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What I Learned From Joel

Back in 1979, an idealistic sophomore wrote a Daily column about his decision to drop out of school. Tyler Bridges, then a freshman, describes how that article—and its author—changed his life.

Photo: Peter Stember

LOOKING AHEAD: "I was asking Stanford to provide the meaning of life," Dickholtz recalls. "I had to leave Stanford to find that."

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By Tyler Bridges

I used to think about Joel Dickholtz whenever I was in danger.

As a freelance journalist working my way through South America writing for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers in the late 1980s, I had a license to explore, to seek adventure. Pinochet’s police detained me in Chile. I was stranded for a night in territory controlled by Shining Path guerrillas after our truck broke down in the Peruvian mountains. In Brazil’s Amazon, I spent several days with Chico Mendes, the country’s leading environmental activist, who by then had survived seven attempts on his life. (He didn’t survive the eighth.)

At times like these I would think of Joel -- but not because of anything he’d ever said to me. I knew him because we both had played trombone in the Stanford Band, but I didn’t know him well. No, I would think of Joel because of a Daily column he wrote at the end of his sophomore year, in June 1979. I was finishing my freshman year when I read the piece, and its imagery and passion would stay with me for years.

Joel’s piece began:

I’m bored. I’m bored because I’m studying life instead of living it. I’ve put my life safely inside a little box on my shelf and labeled it "Future -- don’t touch." I’m in school.

At school I learn to think academically. I learn how to analyze a subject until it no longer has any beauty, meaning or purpose. I learn how to freeze-dry the most fascinating of ideas into a neat, compact eight-and-a-half-by-eleven, typed-double-spaced format.

I learn how to view people as things. I learn how to talk about something like "passion" in a calm, rational manner. And I think, calmly and removed, about my life, as it sits on my shelf.

Joel was from Pasadena, the youngest of three brothers. His father, a failed salesman and inventor whose health was poor, taught his sons to dream and to laugh in good times and bad. When Joel entered Stanford in 1977, his family was on welfare.

His first day at Flo Mo was a bit of a shock. One girl he met was Miss Minnesota. One guy was an Olympic shotputter. Another girl’s father ran Standard Oil.

As a boy, Joel was fascinated with Houdini and magic. He loved performing and developed a signature trick: making bagels appear linked together. At Stanford, too, he set out to distinguish himself. He joined the most rebellious group on campus -- the Band. I remember him as a leading agitator. He could barely play the trombone, and he refused to wear the standard-issue white hat, red jacket and black pants. Instead, he donned a huge sombrero and whatever costume he had picked up on his latest trip to a thrift store. He pushed us to do halftime shows that would have gotten us banned forever if we had complied.

I’ve reached the conclusion that -- for me, at least -- Stanford is a secondary reference source in the pursuit of life. It’s one step removed from the real thing. And not as good. . . . Looking back at my life so far, I see myself as one of those little push cars. The toy kind with the flywheel that you rev up and finally put down on the ground so it goes in any direction you want. . . .

Before I started, someone said "this is the game you are going to play, and these are the rules." I learned quickly. "Vroom!" I said, with an unthinking smile, as I sped down the straight and narrow path. ‘ "Vroom!" I said as I went through high school. I did very well. Last time I checked, I was winning the race. Rah. Rah.

I came to college. . . . So here I am. My little push car is vrooming along smoothly. . . .

In his Western civ class, Joel asked the kinds of questions that freshmen are supposed to ask but rarely do. "What’s the meaning of life? What’s the purpose of studying? Why are we all here?" Once, for a paper, he decided he wanted to talk to Woody Allen. He called the White House and told the switchboard that he was a press aide to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and wished to speak with Allen to double-check a quote that Vance wanted to use. His ruse almost worked. The White House operator connected him to Allen’s apartment in New York, but no one answered.

When people would ask Joel what his major was, he would answer: "Pre-dropout."

I’m 19 years old, and my little push car is still on the straight path it started on. And it will go and go and go until someday someone or something picks it off the track, and then I’ll die. And all those questions I never answered won’t matter. . . .

