"The Man with a Thousand Faces"
New York City Police
Paul Keane, a 1980 graduate of Yale Divinity School, is a New Haven-based free-lance writer. This article is excerpted from a longer report submitted to the President of Yale University, the Dean of the Divinity School and the parents of Sam Todd.
Friends and family acknowledge that Sam was probably drunk at the Mulberry Street New Year’s Eve party that night. It was his and his younger brother Adam’s third stop on a party hop, and Sam had been drinking beer and vodka. He went downstairs from the Mulberry Street loft to get some air. Adam went down with him and joshed him a bit about his condition as he tripped on the stairs on the way out. Sam was dressed entirely in blue: jeans, running shoes and a sweatshirt with the emblem and the school name “Ecolint Geneve.” Though the temperature had vacillated between 17 and 37 degrees that first day of 1984, he had left his coat with his wallet and identification back at the party. Sam broke into a mock jog to prove to Adam that he was OK as he headed up Mulberry toward Houston Street. Adam went back into the party, had second thoughts five minutes later, and went to look for Sam.
No one able to identify him has seen Sam since he turned onto Houston Street around 1:30 that morning. He was the first missing person report of New York’s new year, a year in which the city was to receive over 16,000 such reports.
Adam called his oldest brother John, then a law student who lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, at about 4:30 A.M.. John drove into New York and the two brothers began calling hospitals and friends of Sam’s around the city. They also went to their Aunt Doris Todd’s apartment in the Village, thinking that Sam might have stopped there, as he often did when he stayed in town. At around 11:00 A.M., they went to the police and filed a missing person’s report.
By the weekend, about 20 of Sam’s friends from Vassar (his undergraduate school) were involved in the search, joined by another 29 friends from YDS. A week later, Adam and John had set up a “command headquarters” with five telephones in a Greenwich Village church and coordinated nearly 200 student volunteers from Yale Divinity School, Vassar, Princeton and elsewhere to distribute 20,000 “Missing” posters around Manhattan. Sam’s childhood friend, David Marcus, a staff writer for the Miami Herald, joined the search and wrote an article about Sam’s disappearance on the front page of the Herald on January 10. The next day, a quarter page article on the disappearance and search appeared in The New York Times, with photos of Sam’s father and two brothers at the Greenwich Village “headquarters.” The national television and radio media picked up the story of the search, and the baffling case was the lead-off in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column on February 13. Within the next nine months, the family had organized among friends and contacts a “Sam Search” committee in every state in the country. If Sam Todd had disappeared intentionally January 1 and was having second thoughts, soon thereafter, that maybe he should quietly resurface, the clout of this publicity may have sent him underground by January 11.
No one could believe he ran away, at first. His on-and-off girlfriend from his days at Vassar, Jill Tonelli, was quoted in the Times as saying “He loves his family too much for that.” The fact sheet his family circulated about him says, “It seems clear his disappearance was not deliberate or premeditated.” But seven months later, his parents’ thank-you letter to the divinity school volunteers modifies that position: “Is he pursuing an agenda of his own which no one can guess?” it asks.
If Sam Todd did run away, where could he have hidden against the odds of 20,000 posters with photographs, national news coverage, and a couple of hundred volunteers scouring the soup kitchens, shelters, bus, train and subway stations, and hospitals of Manhattan? Had he secured a new passport and spirited himself back to Geneva, Switzerland, where his family had lived from 1973 – 1977? Or to Zimbabwe, where, in 1980, he had worked in a school with revolutionaries who had laid down their guns?
If he stayed stateside, even temporarily, where could he go where no one would ask questions about his past or think it strange that he did not volunteer such information or even give a full name? Where could he go where people would be reluctant to cooperate with the police in a humane undertaking like a missing person search?
