Michael diLeo '68: Back to the Land

April 1, 2012

Michael DiLeo attended Duke during the late Sixties, when the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other social upheavals led to student protests that rocked college campuses across the nation. “It was a crazy time in the world,” says DiLeo. “Perhaps because of that craziness, many of us formed particularly strong bonds in college.” At graduation, he and five other classmates, despite heading in different directions to graduate school and the Army, made a pact to buy land together and ultimately start a school. Their educational philosophy inclined toward the student-centered pedagogy advocated by author/educator John Holt and utilized at A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England.

“This was in the midst of the back-to-land movement, and because of our great experiences at Duke, most of us were very interested in education,” he says, mentioning such pivotal faculty members as James B. Duke Professor of French Wallace Fowlie, poet and English professor Helen Bevington, and world religions professor Herbert Sullivan.

[Credit: Tommy Holt]

By 1971, DiLeo and his fellow 1968 alums—Ashley Carrithers, Susan Prescott, Russell Fuller, and Barbara Dean—and Bruce Alexander ’66 had all moved to California and begun their search for land. They originally had planned to purchase around forty acres but then heard about a 670-acre parcel in a remote part of far northern California. There was nothing there but the vast beauty of the surrounding wilderness. The nearest town was twenty miles of dirt road away, and there was no electricity or phone lines.

The group raised the $22,000 down payment toward the $98,000 total cost and began a number of initiatives—a year-round school, a hay-hauling business, the environmental publishing company Island Press, summer camps, and a farm. Years passed. Children came along, and then grandchildren. All but one of the original six, including DiLeo, eventually moved to other parts of the country to pursue additional education and career opportunities. Only Barbara Dean has remained living on the property, which is now structured as a limited liability corporation with fourteen shareholders.

The land has continued to exert a powerful influence on DiLeo. During the 1980s and ’90s, DiLeo worked as a freelance writer and editor for national publications such as Mother Jones, winning awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Dallas Press Club. He also published two nonfiction books, one a history of California, the other cowritten with Carrithers, Fuller, and Alexander, about their experiences on the land. (Both are available from Island Press.) He earned his M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College in 1997 and returned to his early love of education by becoming a teacher at a Waldorf School in Austin, Texas, where he now lives with his wife and two sons.

He’s currently putting the finishing touches on a novel, tentatively titled 100 Blue Days, loosely based on what might have happened to a group of young people like his friends had they stayed in that remote region throughout the past forty years. “That area became a pot-growing capital, and things got very dark and dangerous during the ’90s,” he says. “The book follows a group of hyper-intellectual friends from the hippie Utopian era to the end of the millennium.”

Despite the twists of fate that have dispersed the original group, their ties to the land, and what it represents, remain strong. (Bruce Alexander died a few years ago.) Every year, the original group members and their extended families return for a summer-solstice party, with volleyball, swimming, and camping, as well as the annual shareholder meeting. Real-estate agents long ago gave up trying to persuade the group to sell off any part of the land.

“It can’t be sold unless there is a unanimous vote of the shareholders,” says DiLeo. “The plan is to keep it forever.”