A BRILIANT STUDENT'S TROUBLED LIFE AND EARLY DEATH
ROBBINS, WILLIAM New York Times (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Aug 25, 1980 .  pg. A.20
Companies: Michigan State University (NAICS: 611310addNaic('611310') )
Author(s): ROBBINS, WILLIAM
Dateline: DAYTON, Ohio
Section: A
Publication title: New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Aug 25, 1980.  pg. A.20
Source type: Newspaper
ISSN: 03624331
Text Word Count 2302

Abstract (Document Summary)

Like many youths of his technical interests and ability he was attracted to the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkein, author of ''The Hobbit'' and ''The Lord of the Rings.'' He had joined a group called the Tolkien Society and frequently played the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. The game, which is supervised by a dungeon master, pits players against obstacles, wizards and monsters, and the players often assume characters like those in Tolkien's books.

What none of them seemed to know was that the prodigy, so gifted that he had forged ahead of his teachers in computer courses, could also write poetry. One poem, dated July 24, 1979, three weeks before his disappearance, was entitled ''Final Destination.'' It reads: Sittin' in my Chevy On a country road, My engine and my radio have left me all alone. What a place to break down, A thousand miles from home, Where mine are the only tracks that I see in the snow ... Has it been five minutes or has an hour gone by While watching Mother Nature Paint the windows white And drinking glovebox whisky To warm me up inside? Probably a town up ahead, Maybe a farm. Probably could make it, Wouldn't be too hard ... Whenever I decide there's a place I'd like to be, Soon as I can find there's a goal to be achieved, Come the time I'm shown that there's something left for me, then I'll go, But until then I think I'd rather sleep.

''I should have picked up on it,'' said Dr. Egbert. ''I just didn't see how he could be so brilliant and not be good at coping with social situations.''

Full Text (2302   words)
Copyright New York Times Company Aug 25, 1980

The parents of James Dallas Egbert 3d, once proud and optimistic about their brilliant son, are now mourning his death and his troubled life.

A bullet, fired by the 17-year-old boy's own hand, the police believe, destroyed a mind that could leap from the intricacies of computer science to composition of sensitive poems. But long before that, even before he disappeared from Michigan State University last year and became the object of a highly publicized nationwide search, he had been isolated from people his own age and thinking of suicide.

His parents, anguished because their efforts to help him finally came to nothing, have now decided to permit the facts to be told about the boy's disappearance - kept a mystery, they said, at the urging of a flamboyant private detective who wanted them to sell movie rights to the story.

''It was never all that exciting,'' said Anna Egbert, the boy's mother. ''He just got on a bus and went as far as his money would take him.''

First Suicide Attempt

At the end of that journey, Dallas Egbert, then 16 years old, feeling alienated from parents and peers, made his first attempt at suicide. In a hotel room in New Orleans, he drank a bottle of poisoned root beer, only to awaken the next morning surprised to be alive. For a time he worked as a laborer in a southern Louisiana oilfield and it was only after some companions persuaded him to call home that he discovered that his disappearance had excited nationwide curiosity.

His successful suicide attempt came a year later. On Aug. 11, in a fit of drug-aggravated depression in a drab little apartment here, he put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Dayton policemen found Dallas bleeding and unconscious early that day.

For six days Dallas lay in a coma. He was pronounced legally dead Aug. 16, life-support systems were removed from his body and parts of his body were given to patients needing them in several hospitals.

Mrs. Egbert and her husband, Dr. James D. Egbert 2d, an optometrist, confirmed the disclosures of a young man who was Dallas's friend and is believed to have been his only young confidant. With the parents' approval, the young man told the full story, after imposing the condition that only his first name, David, be used.

Family Established Fund

Not the least of the parents' problems, the Egberts and their son's psychologist said, have been the consequences of letting the detective, later supported by young Dallas, persuade them to keep silent about the circumstances of their son's 28-day disappearance. For a year they have been besieged by newspapers, television reporters and would-be agents for a film.

They decided to let David discuss the disappearance in the hope of attracting contributions to the Dallas Egbert Memorial Fund, which they established to help other gifted but troubled youths. The fund, to be administered by the Wright State University Foundation, is intended to create a clinic. The parents said they also hope that once the full story is told they can escape the notoriety that they say has tortured them.

