Bernard Wheatley, Black American Hermit

The story of Bernard Wheatley (1919-1991) is notable because he was a black American and a physician, but left his career, moving to Hawaii to become a hermit. Reprint of an article about Bernard Wheatley in Ebony Magazine, December, 1959. Includes many captioned photos not reprinted here. Available from Google Books:

Bernard Wheatley, MD

[title:] The Doctor Who Lives As A Hermit
[byline:] Brilliant surgeon finds peace of mind in cave

He has been called a crank, a holy man, a schizophrenic and a genius. Fourteen years ago, when he graduated from Meharry Medical College at the top of his class, he was called the doctor most likely to succeed. He went on to make brilliant records as an intern and surgeon in New York and Sweden. By working days and nights, Saturdays and Sundays, he pulled himself to the top rung of the medical ladder. Then, with everything the world values within his reach, Dr. Bernard Gamaliel Wheatley jumped -- or fell.

He gave away his medical equipment, his faultlessly-tailored suits, his nylon underwear. He abandoned friends and family and set out to literally live the teachings of Jesus. Today, after six years of wandering in Europe and America, he lives in a cave in the rugged uninhabited Kalalau Valley on Hawaii's Kauai Island.

Insulated from the "commercial world" he loathes by an ocean and steep black lava cliffs, he eats wild fruit, bathes in a mountain waterfall and communes with God and his nearest neighbors -- plodding goats and soaring seagulls. He is God-happy and content. He says the delights he found in civilization were bitter, the men he knew were dull and the medicine he practiced was spurious. He says the legendary Kalalau Valley is the only place he has found where a man can be honest 24 hours a day.

In an ironic twist of fate, the world Dr. Wheatley renounced has come to him. His bold rejection of the values most men live by and his determination to be what he believes have made him an attraction in Hawaii. His valley can only be reached by boat (the pounding surf makes landing dangerous) or a lung-busting, two-day climb over treacherous mountains. Despite these inconveniences, men have beaten a path to his cave, which sits under the shoulder of a majestic cliff, a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean. They come with gifts -- canned goods, sugar, matches -- and questions.

Why does he live there?

How does he survive?

What secrets has he learned in the wilderness of Kalalau?

What caused the transformation from a successful surgeon to a love-preaching hermit whose contempt for the value of money has landed him in jail?

The lean, 41-year-old doctor says he lives in the wilderness for a very simple reason: it offers larger possibilities of life. "On the outside," he says, "I constantly feel limitations around me. The instinctive reaction to a new situation is fear. There is so much that is negative in the world, so many people to say, 'That's impossible.' Here in the valley I feel no fear or limitation. . . . Here there is more than just quietness. There is a big peace."

For almost two years now, Dr. Wheatley has lived a life of primitive simplicity in the peace and stillness of the Kalalau Valley. He rises with the sun and forages, like an animal, for his food -- guava, taro, mangoes, opihi. He eats little. Food, he says, dulls the mind. He has, on occasions, gone for days without a morsel of food. In emergencies, when wild fruit is scarce, he dines on cactus leaf (which tastes, he says, like string beans) and meat (which he dislikes).

"I've killed five goats since I came," he says, "but I've decided against killing more. A goat is such a graceful creature in life. In death, it loses all of its beauty."

Dr. Wheatley has turned his back on many things, but he clings to certain values he learned at his mother's knee. He loves beauty and order. He keeps his cave and his clothes spotlessly clean. He washes his Gl-issue pants and T-shirts in a waterfall behind his cave, puts them on wet and dries them with the heat of his body.

Everything in his cave has a place and everything is in place. The sand floor is terraced in two levels. On the first level is the kitchen area. Above the kitchen, in niches in the lava rocks, are his silverware and cooking utensils. On the second terrace is a Spartan strip of canvas upon which he sleeps. He had a sleeping bag several months ago, but he gave it to a camper who was kind to him. All he has for warmth is an army fatigue jacket and an old blanket. The headboard of his bed is a driftwood log, which is covered with red onion sackings. He has no firearms.

In front of the cave, which is about 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep, are neat geometrical footpaths. He insists that visitors use these paths. "You see," he explains, "there is great beauty in the sand with the sun or moonlight upon it. Footprints destroy it. And I've found that of all the requirements for survival, beauty is the most important."

The man of the cave is impressive and commanding. He is powerfully-built and there is not an ounce of fat on his six-foot frame. He smiles easily, but he is quick to anger. Once, it is said, a camper riled him by saying the wrong thing. The doctor stalked away and refused to open his mouth for the rest of the day.

One of his striking peculiarities is his steadfast refusal to eat with people. "You see," he explains, "most people think I'm crazy. They can't wait to tell me what a big fool I am. However, when they realize I am intelligent and well educated, they become a little frightened. But if I accept an invitation to eat with them they seem to feel, invariably, that this gives them the right to force their opinions upon me. I have a violent temper and I prefer avoiding giving way to it."

