January 23, 2022

Gerry Haigh: The Bird Man Leads the Parade


By Anthony Hall

Taking his place in the time-honored position of Grand Marshal of the Topanga Memorial Day Parade this year will be long-time Topanga resident, aviary guide and anti-war activist Gerard V. Haigh, Ph.D., fondly known to all here as Gerry, the Bird Man of Topanga.

In 1963 Gerry left Arizona State University as an Associate Professor of Psychology and came to Los Angeles to join in group practice with Jim Bugental at Psychological Service Associates. On his first visit to Los Angeles, Gerry was introduced to Ian Thierman, a Topanga resident who invited Gerry to stay with him in Topanga. Gerry did, and before the weekend was up he had purchased the home he lives in to this day.

Early on his first morning in Topanga Gerry was introduced to Bob DeWitt, who stopped by on his way to the beach for his morning swim. Gerry accompanied Bob. He recalls the weather was so cold and the wind so strong, the seagulls were lined up using a seawall as protection from of the wind. He remembers Bob striding down to the shore, stripping off his serape and plunging into the chilling surf. Bob emerged from his bracing swim determined to sell Gerry some real estate in Topanga. He took Gerry back to his home and showed him the bedrooms, the living room, the kitchen and the dining room. Gerry felt something was missing and Bob took him outside, where, about 50 feet from the kitchen door there was a small room with a crescent moon on the door. “Go have a seat,” said Bob. Gerry went out and sat down. The view he had of the Canyon was spectacular, but Gerry felt it was bit too rustic for his family.

Gerry Haigh: The Bird Man Leads the Parade

Gerry stayed in Topanga every night during that first trip to Los Angeles. With his negotiations complete, and his commitment made to leave teaching in Arizona for private practice here, Gerry was on his way back to Arizona to collect his wife and five children. Before he got out of the Canyon a real estate agent told Gerry there was a house for sale that he just had to see before he left. Gerry stuck his head in the front door, looked around, said “I’ll take it,” and went to collect his family. His wife and children were upset to learn that he had purchased a home without their input until they saw the woodsy cottage, complete with a swinging rope out back for his four boys and one daughter to swing on. That rustic cottage has been their home ever since.

Gerry first became enthralled by the beauty of birds through a chance encounter with a flock of red-winged blackbirds in a meadow in Highland Falls, New York near West Point. His mother attended New Paltz Teacher’s College there and one spring afternoon they were admiring the scarlet wild flowers when a flock of male red-winged blackbirds flew into their midst. His mother lent him her binoculars so he could see that the brilliant scarlet color of the birds’ chevrons matched that of the wildflowers and Gerry was hooked.

Since that first “birding” moment with his mother Gerry has spent thousands of hours watching, studying and learning from our avian neighbors. He has written over 120 articles for the Messenger alone and has recently finished writing a book on the birds of Topanga.

Gerry was born in 1921 in the Bronx in New York. He attended public school in New York City and graduated from City College of New York in 1942 with a B.S.S. degree. In 1950 he graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago having completed his doctoral dissertation on the “Role of Value and Threat in Perception.”

In 1942 World War II was in full swing. Public sentiment was by and large for participation in the war. Gerry did not join up after graduation but joined a friend in an upstate New York adventure establishing a home for boys on a farm. In late 1942 he was drafted and he refused to go. He spent a day in New York’s Westside Penitentiary before being counseled by a Quaker to register as a Conscientious Objector. He had hoped that as a CO he would be able to return to his work upstate, but he was assigned to Norwich State Hospital as a psychology aide. He discovered Carl Rogers’ book “Counseling and Psychotherapy” and realized he had discovered the course he wanted to pursue in life. He entered an essay competition with his piece titled, “Plan for Improving Mental Hospitals.” His essay won second prize and a stipend of $250. First prize went to a Naval psychiatrist and third prize went to an Army psychiatrist. Gerry at that time was a 22-year-old conscientious objector working as a psychology aide. Standing in front of the applauding, illustrious crowd at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Gerry thought to himself, “Hey, I’ve got a future here.”

From 1950 through 1963 Gerry taught psychology at Springfield College and the University of Arizona. He spent two years as an Associate Psychologist at the Menninger Clinic. From 1963 through 1999 he served as a Partner of Psychological Services in Los Angeles and from 1983 to the present he still serves as an Associated Clinical Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA School of Medicine. He was also the founder and director of the Topanga Center for Human Development in 1967 and 1968. He worked with psychologist Mike Murphy on the development of the program for the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Gerry began publishing works on psychology and psychological behavior in 1945 and continues to write on matters psychological and behavioral to this day.

In 1976 Gerry was married to Lynn, a clinical social worker, and they have since become one of Topanga’s leading couples. They have one daughter, Heather, to join Gerry’s five kids from his previous wife, Lilian: David, Christopher, Alan, Jeri and Douglas. Gerry has served T-CEP, the Topanga Historical Society, the Topanga Chamber of Community Relations and as a docent at Topanga State Park, where, until very recently he led birding walks on a monthly basis.

How fortunate for Topanga that Gerry Haigh was shown Topanga by a fellow Quaker in 1963 when he could have landed anywhere in the Los Angeles Area. n

Grand Marshal and Poet Gerry Haigh

By Kathie Gibboney

The Grand Marshal sits in his wooded home reciting a poem. It is indeed a privilege to sit across from him. He reads slowly and soothingly and of course, I cry. “I like your emotion,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling in his enthused, only-slightly-craggy face, the portrait of a bird on the wall behind him.

“He” is local treasure Gerry Haigh, rightly selected to serve as Grand Marshal for this year’s Topanga Memorial Parade.

“I’ve been here in Topanga for 45 years,” he tells me. “Are you going to ask me how has it changed?”

“OK,” I offer, “How has it changed?”

“Well, there’s more traffic, but we now have wild parrots.”

It seems birds and nature are a big part of Gerry’s world. “I hike up on the mesa,” he announces and as he tells a story about having recently observing two lizards copulating he becomes animated as if he was let in on a special secret or maybe he is just trying to shock me? Outside the birds are singing.

“The Feather”

I see a feather on the trail

dropped from a high-flying hawk.

Bound to earth by law forever,

I snatch up this trophy

and put it in my cap,

claiming for myself

the raptor’s freedom

to rise above the trees

and soar in the sky.

The home Gerry shares with his wife Lynn is a perfect environment for him. There are carved branch-like railings rising to a wonderful arched ceiling and the whole thing has the feeling of the old hunting lodge it once was, though Gerry hunts not with weapons but with words. Speaking proudly of his family Gerry numbers off his children and grandchildren. He seems especially pleased that two daughters work with animals, one a veterinarian, the other involved with a zoo. “Some of them will form a contingency to see me in the parade,” he announces.

From his backyard, Topanga stretches before us, this view that he must have studi