Alex McIntire, Lock Benton & Billy Dean Wyatt
Memories of Three Chapel Hill Baba Lovers:
Alex McIntire, Lock Benton, and Billy Dean Wyatt
Contributed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
Alexander H. McIntire (1945–1999)
I met Alex McIntire in high school in Charlotte, NC, and we both went to the University of North Carolina. At that time, only men attended UNC in Chapel Hill as freshmen. I attended UNC-Greensboro, then called “Women’s College” — on weekends, we would go by bus to Chapel Hill for dates. One weekend Alex arranged a blind date for me with a guy named John Gunn. As many Baba people know, John and I were later married and had three children.
Alex was present along with me, John Gunn, and about forty other people when Henry Kashouty and Rick Chapman delivered what Meher Baba referred to as His “darshan” in Chapel Hill, in May 1967. [See Barbara Scott, Golden Thread — Meher Baba — Chapel Hill — 1967 (Dobson, NC, 2001), p. 59.] Alex was known for three things, all of which were obvious upon meeting him: He was morbidly obese (at that time a rarity). He had a prodigious intellect (he was a member of Mensa and was once touted in a newspaper article as “the smartest man in Miami,” where he worked as a college administrator in his latter years). The third aspect of Alex’s character was his ability to make and keep friends and bring them together (like me and John). With his charming conversation, natural friendliness, and wit, he create a vast network of interconnected like-minded people. Those connections gave him great satisfaction. He visited the Meher Spiritual Center very often in the early, exciting days of our encounters with Baba and was doubtless responsible for bringing many people to Meher Baba through his networking and his convincing rhetoric, though he held back on expressing his own feelings for Meher Baba.
After he graduated from UNC he worked for USAID in Asian and Latin American countries. A friend gave this example of Alex’s occasionally self-deprecating humor: Alex came home from Asia declaring that he learned the word for “elephant” in every country he passed through! I’m sure Meher Baba would have enjoyed his ready wit. In the 1980s Alex organized a remarkable reunion of the intellectual and spiritual coterie that used to hang out in downtown Chapel Hill and wrote a small book about it, entitled From the Tables Down at Harry’s. He was also the author of Political and Electoral Confrontation in Revolutionary Nicaragua. His third wife was a professor at the University of Miami and they were active in the Episcopal Church.
Alex died very tragically and mysteriously in what was apparently a carefully planned suicide, in 1999, at age 54. His obituary included comments from several people who spoke of him as a “wonderful person” who “took a personal interest in the welfare of the students.” When I talked to our close mutual friend Marshall Hay about Alex’s untimely death, he commented, “There was no one in that early Chapel Hill group who was not spiritually desperate.”
I often think of Alex when I remember our Meher Baba friends from that time; he was a young man who exuded greatness and promise, and could make us laugh until we screamed for mercy.
William Lockhart Benton, Jr. (30 July 1945 –13 May 1999)
Lock Benton was one of the early followers of Meher Baba in Chapel Hill. Jim Watson recalls that he first heard Meher Baba’s name from Lock in 1967. Lock had been a heavy drug user and was something of a loner, but he was present at the talk given by Rick Chapman and Henry Kashouty in May 1967, an event that Meher Baba called his “darshan in Chapel Hill.”
Marshall Hay was a close friend to Lock and recalls, “It must have been late 1967 or early 1968 … and Lock had moved to Myrtle Beach…. He was living in a trailer which was housing for the caretaker of a large driving range located at about 30th Ave. North in Myrtle Beach. This site was developed as the Myrtle Square Mall…. Lock had the job of overseeing the driving range. He seemed to do well there and it was a great pleasure for me to have him in town.”
Gradually, though, changes began to get the better of Marshall’s friend. Marshall recalls visiting Lock at the trailer “and the two of us discussing at length the utterly remarkable gift of His presence in our lives … and then Lock divulging that he had begun to fear that he might lose his grip on Baba’s daaman.”
Just a few days later Marshall realized that Lock had slipped backward into a very unstable state; he was hiding away in his trailer and was seriously ill. Someone had the kindness to carry him back to Chapel Hill or perhaps to his family in Raleigh. He ended up in NC Memorial Hospital, in South Wing, the treatment area for mental illness, very soon afterwards.
Marshall remembers, “As all of this was happening I went to Kitty and Elizabeth to inform them that Lock was gone from Myrtle Beach, and about Lock’s overwhelming fear of losing his Baba. Kitty announced that she would contact Baba immediately, that He would expect to be informed. Some few days later she called me aside and passed on a cable received from India.”
Marshall’s recollection is that the cable was addressed as follows and read:
Lock Benton Baba Benton:
Tell Lock Benton that Beloved Baba says He will never leave you even if you leave Him.
It was signed by Mani S. Irani.
Both Marshall and John Gunn remember having delivered this cable to Lock, and it is possible they did so together. The cable was handed in under a glass window of a secured ward. Later that week John and I visited Lock briefly after he was moved to another ward, and he did mention having gotten the cable and seemed happy enough, considering his circumstances. He was then sent to the state mental facility.
