Push ups. Sit ups. Jumping jacks. Repeat.
John Watkin, 59, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina can remember those exercises like they happened yesterday, even though it was 40 years ago in 1978.
It was punishment. All high school kids get in trouble. But this wasn’t a normal reprimand.
Watkin was naked and dripping wet while his housemaster, a long time teacher at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, sat in his brown leather chair a few feet away and watched him, instructing him on which exercises to complete.
The housemaster who made Watkin do these naked exercises is Bruce Presley — a prominent gay entrepreneur, philanthropist, and documentarian in South Florida. He’s a former board member of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives and a current board member of the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. SFGN named him as one of its OUT50 honorees in 2016. His real estate habits even caught the attention of the New York Times in 1996 when they ran a profile of him.
Presley, 79, created the world’s first textbook on working with computers and once owned a computer textbook company, Lawrenceville Press. In 2007 he sold his company and founded Downtown Loft Studio, which has helped produce videos for LGBT organizations like the Pride Center, Broward House, Gamma Mu Foundation, CenterLink, and Compass. Recently he produced “The Bruce Presley Oral History Project” for Stonewall.
SFGN investigated these allegations and interviewed six victims who claimed Presley abused his power and violated them during their time at Lawrenceville. All of them were 17 or 18 at the time of these alleged incidents.
Three of the victims SFGN interviewed went on the record while the other three did not want their names used in the article. All told similar stories. It would begin with them getting into trouble, at which time Presley would give them a choice: take the school’s punishment, such as losing their weekend privileges, or take Presley’s in-house punishment, like naked exercises while he watched. Presley would sometimes tell the students that if they didn’t take his punishment, he’d have to tell the school, or their parents, and sometimes hint at a possible suspension.
SFGN contacted Presley via several email addresses and sent him Facebook messages. A colleague of Presley’s told SFGN “Bruce is not well at the moment, so it’s not a good time. Thanks for understanding.”
This is McPherson House, where six men from the class of 1978 recently told SFGN they were abused by their housemaster. Photo credit: Lawrenceville School, Twitter.
‘I thought I could just drive into a telephone pole’
“It ruined my life. It caused me a lifetime of pain,” said Brent McCowan, a 58-year-old retired educational filmmaker in Houston, Texas. Unlike many other young men who faced Presley’s punishments and talked about them, McCowan kept it a secret from his housemates.
It’s haunted him for 40 years.
McCowan was caught off campus without permission and had to make a choice: take Presley’s punishment or be reported to the school. Since McCowan was already suspended earlier in the school year he felt like he didn’t have a choice.
He took Presley’s deal. McCowan had no idea what he had just signed up for.
Presley, he remembers, knocked on his door around 4 a.m. and told him to follow him. McCowan was in just underwear, so he attempted to get dressed before leaving — Presley stopped him.
The housemaster wore a white bathrobe as he led McCowan into another room. Presley leered at him while McCowan completed a series of exercises: push ups, jumping jacks, and sit ups.
After McCowan finished up, Presley ordered him to shower. Unlike his other housemates, McCowan had a suite with a private bathroom. As he walked toward it, Presley instructed him to instead use the common-area shower.
“It was very strange to me. I was in a vulnerable place and I felt very uncomfortable,” he said.
But he did as he was told.
After McCowan started to shower, Presley walked in and ordered him to start exercising again, nude, in the shower, while the water was running.
“I hesitated. I thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But I started the sit ups,” he said. “I sat down on the tile. I did two or three while he watched me. I was suddenly overcome with this overwhelming anxiety and discomfort.”
At that point, McCowan stopped.
“I’m not doing any more. You can suspend me,” he told Presley. “I grabbed my towel and walked back to my suite.”
But that wasn’t the end of McCowan’s story.
Later in the school year, just a couple of weeks before graduation, McCowan got in trouble again. This time Presley said to him: “We found you off campus a second time. Meet me in my apartment at 10 pm. after lights out.”
“I was scared he was going to have sex with me,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Screw this I am out of here.’”
McCowan packed up his car, fled campus, and never looked back. Today, he said quitting school changed his life and sent him in a different direction.
“I was driving to my lake house [...] I thought I could just drive into a telephone pole. I literally picked out a couple of poles. I resigned myself that this is it, I’m going to do it,” he recalled. But in a moment of clarity he reasoned with himself: “I don’t have to do it tonight.”
With a couple hundred bucks in his pocket, he ended up going to West Palm Beach, where he got a job as a vacuum salesman. He wrote a letter the following fall to the school detailing what had happened. He never received a response.