Sam's aunt, Doris Todd, who had lent money to Sam while his parents were living abroad, had sent her nephew a $2,000 check for a six-credit summer Hebrew course at YDS about May 15, 1983. The course cost $800. On July 15, Sam paid the Yale bursar’s office $2,330 he owed for the previous year’s tuition. Perhaps he saved the difference of $330 from his earnings at the Connecticut Food Bank, where he worked 20 to 30 hours a week. Clearly, he didn’t have money stashed away for a secret purpose when he returned to YDS in the fall. That semester, he was living entirely off a $2,400 grant from the school and an eight-hour-a-week job on the security patrol. His tuition was $3,150 for the first semester ’83-’84 and, as of October, 1983, Sam still owed Yale $750. Apparently, the entire grant went toward tuition. Sam was probably feeding and sheltering himself solely on funds from his $4-an-hour job. According to Sam’s classmate, Beau Weston, and his wife Sue, who rented Sam a room in their Orange street apartment, that was not enough to meet his payments to them, and early in December, the Westons had to sit down and have a talk with Sam concerning his late rent and grocery payments.
Was pride involved in Sam’s reluctance to ask for help? Or did he want to live a more Spartan life? Many seminarians feel guilt (or at least what Sam’s security patrol partner Phil Olmstead calls “a cognitive dissonance”) about the comfort afforded them in the Edwardian drawing-room environment of Yale Divinity School, five blocks from the poverty of New Haven’s ghetto. Sam’s friend of 2 ½ years at YDS, Shep Parsons, says bluntly of Sam, “I definitely think he thought capitalism evil.” Paid for by the donations of the Rockefeller and Sterling families, Yale Divinity School’s campus could certainly be construed as a monument to capitalism.
For the last 20 years, YDS has had a casual system of grading. At one point there were no grades at all. As one professor said, “There are three grades at the divinity school: Honors, High Pass and Pass. High Pass is what everyone gets.” The clear impression was that the screening process of the admissions committee was the major hurdle at YDS. If you got in, it was assumed you could do the work. Whether you would do it was another matter, hence the chronic abuse of unfinished course work by many students.
Beau Weston uses a quote from the Quaker leader Geroge Fox to describe Sam Todd’s attitude: “He was not a light and chaffy man.” Corrie Dinnean, Sam’s study-break conversation companion in the library in 1982, says Sam had “that driven quality in him another person would name anxious . . . He was in the process of becoming a radical Christian who was going to get at the core of things. He wanted to be more than a liberal Christian who was going to do Band Aid work. If he committed suicide, jumped in the water, it’s weird that the body hasn’t turned up.”
When Todd began the fall semester, a notice was circulated to students from the director of studies, professor R. Lansing Hicks, that sent a chill through the student body. The catalogue for 1983-85 had included the possibility of “Failure” as a grade at YDS, but now, Hicks’ memo specified the faculty decision that “Incomplete” would automatically
become “Failure” on the transcript if course work wasn’t finished according to YDS regulations and deadlines. (Prior to this, “Incomplete” remained permanently on the transcript if course work was not made up.) This was the first time in 20 years at YDS that the spectre of “Failure” hovered over a student’s official transcript if the student didn’t complete course work. Things were tightening up at YDS ----and many students panicked.
When Sam left for Christmas break two weeks before he disappeared, he may have thought he was headed for academic probation in his final semester at YDS. Of the four courses he took first semester, his transcript indicates he had two “Incompletes” and a “Pass.” He surely knew he had the incompletes when he left for his break because he hadn’t finished the course work. But he may have feared that he had failed the course that he squeaked by with, with a “Pass,” for professors’ grades were not due in the registrar’s office until February 6. He had pre-registered for a extra –a fifth –course for his final semester, a heavy load even for someone who is not a procrastinator. Sam may have felt he couldn’t finish his two incompletes and keep up with five courses spring semester.
Sam had another problem too: He couldn’t have completed the 72 credits needed for graduation in May on time. A previous “Fail”, an “Incomplete” and a “Dropped” left Sam six credits short of the 72 credits necessary to graduate., even if he had passed all of the five courses he had pre-registered for, for spring semester, and made up the two incompletes he had when he left for Christmas break.
