I knew Bob Houston (“Bobby”) from 1957 to 1961, when we were both students at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California. We were active in the high school marching band – although Bobby was a much better musician than I was – and were on the “academic track,” as it was then called, so we took all the advanced courses in the sciences and humanities. Although I got slightly better grades, Bobby was just as smart as I was. He was also an Eagle Scout and, as I recall, worked part-time jobs during the school year, as I did.
Capuchino was a typical middle class suburban high school in the 1950’s, with very few poor or rich students, predominantly white, with a few Asian and Latino students, and even fewer African Americans. Bobby came from a very stable middle class family, the father Bob, Sr. (or “Sammy” as we called him) was a photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle newpaper, his mother a homemaker, and his younger sister a few years behind him in school.
After graduation I went away to college, and Bobby went to Cal Berkeley where he majored in music, en route to a career as a high school music teacher. While at Cal, Bobby married Phyllis Tuttle,, a high school classmate of ours, and they had two daughters, Patty and Judy. After 1961 I lost track of Bobby, and next heard about him due to his death on October 5, 1976, ostensibly due to a railroad accident. Now that I have investigated Bobby’s history with Peoples Temple, there is no doubt in my mind that his death was ordered by Jim Jones.
Up until 1961, there was nothing that hinted at his future involvement with the Temple. Though Bobby always had an empathetic streak in his personality, nothing I knew could explain his fanatical devotion to the Jim Jones cult. I don’t recall that Bobby had much interest in civil rights, but that may well have developed as a result of attending Cal Berkeley in the 1960’s.
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Although it may not have seemed so at the time, Bobby did not die in vain, due to a series of random coincidences. As mentioned, Bobby and I were in the high school band. Every year there was a competition for high school bands in Long Beach, California, and in 1960 we were selected as the best band in the State. As a result, we represented California at the John F. Kennedy inauguration in 1961. I still remember marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on a very cold day.
One of the chaperones on our trip to Washington was our high school government teacher, a man named Leo Ryan. In addition, Bob’s father Sammy Houston came along as the official band photographer. Leo Ryan and Sammy lodged together during that trip and formed a friendship that became important after Bob’s mysterious death 15 years later.
Following the “accident,” Sammy contacted Ryan with his misgivings about Peoples Temple and its recently-established agricultural project known as Jonestown. The more Ryan learned about Jonestown, the more interested he became. His interest led to contacts with other former members and ultimately to his fatal trip to Guyana. It is my opinion that the investigation sparked by Bobby’s death set in motion the decision by Jones to leave the country, with the final result being the mass destruction of the cult in 1978. Had Bobby not been killed, it is of course unknowable as to how and in what sequence this whole catastrophe would have played out.
On a personal basis, I find myself at a total loss in understanding how an intelligent, well-adjusted, grounded person like Bobby could be caught up in a cult like the Temple to begin with, let alone after he was subjected to widespread group criticism and even physical punishment at the hands of Jim Jones. I suppose that since my life was, if anything, more chaotic than Bobby’s, my real fear or concern might be for myself. I have had a few tangential contacts with organizations which in some ways resembled Peoples Temple, but apparently my “cult radar” is pretty sensitive, as all I ever felt – despite the feelings of some of my peers – was a sense of mingled disbelief and revulsion.
At age 73, I think that I am pretty well immunized from this grotesque portion of the human spirit.
(Kenneth A. Odell is a retired attorney. His other two stories in this edition of the jonestown report are A Glimpse into the Life of Phyllis Tuttle Houston and The Death of Robert H. Houston, Jr. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)