Jesus and Buddha

When the mood is upon him, Dr. Wheatley is persuasive and articulate. He can quote for hours from the works of Freud, Jung, Schopenhauer, Kant and Tolstoy. He has read deeply in the New Testament and the religious literature of the East. And he is familiar with the esoteric doctrines of the alchemists, spiritualists and Rosicrucians. His heroes are Jesus and Buddha.

He says the solution to all the problems of the world lies in the teachings of Jesus. "You may say," he adds, "that I am experimenting to prove that there is a practical basis for all of Christ's teaching. After the first three weeks in Kalalau Valley I became aware that the anxiety and fear and doubt which seems to characterize our life in the city vanishes." He is writing a book on successful living.

Dr. Wheatley has no respect for the opinions and institutions of "normal" men. He says the Christian Church is a bankrupt institution which has perverted the pure teachings of Jesus. Neither the church nor the medical profession, he says, understands man.

Man, Dr. Wheatley contends, is a potential God. It is possible, he adds, for the human mind to tap the mind of God and for the human mind so inspired to lead the body to accomplish anything or the spirit to withstand and overcome any stress in the entire world.

The doctor-turned-mystic is critical of his former colleagues. "Shooting people with penicillin," he says, "is no better way of curing disease than shooting hydrogen missiles is a means of curing war."

His rejection of medicine, he says, was hastened by a heart attack he suffered in 1951 in Sweden. "I became struck," he continues, "with the similarity between psychosomatic medicine and the teachings of Christ -- how closely hate and fear and anxiety are related to heart disease, high blood pressure, peptic ulcer, diabetes mellitus. Finally, I made up my mind to go directly to the cause of disease instead of treating the symptoms. In a moment of lucidity, I saw all the way to the fact that man could overcome death and could control his health by living a life of love."

Two years later, in 1953, Dr. Wheatley sat down and took a long look at his life. He came to the conclusion that although he knew a great many facts he knew nothing of any real value. Finally, he says, his mind settled on the advice Jesus gave to a rich young man. "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven; and come and follow me."

The doctor of medicine took upon himself the burden of Jesus' words. He put on tennis shoes and shabby clothes and went out into the world looking for the God that had become more real to him than scalpels and stethoscopes. It is of some interest that Dr. Wheatley -- who believes in a liberal interpretation of Jesus' words -- disobeyed him at one point. Instead of selling his personal goods, valued at more than $10,000, he gave them away. His family, he says, took it hard.

'Old Testament' Environment

Nothing in this man's life pointed to the dramatic encounter he had with his God. He was born well, the third youngest of 12 children of a grocer in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He was raised, he says, in a strict, "Old Testament" environment.

In 1938, Bernard won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He literally ran through Fisk, establishing outstanding records as an athlete (football, tennis) and Man About Campus (president of the student council, co-chairman of the Student-Faculty Council). He was graduated with a B.A. degree, cum lande, in 1942. At Meharry Medical College, he won every prize offered. When he was graduated in 1945, he had accumulated an astounding 934 points out of a possible 1,000.

On this one point, all of his classmates agree: Bernard was destined to go far. A New York doctor says: "I have never known a man so absolutely brilliant, a man who knew so much about everything and could do anything."

The testimony on other facets of his personality is less than unanimous. Some of his Meharry classmates remember him as an introspective student who kept pretty much to himself. Others say he made friends easily. One doctor says Bernard was "not much of a ladies man." Another doctor says: "He excelled at everything and that includes women." He was not, it is said, particularly religious, although he observed the duties of his Congregationalist faith. Some of his classmates say he showed no interest in race. Others say he "felt his race keenly."

Race And Rumors of Race

The thing that mattered most during the next two years of Bernard's life was not what he thought about race, but what others thought about it. After interning at Brooklyn's Coney Island Hospital, he tried, without success, to get a residency in surgery at a top American hospital. Finally, he gave up in disgust and returned to the Virgin Islands.

This, it is said, was the turning point in his life.

Dr. John W. Parker, a Brooklyn surgeon, who was Dr. Wheatley's roommate at Fisk and Meharry, says: "He was bitter about the race problem here and constantly chafed at the many irritations and restrictions it caused him. The turning point in his life came, I believe, in 1946 when he was rejected after applying for a surgical internship at ------- Hospital in Boston. Three men were interviewed and there were two appointments made. All three men -- Bernard was the only Negro -- took the same test. After the test one of the examining doctors took Bernard aside and spoke to him confidentially. 'You got the best score on the examination, but you don't stand a chance of being appointed,' he told him. Bernard was not accepted.
. . . This was the real blow that crushed him. He had a different outlook after that. He simply lost interest."