At some point in the following year I saw Lock at Meher Center and he told me he was taking lithium sulfate, a relatively new treatment at that time, and said he felt stable with the medication. Lock continued to battle both drugs and alcohol for some years, living a reclusive life in Chapel Hill. He died in a hospice.
Marshall remembers Lock with great fondness: “In all of the twists and turns that came after this time, surely Meher Baba was by dear Lock’s side just as He promised He would be.”
To this day we who knew about the cable think of Lock as: Lock Benton Baba Benton.
Billy Dean Wyatt (died 2001)
Billy Dean Wyatt was a vibrant member of the Chapel Hill subculture from the time he arrived, in 1965, until his death. He was an adopted child from a working class background, very much a fish out of water in his small North Carolina hometown, who enjoyed great gifts of artistic talent and suffered great torments from mental illness. His paintings were very much in vogue in Chapel Hill/Carrboro subculture haunts like He’s Not Here, and the Cat’s Cradle, and provided that main décor for Tijuana Fats, a Mexican restaurant owned and operated by Baba lovers.
Bill life’s was characterized by two major factors: his graciousness and his pain. For some years he pursued a disability claim on the basis of his mental illness because he believed that with it he could subsidize his work as a painter, but ironically, when he finally succeeded with the claim, the medications he had to take to deal with his mental illness made it impossible for him to paint. He was fortunate to live most of his adult life near the downtown of Chapel Hill where he could walk to eateries and participate in campus events, because he never had a driver’s license. He suffered from periods of near immobility from depression, but when he was up, he was charming company and, when possible, beautifully dressed. Everyone who knew Bill agreed that he was a kind, gentle person. Despite the moral chaos of his life, which included a year or so in New York City hanging out on the fringes of the Warhol crowd, he never lost his sense of innocence, his unique eye for detail, and his pleasant humor. One of the last persons who befriended him described how Bill would get down on hands and knees to scrub her floors, even as she was trying to be his caretaker.
In 2000 he was invited to display his artwork in UNC Memorial Hospital, a place where he had spent time as a patient in the ward for the mentally ill. Bill was proud of this accomplishment. The program, called STEP (Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation Program), still sells note cards with one of Bill’s paintings. But it should be remembered that, according to friend and fellow artist Scott Simmons, Bill “did hundreds of paintings and sold every one of them,” so in that way he was more successful than many struggling artists. He developed a cycle of scraping by until he had money for canvas and paints, then producing several paintings, selling them, and living off the proceeds.
Bill heard of Meher Baba as early as 1967, perhaps before, and had reverence for Baba of a kind that can be considered unusual, if not unique. He felt himself unworthy to be a Baba lover but sought the friendship of Baba lovers. My family has several Wyatt artworks, among them a lovely father-daughter portrait in crayon of John Gunn with Jennifer, aged about six, on his lap. Bill like to tell this Baba story: he once saw Pete Townsend in New York City in a bistro frequented by artsy types. Bill, always drawn to celebrities, went over to speak to Pete. He was, he thought, rebuffed when Pete refused to talk to him. He later learned that it had been Meher Baba’s Silence Day. He often told that story and laughed at himself, and I think it reinforced his sense that with Meher Baba, he would always be on the outside looking in. Yet toward the end of his life many who knew Bill but knew nothing of Meher Baba described him as a “spiritual” person.
Marshall Hay says of Bill: “I always felt that he had an active relationship with Meher Baba. Baba spread His net over the town and Bill was surely a part of that. I would suggest that Bill was a very good example of how Baba would keep His nazar on someone. What a difficult life … what a blessed life!”
Scott Simmons sent out this email at the time of Bill’s passing:
Bill Wyatt died on Saturday, July 21, at 11 a.m. He went into Memorial Hospital on Wednesday with cold/flu symptoms; it turns out he had an infection around his heart, probably partially due to the heart surgery of a few years back and dental surgery he had three weeks ago. He had expressed the wish that 3 sticks of sandalwood incense be burned over his body. Through the kindness of one of the doctors, Bill’s body was placed in an empty room in the hospital ward and Helen, the woman who had taken care and responsibility for Bill the last so many years, with a few of his friends, was able to have this simple farewell gesture.
In spite of his years of mental and physical illness, Bill continued to exude the special magical quality that intrigued people and endeared him to those who knew him. He called me a day or two after Silence Day, which he never remembered in time, and in the course of the conversation, told of his meeting the Who in a NY restaurant in the 60’s on Silence Day and talking to Peter Townsend, who was keeping silence. Bill was still embarrassed by this. Bill would call me every few months to talk, always with a question about Baba, often expressing his growing sense of Baba’s Presence and asking like a child for reassurance that Baba would forgive the many things he had done. Bill always said to me when he called, I love you, and gave me the opportunity to tell him this also.
This loving quality ended up being the enduring and expanding gift that he had. The course of his mental illness and the simple accumulation of self-destructive behaviors had ruined his health and undermined the expression of his talents, but his lovingness continued full force to grow and express. And out of his suffering also came another aspect of love, an increasing childlike humility. I remember him in the 1960’s like a brilliant angel with absolutely no self-protective instincts; and I see him at the end, a treasure in a ruin.