The matter of ordination was another question. When Sam first came to the divinity school, “there was no talk of ordination”, Joan Forsberg, Associate Dean of Students at YDS, recalls Even in his second year, ’82-’83, classmate Corrie Dinnean recalls that Sam was talking about doing “ Ph.D, work”. It was “where he was headed in the Religious Studies Department.” (The Divinity School does not offer a doctorate; the Religious Studies Department does.) By the end of his second year, however, Sam’s own transcript must have told him that while he was capable of Ph.D. work, he wasn’t motivated enough to produce the kind of record that would lead to it: “Incomplete”, “Dropped” and “Fail” don’t augur well for entrance into any doctoral program. He evidently had decided to try for ordination by the summer of ’83 ---one doesn’t usually take six credits of Hebrew in summer school for fun. By the end of fall semester, just before he disappeared, even that plan was shaking at the foundations: his Greek professor told his New Testament professor before final exams that “if Sam doesn’t get his act together, he isn’t going to pass Greek.” Sam squeaked through, but he may not have known he had at the time he disappeared.
It was the last days of what has come to be called the “golden era” at YDS. when faculty names like Niebuhr, Macintosh, Bainton, Weigle, Brown and Calhoun still rang through the halls and recollections were still vivid of the work of the Revised standard Version Committee, which sat for years at YDS making 5,000 emendations in the King James version of the Bible. Joan Forsberg and her husband visited the Todds in Geneva when Sam and his brothers were in their teens in the early ‘70’s. She recalls that when they stopped in, the Todds were waiting for a Philippine national from the church who was four days overdue and presumed missing. She recalls later hearing stories from the Todds about “refugees vanishing in Latin America.” The Todds themselves refer to this unique experience of persons vanishing, in their thank-you letter to the divinity students of August 1, 1984:
As we keenly miss Sam and are baffled by the mystery of his disappearance, we are filled with a sense of the unpredictability of life and the absurdity of the way things can happen. We think about the tragic disappearances and separations occurring all over the world ---the many “disappeared” people (some of them known to us) in Latin America and other places. We think of the thousands of people whose lives are suddenly cut off by wars, natural disasters, accidents, illness and crime. From our place of relative comfort and security, we have a sharper sense of the suffering of those whose family members and friends are missing in much more dire circumstances.
The reaction of Sam’s parents to those disappearances cannot have gone unnoticed by the sensitive young man Sam was becoming in Geneva. Sam saw firsthand exactly how much anguish such disappearances caused his parents, and he saw , too, that they did not shatter his parents’ theology. They coped, they carried on ---just as they have carried on since Sam’s disappearance.
If Sam felt rootless or homeless geographically, he may not have felt so in terms of his identity in the world. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Samuel Franklin, a social activist, and watched his father’s own career as a social activist grow from the urban problems of a ministry in Harlem to the global problems of urban centers at the World Council of Churches. Sam played the piano as a child, a talent his father displayed at after-dinner hymn sings at Yale Divinity School. And, ultimately, he would choose to attend his father’s alma mater with an interest in his father’s vocational interests: urban ministry and the problem of third-world countries. Indeed, Sue Weston remembers that Sam had a plan to get married and have “an inner-city urban ministry in Newark, N.J.” Sam was not only walking in his father’s footsteps, but remaining in his father’s shadow. And the shadow cast from a desk on the World Council of Churches was a long shadow indeed.
Sam is the third of four Todd sons, each spaced about two to three years apart. Even if the Todds had a full time governess, the realities of being a third born of four males so spaced apart cannot be denied: just as the first two are getting on their feet and demanding more attention, a fourth baby enters the picture making disproportionate demands. The third born in such a dynamic has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle.
David Marcus, the Miami Herald reporter who grew up with the Todd boys, recalls that “when peace groups organized a candlelight vigil to protest the war in Vietnam, Kathy [Sam’s mother] shepherded us down to Broadway at night, treating us to buttons and bumper stickers and answering our non-stop questions about the moratorium. She took us to the first Earth Day rally, and to Rockefeller Center at Christmas.” Sam may not only have been vying with his brothers for his parents’ attention, but also vying with his parents’ social concerns for his parents’ attention.