While practicing in the Virgin Islands, Dr. Wheatley met a Swedish physician who helped him get an appointment at Central Hospital in Eskilstuna, Sweden. He made a brilliant record at the Swedish hospital, was well known and liked by his friends and colleagues. Some people say he married a Swedish girl, but this assertion is denied in Sweden. Dr. John Eriksson, who was his superior, says: "He was a good surgeon and a nice man."

At this happy moment in his career, Dr. Wheatley was seized by a longing for God. A change came over him. "He became," one of his friends say, "a religious fanatic." This transition was not accomplished without a mental upheaval. Dr. Wheatley disappeared three times. The last time he was found naked in a Stockholm park. He was treated for a nervous breakdown. In 1953, he went to Paris, where his brother, a pianist, lives. He wandered around Europe for a while and then came to America.

He turned up unexpectedly at the homes of several of his classmates. They were shocked by his appearance and the sudden change in his personality. "It was like meeting a completely different man, one doctor says. He walked from New York to California.

In Chicago, he was a guest in the home of the Reverend William J. Faulkner, who was dean of chapel when Wheatley was a student at Fisk University. He told Faulkner that he wanted to found a center for the propagation of his philosophy. Faulkner replied in a lighthearted vein that Hollywood would be just the place for the center. Both men laughed.

Wheatley's conversion, however, was no laughing matter -- to Wheatley or Faulkner. "He had," Faulkner recalls, "a preoccupied look, as if he were in another world, which, to him, was very real. It seemed as if it were a matter of life and death."

A few months later, Wheatley turned up in Hawaii. He worked for a while as a dessert maker in a restaurant. He quit this job. "I found," he says, "that at the end of the day I had spent so much energy arguing with the waitresses that I had none left for creative thinking."

When a man who knows Wheatley heard this explanation, he said; "That sounds typical of him. He was probably telling them what stupid, narrow lives they lead and they were telling him he was crazy. And probably, they were all right, in a way."

Wheatley's last job was at the Central YMCA in Honolulu. He was desk clerk. He quit this job because he didn't think it was right to charge poor people for rooms.

Although he had no visible means of support, Dr. Wheatley lived well in Honolulu. He played tennis at the exclusive Royal Hawaiian Hotel tennis courts. He had a room at the Waikiki Biltmore Hotel. In October, 1956, he was charged with running up a bill of $325 at the hotel and walking out without paying it. He was arrested in January, 1957, on the island of Kauai, and returned to Honolulu for trial. He was
acquitted, however, when the bill was paid -- presumably by a supporter. Later he was accused of running up a bill at the Kauai Inn on Kauai Island. He was jailed but the bill was paid when he placed a mysterious telephone call to the small town of Wahiawa on Oahu Island.

Three months later, in April, 1957, Dr. Wheatley turned his back on the world and went into Kalalau Valley. "My guess," a friend of his says, "is that these experiences are what finally drove him out of the world and into Kalalau. To a man of his sensitivity, I should think an arrest and appearance in court with attendant publicity would be a sort of final stamp of social disapproval in his mind."

During his first few weeks in the valley, Dr. Wheatley almost died.

"The first night," he says, "I slept under a grove of mango trees beside a stream. The next day I found the cave. I tried to make a fire by rubbing sticks together but it didn't work. For five days I lived on guavas. On the sixth day some Portuguese fishermen came to fish off the beach. They gave me one book of matches and a little rice. The first time I stayed for 23 days. Then I became constipated because of
the guava seeds. The pain was pretty bad for about five days. Finally, I flagged down a passing sampan and the crew took me to Lihue Hospital."

Five weeks later, the hermit was back in the valley, armed with a mess kit and a change of clothing. He has been there ever since, except for a period of several months when he travelled to the islands of Molokai and Lanai. He makes infrequent trips out of the wilds of Kalalau, trudging over the winding seven-mile trail to the small village of Haena. He enjoys describing his way of life and expounding on the philosophy of Jesus to anyone willing to listen. The natives love him and consider him a messiah. Some of the children have been heard to say that he is a god.

In Hawaii and on the mainland, Dr. Wheatley's name is on many lips. There is, for example, considerable speculation over the reason for his sudden withdrawal from civilization. It is said, in some circles, that unrequited love drove him into the wilderness. Bob Krauss, the Honolulu columnist who went into Kalalau to interview Wheatley, doubts this. Krauss says, however, that Wheatley's contacts with women are extremely interesting. There are, he reports, several women in Honolulu who say that Wheatley was (before his withdrawal) an aggressive suitor. And he has strong opinions on love and marriage. He told Krauss:

"I was quite a cat with the women in Sweden where it was easier for me. (This reference to race, Krauss says, was made without heat). I made out very well. Then once I was with a girl when I looked into her face and saw such purity it frightened me. Actually, it was like looking into a blinding light."

What did you do? he was asked.

