I met Dick Tropp when I was a sophomore at the University of Rochester and he was a senior. I can’t imagine how I came to his notice. I, of course, recognized him – he was one of a group of brilliant upperclassmen who had no reason to take any notice of me. But somehow he did, and it turned out he was going to be spending the year after graduation on a scholarship in Paris and I was going to be doing my junior year in Florence. This was 1964-65. I had his contact information there and when I came to Paris to visit another Rochester friend, I got in touch with him.
We three went on a jaunt to the town of Chartres on a cold December day. It was clear and bright, but very cold as we climbed the cathedral tower. We emerged at the top to a blizzard, huge flakes falling from a dark grey sky. By the time we climbed down, the sky was again angelic blue.
My times with Dick often had this quality of strange magic. Dick had plans for us to listen to jazz, then stay out all night to go to the fish market for onion soup at dawn. He got sick, so that never happened. I thought the whole idea was a little nuts, but Dick was always miles ahead of me. In the spring, he decided to move to Florence. I found him an apartment, and Dick and I met up for a number of mini-adventures.
Since his family was on Long Island and mine was in Westchester, we’d get together when we were both in the New York area. Mostly we’d walk the streets and talk. Dick was in revolt against all we’d been brought up to be. He wanted to push boundaries and create a visionary new world. I mostly wanted to leave my job and get out of the city.
For very different reasons, we both ended up in Berkeley. That was where I saw him the most. I remember one day he arrived blindfolded at my apartment, led by two friends who were his minders. It was a trust exercise – something I’d never heard of but was on his radar. In retrospect it seems very Dick.
In the writings Dick left behind, he described himself as depressed and unmoored before he became part of the Peoples Temple. I never saw him that way. To me, he seemed to be moving in sync with the 60s’ messianic vision/confusion, dropping out, trying to find a different and better way, but always gentle about it, never doctrinaire or bombastic. I remember him at a picnic on the beach, writing on the sand with a huge piece of bull kelp, then blowing it like a trumpet.
My brother was involved in a jade mine in Mendocino County. I introduced them, and Dick moved to the Ukiah area to work for him making jade I Ching coins and other saleable items. I remember visiting him at the jade factory, though the word “factory” implies something much grander than the small room where Dick worked.
Dick crossed paths with Jim Jones and joined Peoples Temple sometime around then. For years, I felt responsible for hooking Dick up with Jones, but eventually I realized he would have found Jones of his own accord, if not in Mendocino, then certainly a few years later in San Francisco.
I don’t remember Dick mentioning Peoples Temple to me. My guess is he didn’t think I was cool enough to take into his confidence. He’d visit me when he came down to Berkeley to do city errands and maybe Peoples Temple work. By then I was working on an MA in Design at UC Berkeley. I was entirely engaged, not at all in a dropping-out frame of mind, and again my guess is that he found my life irrelevant in the face of the changes happening all around us.
In 1971, I followed my future husband to Canada. The last time I saw Dick, he came for dinner at my communal house in Berkeley. Once I left for Vancouver, I never heard from him again. At some point, I discovered he’d joined Peoples Temple, and then somehow heard he’d gone to Guyana, but that may have been after the fact. I don’t think I grieved at the time of the deaths, so I must have found out later that he was there.
And then I did grieve greatly. Though I knew him for only six years and spent time with him only sporadically, he was an important figure in my life, more so than it might appear from my rather spotty memories.
For me, Dick was a kind of guiding light, a visionary determined to walk his own path. His anti-racist commitment meshed with Jim Jones’ program. The attraction must have been very strong for Dick to suspend doubt and become a follower. I have puzzled again and again how such a bright guy could have signed on, but so many Peoples Temple members were extremely bright, idealistic, and hard-working, so he was in good company. Much later in my life, I realized that I too had suspended my doubts to sign onto a dubious undertaking with difficult repercussions for me. That made it easier to understand what Peoples Temple must have been for Dick, and how much he wanted to believe it could be his answer. I still wonder what he might have done with his life, what he might have contributed, had he survived.
(Dorothy Field is an artist and writer who in her own way continues to try change the world. She lives in Victoria, BC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)