Ram Dass’ long, strange trip began at Williston Academy
According to his infamous origin story, before he became Baba Ram Dass—controversial spiritual teacher, best-selling author of a dozen books including Be Here Now, and enduring ambassador of the counterculture—he was Richard Alpert, Harvard University psychology professor, friend and colleague to LSD-proponent Timothy Leary, and symbol to conventional society of the dangers of 1960s excess.
ut before he was even that Richard Alpert, he was Williston Academy student Richard Alpert, class of 1948.
Ram Dass died in December at his home in Maui, Hawaii, at age 88. He had suffered a stroke in 1997 that left him partially paralyzed and hampered his speaking, but through his writing, social media presence, and retreats he continued to teach and promote the benefits of mindfulness, service to others, and opening to the power of unconditional love. His story and message are the subject, most recently, of the documentary Becoming Nobody (becomingnobody.com), released this year.
Born to a wealthy family in Newton, Massachusetts (his father, a lawyer, was the first board president of Brandeis), Alpert graduated from Williston Academy as a
member of the Cum Laude Society. He went on to earn degrees in psychology at Tufts (B.A.), Wesleyan (M.A.), and Stanford (Ph.D.) before joining the Harvard faculty in 1958. He and Leary were dismissed in 1963 after conducting research into the mind-expanding effects of psychedelic drugs.
In 1967, Alpert traveled to India, where he met the Hindu guru Neen Karoli Baba, who gave him the name Ram Dass, meaning servant of God, and set him on his improbable life’s journey. “First I was a professor,” he recounted in a 2019 New York Times interview. “Then I was a psychedelic. Now I’m old. I’m an icon. There are worse things to be.”