Viewpoint: Timothy Leary case offers a test of sincerity and forgiveness

talbert swan.jpg
Rev. Talbert W. Swan II, president of the Greater Springfield NAACP, has given credit to Holyoke Fire Department officer Timothy Leary for the latter’s apology for a racial slur, perhaps opening the door to more conciliation, (Submitted photo)

Ron Chimelis | By Ron Chimelis |
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on October 02, 2014

In a culture where superficial political correctness and genuine bigotry are locked in daily battle, the case of Holyoke firefighter Timothy Leary looks like a drop in the bucket at first.

Leary’s case, though, is more important than that. It puts to the test the two competing elements of any such case: the matter of sincerity on the part of the embattled individual, and the level of forgiveness by a public that is served by him.

In 2012, Leary was caught on video, using a racial slur when referring to Holyoke City Council member Anthony Soto. The video became known to the public in February, inflaming a process in which Leary was in line to become a provisional lieutenant.

Leary and Soto have had a fractured history that dates to when Leary was president of the Holyoke Firefighters Association. That adds context to his attitude toward Soto, but in no way justifies the remark.

The incident brought a number of issues to the forefront: the video taping of a private conversation, the question of whether Leary could be trusted to protect Holyoke citizens if he truly disrespected a segment of them, and whether one comment should be used to judge a man whose official work record had been a good one.

The central issue, though, was this: he said it, but did he really mean it? It’s a serious problem if he did, but even if it was a regrettable slip and not a reflection of underlying values (a matter that P.C. advocates debate all the time), an apology was required.

One was received in a Sept. 26 letter to Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and Rev. Talbert Swan II, the head of the Greater Springfield Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In it, Leary raised the issue of the circumstances that his defenders have treated as entrapment. He did, however, say he was genuinely sorry for the remark

Swan responded positively.
“It takes courage for a person to admit when they are wrong,” the NAACP head said.

Swan went on to call Leary’s apology “a good first step” in a needed dialogue within Holyoke that would heal community relations. For Leary, though, it was not a first step but a last step.

There is nothing more he can do. Swan said he could not predict how Holyoke residents would react, which is fair because no one person can speak for a community whose reactions will not fall under one umbrella.

Suggestions that Leary would not protect Holyoke’s minority community with due diligence are crossing the line. Whatever his views, nothing in his record suggests he would put one group at risk above another.

That won’t stop some minority citizens from wondering about it. They might also wonder how much of Leary’s apology came from the heart, and how much was designed simply to resolve his messy situation.

The apology came in letter form, dated seven weeks after Leary had agreed to meet with Swan and Morse. That meeting, which was delayed by Leary’s vacation, came six months after the video went public.

Leary did not run to the post office with a mea culpa after he made the comment, nor after it became public, nor after he agreed to meet with Morse and Swan. If he really understood the gravity of his comments, such a meeting should not even have been necessary,

From the start, he has indicated his belief in the unfairness of it all. That was not ignored in his letter, either.

Still, he did it. His biggest ally at the moment is Swan.

Using the word “courage” in referring to Leary does not endorse the promotion. It certainly does not minimize the original comment.

It does strongly suggest, however, that an opportunity exists to move on. If there was courage in Leary’s apology, it is fair to treat it as genuinely offered and not thrown together, just to get the wolves off his back.

If that’s true, Holyoke citizens can now contemplate cutting Leary some slack for one egregious blunder that mars an otherwise respected career.

I don’t know Leary. I am in no position to judge his level of racial awareness one way or the other.

I do believe that comments made privately are usually more revealing than those made for public consumption. I also know that not everyone makes racial slurs but everyone says something regrettable at times. On some such occasions, we forgive those people.

It would have been better had Leary come forth more quickly with his apology – without the wrangling and the meetings and the passage of so much time. But he did it, and Swan says it took courage to do it, which is not a free pass for Leary but does leave open an avenue for healing.

As good and not-so-good people alike are thrown over the side in the ongoing debate over racial respect, I have come to believe that in some cases, a little forgiveness is not out of line. In Leary’s case, it doesn’t matter what I think, but how the citizens of Holyoke respond.

They should consider Leary’s initial comment but Swan’s as well. Not knowing the man, my heart tells me this might be one of those times where forgiveness and moving on has merit. I hope I’m right.

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