It may be significant, sadly, that when Sam first began planning to attend and actually matriculated at Yale Divinity School, one of his brothers began to develop debilitating emotional problems. Could it be that having pushed magic buttons for his parents’ attention (following in his father’s footsteps) Sam suddenly upset the equilibrium of the brothers’ vying process? Can it have escaped Sam’s notice subconsciously that the developing severity of his brother’s emotional problems coincided with his own journey toward and through Yale Divinity School? Could his refusal to complete that journey, by disappearing, have been a subconscious attempt to restore the equilibrium of that vying process, and perhaps thereby restore his brother’s emotional health? The central axiom of Tom Brown’s “Psychoanalysis, Parents and God” course at YDS is, “There are no accidents in the life of the mind.”
Or, could the opposite have been the case, subconsciously: “Here I am pushing every magic button I know to get my parents’ attention and approval by following in my father’s footsteps, and my brother gets sick and commands the attention I want”? Evidence is that Sam’s cultivated altruism would never have permitted him to think such thoughts consciously. But the conscious life of the mind is a life which lets us 'but slenderly know' ourselves. Sam’s Aunt Doris believes that Sam would never have caused this hurt to his weakened brother. Jill Tonelli agrees that Sam “loves his family too much” to have just run off.
Plaster saints sometimes crack.
Perhaps Sam’s selflessness had something to do with it, but the divinity students’ own selflessness wasn’t their only motivation. Shep Parsons, a third year M. Div. candidate, had made a deal with Dean Keck for those persons participating in the search to be relieved of their deadlines for unfinished course work. Is that what burgeoned the divinity searchers to 200 persons? “It’s what got me down there,” Parsons admits. Ian Straker, a second year M.Div. candidate at the time, agrees. Ironically, relief from one of the pressures that could have caused Sam to run away in the first place may also have ballooned the very search which kept Sam from reappearing quietly if he had so desired. The national media attention was riveted as much on the magnitude and quality of the search as a story as it was on Sam’s disappearance.
In their thank-you letter to the divinity school, Sam’s parents refer to the Columbus House as “the shelter and soup kitchen Sam helped to found.” The divinity school graduating class of 1983 gave a gift in Sam’s name to the Columbus House at the time of graduation ---a graduation that Sam Todd had at one time planned to participate in. De Louise was "surprised and pleased” by the gift and purposely perused Columbus House records to find out who Sam Todd was. She found nothing. Staff currently at the Christ Church and Fairhaven soup kitchens also do not recall Sam, but acknowledged that staff turnover in the last few years may be partially responsible for their ignorance. Could it be that a post-disappearance mythology about Sam as a volunteer for the poor has expanded Sam’s selflessness beyond the data?
Sam may have been selfless in a different way. Having grown up in a family of social activists, the language of selflessness may simply have been the only vernacular familiar to Sam, or available to express the unfolding personality and its overwhelming feelings during adolescence. This is not to denigrate the quality of Sam’s sincerity, but merely to observe that most of us sleepwalk out of our childhood, through adolescence into adulthood. Some of us awake gradually, others with a start or a fall.
Sue Weston remembers that “Sam was someone who was impressed with the possibilities for revolution.” She acknowledges, too, that Sam was “ a brooder . . . someone who returns often to the same problem.” What problem? “South Africa, the collapse of the U.S., nuclear war,” Weston says. Sam’s heroes, she says, were Karl Barth, the back-to-fundamentals Protestant theologian of this century who began his career in Geneva, and the Rev. Charles Bannana, a Zimbabwean revolutionary who had laid down his arms. “Sam admired him because he was working for the right thing but wasn’t a revolutionary,” she says. Beau Weston recalls that the “political arguments” he and Sam would have always boil down to one thing ---“national politics vs. individual action ---the question was what was the level needed to get things done.”
