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The Homeless Man Who Graduated From Harvard

Alfred Postell was the only child of a mother who was a seamstress and a father who installed and fixed awnings. He grew up knowing what it meant to live without. He was a normal boy, says his mother, Ruth Priest, but always focused and motivated.

He wanted more than what his parents had. So after graduating from the District’s Coolidge High School, he juggled a day job while working his way through an associate’s degree at Strayer College.

Achievement fed achievement. He passed the CPA exam and took a job as the audit manager at an accounting firm where he said he pulled in an annual salary of more than $50,000 - big money back then. But Postell wasn’t done. He went to the University of Maryland for a degree in economics. Then, even before he’d graduated, he clacked off an application to Harvard Law - and was accepted.

Scrolling through the 1979 Harvard Law School yearbook online is an exercise not unlike watching a segment of “Before They Were Famous.” There’s ­moppy-haired John Roberts before he was U.S. Chief Justice. There’s grinning Ray Anderson, who went on to become the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. And there’s Alfred Postell.

He’s 31, older than the others, wears a neatly trimmed mustache and has a receding hairline. He bears the look of a man who has already had success in life. And expects much more to follow.

That few remember what happened to Postell perhaps betrays the illness that seized him.

Schizophrenia creeps. Some people, especially those as accomplished as Postell, can hide their symptoms for months. As the victim withdraws from social and work life, plunging into isolation, relatives, friends and co-workers may not notice anything amiss. Then there’s a snap. Psychologists refer to this moment as a“psychotic break” or a “first break.” It’s when a victim’s grip on reality finally ruptures, cleaving their lives into two clear categories: before and after.

But the speed can leave families grasping for answers.

His mother can’t explain what happened. A darkness one day fell over her son, Priest says. He kept talking about getting arrested. He thought the police were after him. Then he had a bad breakup with a woman he loved.

Shortly afterward, Postell had his psychotic break.

Source: Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post




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