Sweat is pouring in rivers off Leo Buscaglia’s forehead, but the audience of 300 in Capitol Park in Sacramento, Calif. loves it. Buscaglia has long since stripped off his coat, loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. Now he is waving his arms, laughing and joking. At another moment he is choking with emotion, mopping his brow with a white handkerchief. He fills the air with quotations, a Bartlett’s of bromides ranging from Ecclesiastes to Emerson, Martin Buber to his own mother, Rose. Then, at the end of the 60-minute peroration, the audience eagerly lines up as Buscaglia enthusiastically envelops them, one at a time, in bone-crushing bear hugs. “Hugs make you feel psychologically more secure and together,” he beams.
Corny? Perhaps. But the unforgettable delivery, sincerity and ebullience have made Buscaglia (pronounced Boo-skalya), who is in his mid-50s, something like the Pavarotti of positive thinking. Largely because of his galvanizing public presence—he has delivered 24 lectures in the past four months despite having suffered a heart attack last December—the professor of education at the University of Southern California has become a best-selling phenomenon.
It is 10 years since Charles B. Slack, head of a small New Jersey medical journals publishing house, became so enraptured with a Buscaglia speech in Atlantic City that he agreed to publish his first book, called Love. Then, in 1977, a paperback rep also heard Leo’s pulpit poundings and persuaded Ballantine Books to reprint Love in a mass-market edition. The book now has 1.6 million copies and the follow-up, Personhood, 175,000 copies. Buscaglia’s newly released book, Living, Loving & Learning, is vying for the top spot on the hardcover best-seller list, an astounding triple play in the book world. “We gambled and Leo paid off,” says Peter Slack, Charles’ son and associate at the rejuvenated firm.
“I think people are becoming more loving,” says Buscaglia, a bachelor who espouses his message everywhere, from his classroom (for five years he taught one of USC’s most popular courses, “Love, 1 A”) to his lectures on public television. Students adore him, he gets more than 150 fan letters a week, and appreciative lecture audiences shower him with gifts of flowers, chocolates and even homemade lasagne (he is a self-described “mad Italian”). Buscaglia resents those who denigrate him as a kind of emotional Dr. Feelgood. “I am a teacher,” he says. “And I think I am a serious one who happens to be enjoying life.”
His began in East Los Angeles, where he grew up with three older siblings, seven cousins, a strict father who worked as a maître d’ in Italian restaurants, and an opera-loving mother. “I was lucky to have such a loving, crazy family,” Buscaglia says. “I learned to give and share”—even though not all of the family remembers it that way. “Who are these people you’re talking about?” Leo’s brother once asked incredulously.
After traveling through the Orient, where he developed his multidenominational philosophy, Buscaglia settled down to teaching at USC. His life changed in 1969, he says, when a “beautiful, sensitive, intelligent girl” in one of his teacher-education classes committed suicide. “I wondered what I might have done; if I could have, even momentarily, helped,” he wrote later.
Buscaglia is quick to say he is no guru. “I have too much respect for people to try to control them,” he says. “But they are estranged from love, afraid to reach out and touch one another. We’re afraid to appear sentimental or speak in platitudes because people will say, ‘What a jerk!’ It takes courage in our culture to be a lover.”