ashes, when one’s own personality gets completely crushed, and when in addition one comes to the tragic realization that he is a complete failure and a betrayer of all the trust his family, friends, and associates have placed into him, one really dies even if he goes on, unwillingly living,” he confided in a letter to two friends in April 1959.

Yet Diettrich also felt moved by the love of friends, colleagues, and students who stood by him. Wrote one friend: “Nothing has changed between us. As for waiting for my verdict, you already have it. You will always have my respect, admiration, and devotion.”

“We have proven friends, who gave us drink when we were thirsty, who poured soothing oils in our deeply cut wounds,” Diettrich wrote in that April letter. He passed along a message to his former graduate students: Remain faithful to the department and to the university, and continue to do excellent work. A department is judged by the caliber of its students.

Eventually, Diettrich found a position at the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, according to his granddaughter, Elizabeth Bero. Bero told The Chronicle that he lived there for years while his wife lived in Gainesville. Even as a child, Bero knew that it was unusual for a married couple to live apart. But they were Catholics, and divorce was not as viable an option at the time. When Diettrich retired from that position, he moved back to Gainesville to live with Irén again, and they took care of each other.

Bero remembers her grandfather — her nagyapa, in Hungarian — for his sense of humor, his joy in growing azaleas, and the elaborate milkshakes he would concoct for her. Always the academic at heart, he taught his granddaughter about Florida geography and gave her an encyclopedic dictionary when she graduated college.

In 1987, when Bero, now an elementary-school teacher, was about to earn her master’s degree, Diettrich was in a nursing home. So she borrowed a graduation robe, bought a hood, and drove from Tampa to Gainesville so that he could see her in her regalia, which made him happy.

Before he died, Diettrich asked to be buried in his.

Art Copleston at his home in Palm Springs, CA.

Jenna Schoenefeld for The Chronicle

Art Copleston at his home in Palm Springs, CA.

Copleston, some 61 years later, still resembles his college self. The same blue eyes and high cheekbones. He laughs easily, and he cries easily, too. When he’s brought to tears, he’ll sometimes punch his thigh to encourage himself to stop.

At home in Palm Springs on a weekend morning in August, Copleston relaxed in a white leather chair in his den. His home was a reprieve from the suffocating heat. The air was cool, and meditative music played over speakers. Copleston’s walker, nicknamed Normie, rested in the corner. That morning, he reflected on his life, how it nearly careened off course.

He knew he was gay from a young age, though that term wasn’t available to him at the time. But he understood he was different, which drove him further into his shell. Generally, his childhood was not a happy one. His parents were often at odds, though they had alcoholism in common. They never had much money.

So at age 18, Copleston enlisted in the United States Air Force. Thanks to the GI Bill, he could afford a college degree and thwart the destiny that seemed to have been prescribed for a person like him, from a family like his.

While enlisted, Copleston ended up, in a strange twist, assisting in investigations into suspected homosexual activity of squadron members. He remembers being assigned as an administrative assistant to the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, where he did clerical work, including handling the transcripts for inquiries into sexual deviation.

Copleston thinks that experience helped him make it through the Johns Committee interviews. He didn’t see the connection at the time, but in the Air Force, he’d gotten something of an education in how to handle himself during an interrogation. In any case, failure — admitting that he was gay, or implicating himself in some way — was not an option: His college degree depended on his evading the investigators’ queries.

Copleston didn’t fail. He graduated with honors and left Florida behind. He met the man he’d spend the next 30 years of his life with, a dentist named Dennis Fillmore. Copleston became successful in his field of business management. He bought his bright and airy Palm Springs home in 2005, a few years after Dennis died. He hung huge canvases on the walls and decorated the living room with smooth, modern sculptures of glass and stone.

At first, Copleston had wanted to shut the Johns Committee out of his life entirely. But he became more comfortable talking about that experience. In 1993, when many of the body’s records were made public, Copleston heard about it on the radio. He eventually found he was ready to share his story, and over the years, he gave interviews. He also wrote a memoir, titled Demons and Deliverance, that includes passages about the committee’s surveillance.

Copleston still feels the committee’s imprint. For one, he says he’s uncomfortable around other gay people. It makes him feel exposed, by association. “It’s upsetting to me. As a result, that’s what I project,” Copleston says. “And the gay universe here in this area, in the desert — they think I’m really some sort of creep because I’m so unfriendly.”

In assessing the complicated knot that is human behavior, it’s difficult to untangle what strands you’re born with, and which ones ensnare you along the way. Copleston has felt a sense of aloneness and inferiority since childhood. But he attributes at least part of this intense discomfort to the persecution of the Johns Committee. He got the message that as a gay man, he needed to hide. It’s a message that neither time nor space can erase.

Still, there was also a part of Copleston that understood he deserved a shot at a good life. Or at least compelled him to fight for it.

That day in August, a Chronicle reporter who was visiting Copleston read to him part of one of his interrogation transcripts.

According to the document, dated October 16, 1958, Strickland, the chief investigator for the committee, asked Copleston if he was a homosexual or if he’d ever engaged in homosexual activity, which Copleston denied. He asked Copleston to name students and faculty members whom he thought were homosexuals or were “homosexually inclined.”

Copleston, age 26, with an apparent sense of calm, assured Strickland that though he thought the investigation was worthwhile, unfortunately, he could not give up any names. “I have never participated with these people and as I told you before, my association has strictly been on a social level. Therefore, I cannot take it upon myself to supply anyone’s name … I can’t say anything unless I have positive proof of that person’s activity and feel right within my own mind.”

“I don’t think it would be fair,” the young Copleston continued. “… I cannot set myself up as a judge one way or another.” With that statement, the transcript ends.

Seated in his leather chair, Copleston listened intently to his own skillful, principled denial. His face lit up with delight.

“Damn,” he said. “I was good.”


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