From Religious Family to Reins of Deadly Cult

New York Times/March 29, 1997
By Jacques Steinberg

He would leave this Earth as the leader of a cult who was known as Bo and then Do, but back in 1948, Marshall Herff Applewhite was a glad-handing, beanie-wearing freshman who was simply called Herff.

His roommate that year at Austin College was John Alexander, who recalls his friend as having a magnetic personality, but one that he put to only positive uses -- as a leader of the a cappella choir, the judiciary council and the campus association of prospective Presbyterian ministers.

"He was religious, but he was not fanatically religious at all," Alexander, a retired minister, said Friday in a telephone interview. "He was an extrovert. He was popular. He was very smart. He was not pushy.

"Herff wasn't weird or strange or anything like that," he added. "You just wonder what makes a person do such a radical change."

That "change" would ultimately lead to the deaths of Applewhite and 38 of his followers in a California mansion earlier this month, the culmination of the more than 20 years he spent roaming the country and preaching about U.F.O.'s, calling them the gateway to a better world.

But those who knew Applewhite in the first 40 years of his life -- as a likable, roving minister's son growing up in South Texas, as a talented choir director at a church in North Carolina, and, later, as an energetic music professor in Houston -- find it difficult to pinpoint what went wrong, and when.

The only real theory offered yesterday was by his older sister, Louise Winant, 69, who said her brother had undergone a "near death" experience in the early 1970s, when he was hospitalized in Houston with a heart blockage.

"One of the nurses there told him he had a purpose, that God kept him alive," Ms. Winant said Friday. "She sort of talked him into the fact that this was the purpose -- to lead these people -- and he took it from there."

Ms. Winant said that nurse was Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, who would become a companion to the then-divorced Applewhite and who would join him, soon afterward, on the first leg of his evangelical journey. He began calling himself Bo, to Ms. Nettles's Peep, and then Do to her Ti. Ms. Winant said neither she, nor his two grown children, had ever seen Applewhite again.

"He had a family that's normal and that's grieving for him," Ms. Winant said, adding that she was in close contact with his former wife, Ann, and two children, whom she declined to identify. "You don't stop loving family, even when they go wrong."

Applewhite grew up in a family that was, by all accounts, loving, but perpetually nomadic. Marshall Herff Applewhite Sr. was a Presbyterian minister who, along with his wife, Louise, moved his family every few years, from one town to the next in South Texas, founding and building churches at each stop. Ms. Winant said the family included her younger sister, who is now 67 and whom she would not identify, and a profoundly retarded brother who lives in a state-operated home in Texas.

In the early 1950s, said Floyd Chapman, the president of the Corpus Christi Electric Co., the elder Applewhite helped him and his fellow congregants build the Parkway Presbyterian Church and stayed on as minister for the first year.

"He was a good organizer," Chapman said of the elder Applewhite. "He built our church up to a couple of hundred members pretty quick."

"He smiled a lot," Chapman added. "He gave you a warm feeling. And his wife was a hard worker. She handled the choir and played the piano."

After graduating from Corpus Christi High School in 1948, the younger Applewhite sought to follow in his father's footsteps, enrolling in Austin College outside Dallas with dreams of becoming a minister himself.

But those dreams quickly competed with Applewhite's lifelong love of music. Alexander, his roommate, remembers Applewhite recruiting him for the choir and can still hear his deep baritone -- whether during an old Negro spiritual, Brahms's "Requiem" or Handel's "Messiah."

Applewhite was a philosophy major, and he and Alexander took several philosophy courses together, becoming particularly entranced with a professor named Glen Maxwell, who first introduced them to Plato, Aristotle and John Locke.

"He really taught you to ask the right kind of questions, to not go along with the crowd," Alexander said of the teacher, whom Applewhite would list as a reference on his resume, 20 years later. "I don't know if that relates at all to what Herff did later. I would doubt it does."

After graduating from Austin College in 1952, Applewhite enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary of Virginia in Richmond to take a three-year course of studies that was to end with his being ordained a Presbyterian minister. During his first semester, he took courses on the Old and New Testaments, theology and the practice of ministry.

But he quickly discovered that it was the call of music that spoke to him loudest, so he dropped out and moved to Gastonia, N.C., near Charlotte, where he took a position as the director of music at the First Presbyterian Church.

"He had a beautiful voice," said Edith Warren, who provided piano accompaniment to the children's choir, which Applewhite led. "He was a very personable person. He was a strong leader."

Applewhite and his wife, the former Ann Pearce, were newlyweds at the time, as were Mrs. Warren and her husband. The two couples spent many evenings having dinner during Applewhite's two years at the church, and Mrs. Warren said she found it difficult to reconcile her sweet memories of those times with the pictures she had seen on television this week.

"We just enjoyed each other," she said. "We had a lot of fun. We talked a lot about music. He cooked some. He loved lamb."

The Applewhites had to leave the city when he was drafted in 1954. They spent the next two years in Salzburg, Austria, and then White Sands, N.M., where he was an instructor in the Army Signal Corps. He was given an honorable discharge in 1956, according to a 1974 resume provided by his sister.

What followed, in the next two decades, were a series of stops in various states and jobs, all of them connected to music. According to his resume, he worked as an occupational therapist at a tuberculosis sanatorium near Boulder, Colo., as a "cantorial soloist with a reformed temple" near Houston, as a "singer and conductor both in community cultural music and commercial music" in New York City and as the head of the music department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where, he said, he also taught English literature in the summer school.

During those years, Ms. Winant recalled, her brother was deeply devoted to his children.

"He once found a tree and put it in his Volkswagen Beetle," she said. "He put the tree in the living room of his house in Houston. He painted it white and hung turquoise decorations on it. It wasn't a Christmas tree, just a fun tree for the kids when they were little."

At some point, well before he met Ms. Nettles in the early 1970s, Applewhite divorced. By the time he met Ms. Nettles, those who knew him had begun notice that he was beginning to unravel.

Patsy Swayze, the mother of the actor Patrick Swayze, who worked with Applewhite in a theater group in Houston, said she remembered many of the actors and actresses gossiping that their "normally well-spoken" colleague was suddenly starting "to act strangely, talking about UFO's and preaching this strange religion."

Around this time, he traveled to his sister's house in Dallas to say goodbye.

"He told me he wasn't going to see us anymore," she said. "I said to him, 'What's the matter with you. That's not the real you.' His response was, 'You just don't know the real me."'

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