''The family is very stressed,'' said Dr. Lawrence Reed, a psychologist who treated the boy. ''I have been on the phone with them talking almost every day, in fact, for hours.''

Finished High School at 14

The disclosures close a chapter in a family tragedy whose outline emerged from an inquiry by The New York Times into the circumstances of Dallas's life and death, including interviews with classmates, teachers, neighbors, the private detective and police investigators.

Dallas's parents recalled that he knew the alphabet at the age of 2, could read at 3 and entered kindergarten at 4. He finished high school at 14, after completing three years of work in two. When he entered Michigan State University at 15, his I.Q. was listed as 145, but his teachers described a brilliance far above that level.

But brilliance, coupled with immaturity, isolated him from his peers, and he was the target of wounding epithets from classmates. At the university he sought acceptance from a small group of homosexuals and continued to find it hard to establish deep friendships.

''Alienation is a good word for it,'' said Dr. Reed. ''He was completely alienated - from his parents, from his peers, from everyone.''

The publicity that came to plague the family grew out of bizarre theories pursued first by the Michigan State Police and then by the private detective, William C. Dear, when Dallas was reported missing from his dormitory at Michigan State University Aug. 15, 1979.

Attracted to Tolkien

Like many youths of his technical interests and ability he was attracted to the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkein, author of ''The Hobbit'' and ''The Lord of the Rings.'' He had joined a group called the Tolkien Society and frequently played the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. The game, which is supervised by a dungeon master, pits players against obstacles, wizards and monsters, and the players often assume characters like those in Tolkien's books.

There was speculation, widely printed, that Dallas might have run into foul play while engaged in a real-life version of the game, or that he might have got lost or trapped while playing it in the hot and humid 8.5 miles of steam tunnels that form a network under the campus. Investigators also combed places frequented by homosexuals for clues.

Left behind in his room was a note that said, ''To whom it may concern: Should my body by found, I wish to be cremated.'' It was treated as a ploy in the fantasy game.

When the parents protested the publicity, they said, Mr. Dear persuaded them that the news stories and the accompanying pictures offered one of the best hopes of turning up witnesses and clues.

And while the search was under way, with national interest growing, they said, Mr. Dear broached the idea that Dallas's story could be sold for a motion picture. Dr. Egbert said he began thinking of something like a documentary, ''something that would be truthful as opposed to something that was just for entertainment, or some kind of mystery story.''

When the police began pursuing their theories on the East Lansing campus, young Dallas had already taken a bus to Chicago and then a train to New Orleans, looking for a place to end his life. In New Orleans he took a potion laced with cyanide, but survived.

Finding himself alive with no money, David said, the boy wandered around New Orleans for a few days before he saw a notice posted at a church by an oilfield-service company seeking laborers. Dallas rode a company van to a small southern Louisiana town and moved into a dormitory for laborers. It was a place and a job, David said, where Dallas could work and not have to think.

After about three weeks, companions persuaded him to call home, but he refused to tell his mother where he was, though she was able to persuade him to call Mr. Dear, the detective.

''Bill Dear was a smooth talker,'' Mrs. Egbert said, adding that he was able to persuade Dallas to come home. The detective rented a small jet and flew to Louisiana to retrieve him.

Detective Got Instructions

At his luxurious home and headquarters in a Dallas suburb, Mr. Dear, who asks $500 to $700 a day plus expenses for his company's services, gave an account of how he retrieved the youth.

He said that when Dallas called the boy had been weeping and an older man said in the background, ''Cool it, man.'' In a second call, he said, the boy gave elaborate instructions about how to approach the building where he would be found. He said he found Dallas sitting alone in a room in a ''drab kind of building for transients.''

After that, David said, Mr. Dear excited Dallas about the prospects for a movie script, and Dallas helped him persuade the parents. Dallas, said Mrs. Egbert, ''had dollar signs in his eyes.'' He wanted to be independent, the parents said, and he was concerned about the financial damage he had caused them, as well as the costs of going back to college. According to David, the search cost $40,000.

For their part, the parents said, they wanted to do what their son wanted and, for a time, they gave Mr. Dear power of attorney to deal with film companies. Later, however, they became increasingly concerned for their privacy and rescinded the authority.

