Before They Were Educators: Dr. Hal Herzog

Dr. Hal Herzog is a man beyond description. He is an atom, constantly bursting with electrifying energy, an evolutionary psychologist, finding answers to questions no one ever knew to ask; a storyteller, sharing his knowledge artistically in forms accessible to anyone. To students at Western Carolina University, he is the exciting and charismatic professor who never ceases to keep the young minds in his classroom ticking toward a new and profound understanding of the psychological and biological world.

Herzog was born and spent most of childhood in Miami, Fla. However, he did not live in the fast-paced big city picture of Miami that first flashes across the mind.  

“We lived in a real blue collar section of the city,” said Herzog. “Where I lived was the South. We had grits at school and everything. So even though it was Miami, it was still really southern.”

Herzog’s family moved to New Jersey when he was 13 after his father, an airline pilot, was transferred.

“I hated New Jersey,” said Herzog. “I hated the New York suburbs and the whole culture.”

After graduating high school and desperate to escape the city, Herzog found himself attending college at a small school in the mountains of West Virginia.

“I was basically a New Jersey kid living in this really rural area, in coal mining country, at this little college in this little town, and I just loved it,” said Herzog. “I felt like I was a hillbilly wrongly transported to urban America, but finally there I was in my hillbilly roots. There was something real about it. It was the opposite of New Jersey and that’s what I liked about it. I liked hanging out in bars with coal miners and people that worked for a living as opposed to getting on a commuter train and going to New York.”

After his sophomore year at school in West Virginia, Herzog found a chance to study overseas and jumped aboard with no question.

“I did a junior year abroad in Beirut, in Lebanon, and I liked it so much there I stayed and graduated,” said Herzog, “so my bachelor’s degree is from the American University in Beirut, [and] it’s in Arabic. I was there during the ’67 war and got evacuated out and everything. It was high adventure . . . so exotic, so different, I just loved being in a totally different culture.”

Unlike most students studying abroad today, Herzog did not live with a host family.

“I lived in a dorm the first year, and I got an apartment with friends the next year,” said Herzog. “Even though it’s called the American University in Beirut, they could only have 200 American students there, and almost all of them were junior year abroad students. So it was very hard to get to say and graduate. You had to swear you’d go back. I got to stay because my girlfriend at the time, her father was head of the graduate school. [Usually] the only students that got to say where kids of oil company executives or state department kids, so I’m one of the rare individuals, a rare American, that has a degree from the American University in Beirut.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1968, Herzog, like many young men at the time, immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“I spent three months working my way back to the United States, hitchhiking and occasionally jumping on airplanes,” Herzog recalled. “And once I was back, I went straight into the army. This was the height of the Vietnam War, so everybody my age, unless you were a conscientious objector, which was very hard to get where I was, went into the army. My choice was either join, and if you joined you stayed for three years, or get drafted and stay for two years. But if you got drafted, there was a very good chance you’d wind up with a gun in your hand in Vietnam in the infantry, which I did not want to do.”

In addition to serving his country, Herzog found a chance to work in his chosen field of study in the army.

“I volunteered to be a psychiatric medic,” said Herzog, “after all I had a degree in psychology, but what they didn’t tell me was that I had to become a combat medic first. So after getting certified as a combat medic, they sent me to psychiatric medic school, and I spent my time in the army working on a psychiatric ward.”

As fate may have had it, the ward Herzog was assigned to was in Georgia, not Vietnam.

“I was extremely lucky,” Herzog admitted. “I spent the Vietnam War in Georgia working at a psychiatric hospital. All my dreams came true: I never had to shoot at anybody, I found a job in my field and looking back on it, I couldn’t have been in a better situation in the army.”

Herzog continued, “My unit was like ‘MASH,’ we all hated the army, we didn’t believe in the war, none of us believed in the war, the officers wore sweaters and stuff like that, I was supposed to be living on base but had an illegal apartment off base and my friends and I were like ‘alright how can we carve out as free a nitch as we can in this insane system called the army.'”

Herzog’s fond and slightly humorous stories from his service are not his only memories of the military. As a psychiatric medic, Herzog worked first-hand with the very serious psychological traumas of war.

“The people we got did not have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they were more floridly psychotic,” said Herzog. “People with PTSD go to war, come back and have problems after they’re back. The people we got didn’t make it that far. They were so mentally unstable they got sent back. There were lots of drugs there [in Vietnam], so these people are smoking dope, they’re smoking opium, they’re taking LSD and they’re out there in the bushes with people shooting at them. What could be a better recipe for paranoid schizophrenia? Everybody’s out to kill me. You know, s—, they’re out to kill you-they really are. So it’s the perfect recipe for people wigging out in really serious ways.”

After three years of working in the psychiatric ward, Herzog found himself losing faith in his field of clinical psychology.

“I realized that for people that were really, really sick, the ones that needed the most help, clinical psychology wasn’t going to help them,” Herzog admitted. “The talking cure, sitting in an office and talking, was not going to help them. They had no insight into their own situation. They were hearing voices in each ear and radio beams from Satan coming in through their teeth. Normal psychology just wasn’t going to help those guys, and they were the people that really needed the help. So I was disabused of the notion of going into clinical psychology. But I did realize, pretty early on, that college professing is a good gig. You don’t have to wear a coat and tie, you pretty much do what you want, you don’t have much of a boss, you make enough money, you get the summers off, it’s a really good gig.”

Herzog applied for master’s programs at any school that didn’t require an application fee, with the modest goal of teaching at a community college.

“The University of Tennessee sent back,” Herzog recalled, “but they had gotten rid of their master’s program. So the letter said ‘you’ve been accepted to our program’ but they had crossed out master’s and wrote PhD. I thought ‘well hey, that’s really nice.'”

Herzog decided to shift his academic focus from clinical psychology to animal behavior, something that had fascinated him since childhood, for his academic studies in Tennessee.

“When I was a kid I collected snakes. I like snakes, and reptiles, and stuff like that. Well it turned out Tennessee had one of the two people in psych departments in the United States that studied snake behavior, and I didn’t even know that when I went there. The guy himself was just out of graduate school. So I basically hooked up with him and worked in his lab.”

 Herzog soon found that there was a steep decline in available jobs at the time for University professors with a PhD, so he decided to go back to his original plan on getting a master’s degree and teaching at a smaller college.

“I studied alligator behavior for my master’s thesis,” said Herzog, “and got a job at Mars Hill College in western North Carolina, which was great because I always loved the mountains. After I was there for a couple of years, they decided they liked me and wanted me to go on tenure track but I had to get a PhD. So I called up Tennessee . . . said ‘look I want to come back and get a PhD,’ and they said ‘we’ll take you.’ Mars Hill gave me a year off, and I got my PhD in a year, studying cockfighting in Madison County.”

Herzog recalled, “Those guys loved me. I told them what I was doing, so I’d go in there with stopwatches and all this stuff, and they liked me enough that they didn’t make me pay the admission fee. Then they let me sit up in the announcer’s booth, and I’d get data, which was great. What I liked was the duality of being a college professor by day then just hanging out with the s— kickers on Saturday night. I had some real adventures at the illegal rooster fights.”

Several of Herzog’s experiences, including these cockfights, can be found in beautiful detail in his 2011 book, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.”

In all, Dr. Herzog is a well-rounded and phenomenal human being who is never without an amazing story to tell. His character is the perfect mixture of intelligence, wit, excitement, open-mindedness and understanding.