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Leo Buscaglia; Speaker and Writer on Love and Hugs

Obituaries

June 13, 1998|BURT A. FOLKART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Leo Buscaglia, the effervescent ambassador of love whose self-help books on the dynamics of affection sold 11 million copies and helped his readers explore the delicate balance between life and death, died Friday.

Pat Duffy, director of corporate marketing for his publisher, Slack Inc., said the columnist, lecturer and social philosopher known as "Dr. Hug" was 74. He died, apparently of a heart attack, at his home on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

"Leo F. Buscaglia is a man you love to love," wrote a Los Angeles Times interviewer several years ago. It was an aura Buscaglia crafted to perfection, speaking to anyone who would listen and always hugging them afterward.

The magazine Psychology Today described him as "a one-man encounter group," and said that he represented "a good illustration of emotional expressiveness, nonconformity and touching."

When he wasn't examining the phenomenon of love as the single most important facet in the jewel of life, as he did in his 1972 book "Love," he was teaching special education in Pasadena schools or traveling to Asia to study its religions, which he later put into his message of what the Greeks called agape, or spiritual love.

Words of love and affection came easily to the enthusiastic young Felice Leonardo Buscaglia, born to a tightknit Italian immigrant family--one he called "enviable." He was raised in Los Angeles with 10 siblings in a home with only one bathroom ("Try that sometime!" he told The Times in 1990). His father was a waiter whose avocations included winemaking, ecology and gardening.

He also was a strict disciplinarian, but sang and danced with his children and, most important to the young Leo, made each child talk about his daily activities with the family at the dinner table.

"Nobody in this world," proclaimed Papa Buscaglia, "should go to bed as stupid at night as they woke up in the morning, and so you've got to learn something every day."

From his parents, Buscaglia would say throughout his life, "I've learned that you learn best by modeling. If you want people to learn, do it!"

After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in education in the early 1950s, he took a teaching position in Pasadena, but found a wanderlust that needed nurturing. Long curious about other religions, he went to Asia and compared Zen Buddhism and Hinduism to his own Christian faith. In 1974, he wrote "The Way of the Bull," which he considered his best writing ("although no one," he said, "ever reads it."). In it he wrote, "You can be a follower of Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha or whomever. Always they said that the most essential factor is to love your neighbor. And to love you."

That was to become the anthem of his life.

Soon he became the enthusiastic, buoyant speaker welcomed by wide audiences (including a group of 1,000 nuns who could only afford to pay him with homemade bread).

He startled many of the academicians at USC when it was announced he would teach classes on love, starting with "Love 101," which combined psychology and sociology.

About the same time, his first book, "Love," was growing in popularity, stressing love as the single unifying force of life.

At one time five of his books appeared on the New York Times best-seller list concurrently. His titles included "Loving Each Other," "Living, Loving and Learning," "Bus 9 to Paradise," a collection of his columns, and "Sounds of Love." One of his books, "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf," (1982) was adapted to audiocassette, educational film and a one-hour ballet. It explored the equation of life and death as seen through Freddie and his fellow leaves as they change with each season and end with the coming of winter.

His last release was "Love Cookbook" in 1994.

He taught at USC until 1984 and had since been pursuing his books, speeches and columns. That university honored him in 1991 by establishing the Leo F. Buscaglia Scholarship for Inner City Teachers Education.

The bearded, ebullient spokesman for affection was not without his critics, however. Psychology Today, while praising his recommendations for "full-time kindness," nonetheless said that little of his work amounted to more than "momentary inspiration." He also was chastised for never marrying or having children while offering himself as a "great lover of love, families and children."

Buscaglia responded that he had opted to embrace all humankind rather than an individual or two.

"I remember," he told The Times in 1985, "once hearing the Dalai Lama speak when he was in Los Angeles. Someone asked him the purpose of life and he said: 'The purpose of life is to help others, and if you can't help them, won't you at least not hurt them?'

"I know that is a platitude, that that is sentimental and can easily be attacked. But loving, caring is simple, and we make it complex. Our own neuroses make it complex."

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