Who Was Leo Haley?

Leo Haley

Leo Haley’s Boston College graduation photo, alongside the inscription on his memorial card

Had twenty-four-year-old Leo Haley not stopped along Arlington Street on his way home one October night, Haley House would have been named instead for Roger LaPorte. Leo Haley’s name would never have been associated with the Catholic Worker. After all Leo had little connection in life to the Catholic Worker, although he did have an equally revolutionary method of living his own Christian mission.

Roger LaPorte on the other hand was a volunteer at the Catholic Worker house in New York. Like so many of his generation, including the residents of Haley House, he was opposed to the Vietnam War. In protest, LaPorte immolated himself in front of the United Nations. He didn’t die immediately, and while newspapers portrayed him with a mental imbalance, the Haley House community sided with Dorothy Day. Day visited LaPorte during his last hours, as he lay in the hospital with burns over ninety-five percent of his body. She reported that his decision, his sacrifice, was a conscious and intentional one, like others who give their lives for a cause including soldiers on the battlefield. She reported that he made a final confession, that he hadn’t simply been committing suicide.

Boston’s Catholic Worker would have been glad to name itself in honor of a man who might never be properly recognized for his intentions. LaPorte’s motives were similar to the Buddhist monks offering their lives for those who were suffering. He willingly acted in solidarity with the innocent victims of war, and the community was deeply committed to the anti-war movement.

But then Leo Haley stopped on Arlington Street. Leo Haley was a Boston College graduate and a founding member of the Catholic Interracial Council, committed to the Civil Rights Movement. He earned local attention when he was beaten during the spring, 1965, march in Selma, Alabama. At the peaceful march, Leo suffered a violent beating. But he forgave his attackers, saying simply and in Christ-like fashion, “They don’t really understand what they did.”

“We were friendly antagonists,” recalled Kathe, who first met Leo when she arrived in Boston. “John and I and some of the others all believed that you couldn’t work within the system to make it better. You had to tear it down and build something new. Leo was going to be a social worker; he believed in working with the system.” Leo and the McKennas were working toward the same ends, but they were using drastically different means. He was never involved with their hospitality work.

But nobody doubted Leo Haley’s convictions. And on the night of October 3, 1966, he proved those convictions one last time.

According to a Boston Globe account, that Monday night Leo was working in the Boston neighborhood of Roslindale, running a workshop on designing interracial councils at local parishes. He left shortly after midnight, but his working night wasn’t over. “He was going to drop off programs and hymn books for the Pope’s Mass for Peace and Racial Justice at St. Clement’s Shrine in Winchester,” his friend Dick Rowland recalled later. By two a.m., Leo was driving home to Roxbury along Storrow Drive, when he saw a young, white man lying in the road. Leo couldn’t ignore a man who appeared to be in need, and, like the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, he stopped. Haley asked the man if he needed help, if he was all right. The man seemed intoxicated, but insisted that he was fine, asking only for a ride home. Haley agreed and drove the man to Marlboro Street. When Leo asked for the house number, the man revealed a knife and forced Leo to drive into an alley off Commonwealth Avenue. There, two more men got into the car, took Leo’s wallet, and ordered Haley into the back seat.

For over an hour the men drove Leo’s car around Boston. “At one point,” Rowland told the Globe, “they went down the Southeast Expressway the wrong way . . . at eighty miles an hour.”

They stopped the car in Dorchester. Two of Leo’s kidnappers got out. The man Leo had originally stopped to help remained, though, forcing Leo back into the driver’s seat, ordering him to the Blue Hills. But Leo intentionally stalled the car. When the kidnapper couldn’t start it, he took a coffee urn from the trunk, and in a final violation, threatened to harm Leo’s family if he turned them in. Then the man walked away.

Unafraid of the threat, Leo waved over a police car, said he planned to file charges. All three of the men were found by 4:30 a.m. – but the night wasn’t over for Leo, whose conscience complicated his decision.

Leo was exhausted and confused. Should he let the police send these men to prison, a system he didn’t believe did much good? Or should he drop the charges, risking that they would strike again? Eventually, he decided to press charges, so that morning, he identified the three men and then went to Dorchester District Court to testify. Leo still had a full day ahead of him: meetings and then the Mass for peace, and he hadn’t slept yet. When the hearing was over, Leo went to Mass to calm himself, to pray. He tried to sleep during the day, but with adrenaline still pumping through his body, it was impossible.

Leo had heart problems and had undergone experimental open-heart surgery at age 16. The surgery gave him an unexpected second chance, but his heart, strong in love and conviction, would always be vulnerable to stress and fatigue. That evening, as Leo was driving to the Mass for peace and racial justice, still without any rest, he collapsed. His car crashed into a fire hydrant, and he was killed immediately. At age twenty-four, Leo Haley was dead.

Though the community at Dartmouth Street knew Leo as little more than an acquaintance, they saw him as a peer. His loss moved them. Naming the house for him seemed a natural considering the circumstances of his death. Today, the story of Leo’s death is reported at Haley House with varying degrees of accuracy. But the part everyone remembers is the spirit in which Leo’s final acts were committed, the spirit for which Haley House was formally named after Leo shortly after his death.

“We saw what Leo had done,” explained Kathe, referring to his willingness to stop and help a stranger, “and we wondered, ‘Would I have done the same thing?’ Nobody would have known if Leo just drove home that night. We wanted to remember that it’s what you do when nobody is looking that holds the key.”

Click here to read a 1989 article about Leo Haley from the Heights (Boston College’s student newspaper).

Click here to read a 2015 article in the Boston College Magazine which mentions Leo Haley’s time in Selma, AL in 1966.