Shep Parsons tells of the “community art project” he had in his apartment the fall semester before Sam disappeared. It was a mural of sorts; each visitor to the apartment was asked to trace his or her hand on the wall. When Sam visited Shep, he traced his hand in the form of an upraised fist. It is the only upraised fist in the mural. Shep has thought about that off and on since Sam disappeared.
By the middle of fall semester there is evidence that a new feeling was creeping into Sam Todd’s personality, previously so grounded in the selflessness of global concerns for the oppressed. This feeling might be called the legitimacy of self. By November, when students were pre-registering for spring semester’s courses, Sam summoned the courage to try to share that new feeling with a professor on the YDS faculty. He had not had Professor North (a pseudonym) for any class, but a friend of Sam’s, knowing his troubled state of mind, recommended that he go see him. When Professor North unexpectedly introduced himself to Sam at coffee hour one morning, the ice seemed broken and Sam felt comfortable enough to later ask him for an appointment. (Sam didn’t know that Professor North had introduced himself intentionally, having heard from Sam’s friend that Sam was a “really troubled” young man.)
When Sam arrived at Professor North’s office, late in the afternoon, he "looked like someone threatening to become ill” ---pale and emaciated. (Corrie Dinnean says Sam always looked this way ----“skinny as a rail, utterly white, like a disaster area.”) Sam’s manner was “diffident, not pushy.” Was he “spacey and scattered”,” as one of his classroom professors called him? “I had the impression he was not in full control,” says North. “It troubled me that he was not able to put his thoughts together on his own behalf . . . He was not suicidal or I would have pursued him.”
They talked for over an hour. Sam was fumbling for words, so North began the conversation, “Let me tell you how it is for a lot of us . . . We have difficulty putting religion together in the context of the world we live in . . .This isn’t unusual. It’s what some of the great teachers are about.” Professor North cited Kierkegaard’s putting himself together at 25.” Sam liked this.
North was bothered that Sam seemed to have “no firsthand acquaintance with anything religious,” something from his own life, not that he’d “read in books.” He told Sam this, and Sam “didn’t react very well” to it. “I told him Christianity is a way of making sense of your life . . .He listened respectfully, thanked me, but didn’t respond.”
Did Sam feel that his own altruism was phony? “yes,” thinks North. He wasn’t sure at all about the kind of religion he was caught up in, this social action bit. He thought it was as ‘flakey’ as other kinds of piety he’d been involved in, and that bothered him. " I had the impression he was quarreling with his father’s kind of ministry.” At times during the meeting, North had the feeling that Sam was “on the verge of cracking,” on the verge of tears. As they parted, Professor North assured Sam that it was not a bother for Sam to come to him this way. “I am a teacher, this is my job . . .We should meet again.”
They did not meet again before Sam disappeared. North was not surprised by the disappearance. “Alcohol and running away fit into the picture,” as Professor North sees it. When Sam’s parents came to campus to speak to student groups helping in the search, Professor North was surprised by how upset they were by the disappearance. “”I wanted to tell them to cool it,” he says, but he didn’t. North did speak with Mrs. Todd, but told her only in the palest terms the nature of his meeting with Sam. It didn’t seem the correct moment to say more.
Sam seemed relieved at one point during his meeting with Professor North: We were talking about the disciplined life and I told him that after Wittgenstein had read Kierkegaard, he commented, "If I am supposed to give up my whole life I can’t become a Christian, because I’ve never been able to give up a cup of coffee.” Sam brightened.
Beau Weston points out that at the time he disappeared, Sam had just completed an exegesis paper for the New Testament on Luke 14, a passage which includes, among other verses, these two: “Go out quickly to the lanes of the city and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame” (14:21); and “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”(14:26). Professor North recalls that Sam “did say negative things about the church, but not his parents” in their meeting.