Much of what led to Dallas's flight and suicidal feelings is clear from the talks with David, Dallas's parents and others.His high school teachers and classmates gave descriptions that sometimes conflicted, but what recurred in all of their remarks was an image of loneliness. Over and over they said: ''He was a loner.''

Also Wrote Poetry

What none of them seemed to know was that the prodigy, so gifted that he had forged ahead of his teachers in computer courses, could also write poetry. One poem, dated July 24, 1979, three weeks before his disappearance, was entitled ''Final Destination.'' It reads: Sittin' in my Chevy On a country road, My engine and my radio have left me all alone. What a place to break down, A thousand miles from home, Where mine are the only tracks that I see in the snow ... Has it been five minutes or has an hour gone by While watching Mother Nature Paint the windows white And drinking glovebox whisky To warm me up inside? Probably a town up ahead, Maybe a farm. Probably could make it, Wouldn't be too hard ... Whenever I decide there's a place I'd like to be, Soon as I can find there's a goal to be achieved, Come the time I'm shown that there's something left for me, then I'll go, But until then I think I'd rather sleep.

By that time, David said, Dallas was growing bored with computer studies and other courses and was more deeply interested in writing poetry.

'Caricature of a Whiz Kid'

From his early years in school, Dallas was younger and smaller than his classmates. Donald Sheer, his seventh grade science teacher, and later an assistant principal at Wayne High School, which Dallas attended, remembers: ''He was almost a caricature of a whiz kid, a little kid with big glasses carrying a big briefcase and computers.'' He also remembers, ''Changing classes he was always walking by himself.''

Conrad Campbell, head of the math department, who also taught computer science, said: ''He was ahead of me. I admitted immediately I couldn't meet him head on.''

One classmate recalled, ''People were pretty cruel to him.'' He remembered a talent show, with Dallas on stage, when some students began taunting him, and one yelled: ''Tell them how queer you are.''

Mrs. Egbert recalled taking him to counselors and psychologists. ''All through school he was always ahead of himself, but always immature,'' she said.

''I should have picked up on it,'' said Dr. Egbert. ''I just didn't see how he could be so brilliant and not be good at coping with social situations.''

At Michigan State, the youth found a different world, with more independence and larger classes, but some of the same problems he had left in high school. His intelligence often seemed to alienate fellow students, and when he joined the campus's Lesbian-Gay Council, some students shunned him and a roommate moved out.

He also had begun to drink excessively and to take drugs, to postpone work on his courses, and his grades suffered, David said. Shortly before he disappeared, classmates said, he had a call from his mother scolding him about his grades, and she threatened to prohibit a planned end-of-term trip to visit a cousin in Texas.

All those things contributed to a state of depression before he began seeking a place to commit suicide, David said. In the year that followed Dallas's return home, he and Mr. Dear appeared to become friends, and Mr. Dear reported later that he had complained about relations with his parents.

The youth attended Wright State University for a term but dropped out in April and worked in his father's optical store.

Tried to Borrow Money

David said Dallas had exaggerated his problems in conversations with Mr. Dear while seeking to borrow money. It also was becoming clear that if any film contract was forthcoming it might be a long time in developing.

David said that, in fact, relations between the parents and the youth were improving, and Dr. Reed confirmed that. ''Dallas was feeling better; his family was feeling better, and I was feeling better,'' he said. Dallas had wanted to move into an apartment, and the parents, from whom he had expected resistance, David said, helped him do so. Dr. Reed, who talked to Dallas a few days before his death, said: ''Dallas had just left home; he was in his apartment, and he seemed happy. In that period he was not the typical suicidal individual.''

At this time, Dallas's friendship with David had grown to a point where the youth was planning to move to the Washington area in the fall to live with David and work for him while going to John Hopkins University. David acknowledged that he was a homosexual, but he said the two had not had a sexual relationship.

Finally, Dr. Reed said, chemical analysis had shown that on the night before Dallas died he had taken cocaine as well as several other drugs that have not been identified. The boy was subject to fits of depression and the drugs would deepen that problem, the psychologist said.

''The cocaine alone would have done that,'' he said, and it was that, he believes that led to the suicide.

''The cocaine alone would have done that,'' he said, and it was that, he believes that led to the suicide.