"I went away from there."

What happened to her?

"She probably got married to some man who was completely insensitive. I've found that sensitive people often marry perfect swine. I guess it keeps the world balanced."

Wheatley is very pessimistic about the married state. He says he has found it necessary on many occasions to move in and help "sensitive" partners over the violent objections of their mates. His feeling that he is ordained to teach, to bring understanding to the world has gotten him into a few scrapes. Some of the male partners objected to his "meddling" and threatened violence.

"Most married people," Wheatley says, "appear to me to be unhappy about it. They keep saying, 'I'd do this or that -- if I weren't married.' I get the impression they'd prefer not to be."

He admits, however, that a good marriage would be "wonderful since you would have someone to give your love to. If it were perfect, I should think one would be able to fly."

The hermit uses the expression "flying" or "lightness" in relation to happiness or spiritual ecstasy.

Wheatley's unconventional life and his strong opinions on delicate areas of human relations have made strong impressions on Hawaiian citizens. Among the people he has impressed are:

George Peebles, tennis pro at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel: "He really is quite a wonderful fellow but he's short circuited somewhere. He ran up a bill of about $30 bringing his friends in to play and buying one fellow a pair of shoes. Then he disappeared. Months later I got a money order covering the account. After a while, Bernard turned up again. He started charging once more. Finally, his bill got up to $75. Then he left again. I never have been paid. I'll get the money eventually, I suppose. I don't really care. . . . Not too long ago I got a letter from him, 10 pages. It was a very interesting thing. The gist of it, I guess was that I'd get my reward in Heaven. I'd loan him $10 right now, if he asked me for it. I consider him my friend, but I wouldn't advise anybody else to do it."

Don Over, publisher of Builders Report: "Wheatley came to me one day (during the approximately two years he lived in Honolulu) and said a friend of his  had told him I'd give him $50. This mutual friend had called me sometime before Wheatley arrived and told me to take care of his friend. I finally gave Wheatley $5. At that period I was working 12 hours a day and I didn't see why I had to support this guy so he could go on believing God would take care of him. Why should I give him money so he could go and play tennis?"

Anna of Vienna, one of Honolulu's leading dress designers: "He is very intelligent, very well read. I wondered at first if this was real. But when I got him into a conversation with several very intelligent friends of mine he acquitted himself very well. I found him extremely interesting. But, then, I am always interested in strange characters."

Pauline Craig, a woman of about 30 who wants to be a writer: "I met Wheatley on a camping trip at Kalalau Valley. He's a wonderful person and he has a great deal to say. I'm very interested in his philosophy."

John J. Jordan, Honolulu radio announcer: "I met Wheatley when I was a patient in the Municipal Hospital in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Dr. Wheatley was treating the patient in the bed next to mine, for a brain concussion. We didn't meet again until the end of 1956 when they had him in jail on Kauai for non-payment of his Kauai Inn hotel bill. He was lounging in his cell as if nothing in the world was wrong, very poised and relaxed. He asked me if I could fix it so he could call Wahiawa. I did and he made the call. The next day the hotel bill was paid. My opinion as to why he didn't pay the hotel bills is that it just wasn't important to him. He just got tired of staying at the hotel and walked off. He had more important things to think about than money."

Bob Krauss, Honolulu columnist who interviewed Wheatley in Kalalau Valley: "In spite of more practical considerations to the contrary, I received an overpowering impression in the valley of Kalalau that I had met a truly holy man. Also, that he is one man who honestly tries to live by his beliefs without compromise. If he were living in India hardly anybody would find him unusual. In our society, he is an object
of curiosity and suspicion."

Bernard Gamaliel Wheatley is not moved by curiosity, suspicion or the disapproval of his peers. The world is coming to an end, he says. There will be a cataclysmic war and all will be destroyed. In the meantime, he says, "Try not to judge others. There is no way of knowing which of us will finally be most important in the scheme of things."

- END -

NOTE: An entry on the Trails Journal issue of December 2006; adds the following information about Bernard Wheatley:

"A member of the Robinson family (who own the Island of Ni'ihau and 51,000 acres of Kauai) told me that he remembers traveling into Kalalau as a boy in the 50's & 60's by mule. He mentioned that Dr. Wheatley was a very congenial & philosophical man. The cave where Wheatley lived was meticulously clean -- he had made a stone floor out of smooth river rocks & had even built what he called the 'guest room' for infrequent visitors that ventured into Kalalau.

By the summer of '69, increasing numbers of hippies were arriving in Kalalau & Dr. Wheatley felt that he had lost the peace, quiet & solitude that he cherished. In the latter part of 1969, Dr. Wheately abandoned Kalalau and moved to Wailua on the east side of Kauai, where he spent the rest of his life. He passed on December 3, 1991 at the age of 72. His ashes were spread in Kalalau."

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