So I decide to drop out of school. Or stop out. I plan to work until I get enough money to leave the country, and I’ll see the rest of the world.

I’ll come up with something. . . .

I gave his piece a lot of thought. I had grown up in Palo Alto and gone to high school across the street from Stanford. Although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do beyond vague ideas of law school or politics, Joel’s article got me thinking that I needed to get out of my sheltered world. So after graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. I took a job with consumer crusader Ralph Nader and lived in a neighborhood filled with abandoned houses and drug dealers.

Still, I needed to see more of what life offered. In 1984, I moved to South America and became a roving freelance journalist. That’s when things really turned adventurous. In Bolivia, I tracked down the man who executed Che Guevara. In Argentina, I covered a failed military coup attempt. In Venezuela, I upset the president by reporting in the Washington Post that he had jailed an editor who had published articles critical of him. Even when things got sticky in South America, I never regretted taking Joel’s advice to venture off the conventional path.

After I returned to the United States in 1988, I often wondered what had happened to Joel. Had he ever gone back to Stanford? Had he found what he was looking for? Was he still alive?

A few months ago, I decided to find out. With help from the alumni association, I discovered Joel was living two blocks from the Cal campus in Berkeley. I called him. "Wow!" he kept saying, as I told him about the lasting impact his piece had on me.

Joel invited me to visit him. A few weeks later, I drove up to Berkeley from Palo Alto. "Wow!" he said again when I arrived. After nearly 20 years, he looked pretty much as I remembered him: curly hair and a friendly face. We sat down and he proceeded to tell me his own story.

After dropping out of Stanford, Joel went to Paris, where he rented a $5-a-night apartment with a ceiling so low he couldn’t stand up. He spent his days as a mime, in white-face, pushing walls that didn’t exist and pulling on ropes that weren’t there.

Then he hitchhiked around Europe. People who stopped would ask him where he was going. "Wherever you’re going," he’d say. He figured that if he didn’t know where he was going, he couldn’t get lost. He traveled through Yugoslavia with gypsies and slept in a graveyard in Venice.

A year or so later, Joel ran out of money and returned to California. He enrolled at UC-Santa Cruz in 1981, determined to somehow combine his love of writing and performing.

One day that year he discovered how. The winter floodwaters had begun seeping into Joel’s kitchen. As he spread out an old newspaper to mop up, his eye fell on an ad for the American Storytelling Resource Center, located right there in Santa Cruz.

This was his epiphany. Joel rode his bike through the rain to the center. Soon he discovered that learning about stories -- and telling them -- was magical. It would allow him to continue asking the questions he had first wondered about at Stanford, and to meet interesting people and explore out-of-the-way places.

"I was asking Stanford to provide the meaning of life before," he told me. "That was the wrong question. I had to leave Stanford to find out how to answer that."

Joel decided to return to Stanford to finish his B.A. in 1982, three years after he’d left. It was there, after all, that he had begun his quest. "For the ending of a story, you often have to go back to the beginning," he explained.

He created his own major—English with an emphasis on creative writing and storytelling. Getting answers to his questions would be a lifelong quest. After graduation, he got a job as a storyteller at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. A year later, he returned to Europe. He was on his way.

Over the years, he told me, he has given 5,000 performances around the world at community centers, churches, synagogues, local fairs and festivals. He has recorded three audiotapes of his stories. They are parables, tales about good and evil, timeless stories that make people laugh. They are about King Solomon or Hershel the Trickster or the Haitian boy who stole the Elephant King’s giant drum.

Along the way, Joel changed his last name from Dickholtz to ben Izzy—which means son of Izzy. His grandfather Izzy used to tell him stories.

"Dropping out was a great, great choice," he told me. "It helped me find my life’s work."

I nodded. By dropping out—and writing the Daily column—he had helped me find my life’s work as well.

Tyler Bridges, ’82, is a reporter for the Miami Herald based in Tallahassee, Fla. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke.

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