Shep Parsons tells a different story of what he believes happened at the party. His story is based on things Sam’s brothers Adam and John told him after the disappearance, things which mesh with his personal knowledge of the difficulty Sam was having breaking up with Jill. Shep’s personal knowledge is that Sam was “trying to get rid of Jill” and was “glad it was over with,” but that she was “hanging on tenaciously.” Sam “felt so guilty . . . here was this woman who really loved him . . . he didn’t have it together enough to end it.” Shep recounts what Adam and John told him about the Mulberry Street party. “Sam was blown away because Jill was there and he didn’t expect it. Sam was trying to get out from under her.”
Work and love: Freud says that a man who has conflicts in either or both of these areas can’t be happy. Sam appears to have had conflicts in both, conflicts between what he thought he ought to do, and what he actually wanted to do.
Another current theory, given the proximity of Houston Street to Greenwich Village’s gay community, is that some homophobic roughnecks, out for a joy ride on New Year’s Eve, spotted a lone walker on the street and decided to teach him a lesson, a fatal lesson, presuming that he must be gay. In repeating this theory which she heard at YDS graduation last year, Corrie Dinnean says she believes it is unlikely. She subscribes to the Police assertions that they’re usually pretty good at finding bodies –“Why wouldn’t they have found his body by now?” she asks.
Another theory, one the police detectives have questioned Beau and Sue Weston about, is that Sam may have been gay and just decided to stop living a lie any longer by vanishing into the gay underworld. This theory would explain Sam’s apparent renunciation of ordination, and would supply a conflict of sufficient intensity to make running away understandable. It would also provide his parents an opportunity to make a safe harbor for his return by spreading the word that they are neutral or even hospitable to such a lifestyle choice and would welcome Sam back, regardless.
But Shep Parsons says of Sam, I know he was not bisexual or gay,” and virtually all of Sam’s other friends agree. Of course, a person can lead a secret life or conceal his true feelings. And Sam’s propensity to take late night jogs (sometimes at 2:30 A.M.) provides a possibility for a clandestine life. But one would suspect that such a person would want to throw people off the track by avoiding gay persons in his everyday life, or perhaps even by acting outright homophobic. Sam did neither. He was benign on the gay issue and friendly with openly gay persons at YDS, even voicing his support to one of the gay leaders of YDS’s Gay/Straight Coalition, a support consistent with his interest in the oppressed.
What about the mental breakdown theory? Sam’s parents apparently consider this a possibility; their search includes alerting mental hospitals. There is the matter of emotional illness in the family, and Sue Weston remembers Sam once talking about “the difficulty of talking to troubled people,” referring to the painful situation in his family. One would have to believe that by now ---16 months later ---such a person wandering the streets or occupying a bed in a mental hospital would have been identified, given the extraordinary nature of the publicity surrounding this search. But America is an enormous land, as anyone who has traversed it knows, and one more “space cadet” wandering the streets or hitchhiking across the highways could go unidentified for years. How many people can you describe accurately after walking down a pedestrian-filled street? And if one were an expert on the homeless, and on how they survive via soup kitchens and shelters, one might be able to so survive ad infinitum even in a state of mental disrepair.
What about loose ends? Sam’s aunt says he had invited friends to visit at his parents’ Chicago home over Christmas break and was planning on hosting them. Beau Weston talked by phone to Sam twice on New Year’s Eve, trying to get him to come to his own family’s home that evening. There was no indication of an emotional problem. Sue Weston says, “I know Sam was coming back. He promised he’d wash the dishes before he left, and he left the casserole dish soaking.”
Sam Todd is still missing; that is the disturbing reality. If he was driven underground in terror of return after the sudden magnitude and rapidity of the search for him, has anything changed, to make his return easier? With the search lights so bright in the harbor, how could anyone slip quietly back?
Sam’s file is still very active with the New York Police Department’s Bureau of Missing Persons, and his description appears on the FBI’s nationwide computer network. The Bureau has received hundreds of “sightings” of Sam from around the country ---each has been tracked down, checked out, so far to no avail. The most promising lead to date, a sighting by YDS student Marlene Gill, who believes she saw Sam near the Columbia School for Social Work in Manhattan in late September, is still being investigated. In recent weeks the Department has also been reviewing passport applications, in case Sam has decided to leave the country.May, 1985