Later, when he applied to go to University of California San Diego, he used what Presley did to him as the basis for his application and got accepted.
Photo credit: Lawrenceville School, Facebook.
‘He threatened to tell my parents’
For Watkin it all started when he was in the shower.
“I was in the shower with the other guys and I was blabbing my mouth loudly about getting drunk the night before,” said Watkin, who was 18 at the time and of legal drinking age in New Jersey.
After the shower, Presley confronted him about his bathroom “confession.” Presley apparently overheard him because his apartment was located across the hall.
“He threatened to call my parents and told me I may not graduate. Then he said “or you can come do some exercises.”
Watkin chose the exercises. The next morning Presley was banging on his door at 5 a.m., telling him to get up. He told Watkin to take a shower.
“He said something weird like, ‘the shower will get my muscles warmed up,’” Watkin recalled.
Watkin had learned of these punishments when other boys in the house reported them to him as the house president, so when he got in trouble, he knew what to expect from Presley. Shortly after his shower started, Presley walked in and watched him finish up. When Watkin reached for a towel, Presley interjected by telling him to forget drying off and instead follow him to his apartment across the hall.
Even after four decades, Watkin vividly recalls the incident. He still remembers how dark it was inside the apartment. There was a big painting on one wall and a massive stereo system on another. There were antiques scattered throughout. Presley sat in a big overstuffed leather brown chair where he watched Watkin for 30 minutes as he did a series of exercises naked, dripping wet.
It started with jumping jacks, then moved to push ups, sit ups, leg lifts, and a “scissor”-like exercise, which he said he couldn't figure out how to do correctly.
Watkin, who was 18 at the time of the punishment, remembers Presley sitting back pretending not to look at him.
“He tried to conceal it a little bit. He pretended to look at a newspaper. I guess he held it there so he wouldn’t come across as a blatant pervert,” Watkin said. “He made it so nonchalant, like this happens every day."
At the end of the session when Watkin couldn’t handle the exercises anymore, he remembers Presley saying something to the effect of “you can’t do anymore. You’re off the hook. Go take a shower.”
“It was extremely orchestrated,” Watkin said.
Watkin entered the Lawrenceville School that year as a postgraduate student and was so excited when the house elected him to be president. Later that feeling would fade as guilt would set in because of Presley’s punishments.
In another victim’s case, the infraction was academic. The attorney and former prosecutor, who did not want his name used, said Presley was keeping track of his school progress. Presley warned him in advance there would be punishment if he didn’t get a high enough grade. When he didn’t meet his mark, Presley summoned him for a punishment.
“What should we do about this?” he remembers Presley asking him. “I offered up a number of restrictions to him like house arrest.”
But none were good enough. Instead Presley offered up his own punishment — naked exercises.
He didn’t feel like he had much of a choice. He knew Watkin had already reported Presley and nothing happened.
“I just thought to myself, I have to play along here,” he said. But he was prepared to fight back if Presley touched him. It never came to that.
At one point during the exercises, Presley ordered him to take a shower, told him not to dry off, and then finish the session naked and dripping wet.
“It was bizarre and super uncomfortable,” he said. “I was put in this position with nobody around and it was stressful.”
Watkin remembers a close friend of his in the house being punished by Presley the first week of school. Other students would have to endure those punishments throughout the school year as well. Many of them reported their experiences to Watkin as the house president.
After multiple complaints piled up, Watkin went to Student Government to report Presley’s conduct. Both the president and vice president of the class admitted to hearing rumors, but said they couldn't help, so they referred him to an administrator.
The administrator promised he would look into it. Nothing was ever said again.
“I did the right thing by going to the head of the upper class,” Watkin said. “But the school didn’t act on it.”
Watkin said at least 15 young men in the house experienced one of Presley’s exercise sessions that year, or almost half of the 37 boys that were living in that on-campus house.
“I was the president of the house so I felt responsible,” Watkin said. “It still breaks my heart today. At the time I felt defeated, beat up. Now I feel sad I couldn’t have helped these guys more.”
When SFGN first made contact with Watkin, he was hesitant of going on the record. But what happened to Watkin wasn’t a secret. He told his housemates and other people over the years, including his wife and children, about this experience.
“At the time I was scared of being kicked out of school,” Watkin said on why he didn’t continue to report Presley. “I felt helpless. I couldn’t get anything done. I was really trying to be a good president.”
Today, Watkin is an antique dealer, owns a video production company, and is in real estate management.
Guy Dorgan of Robbinsville, New Jersey also shared his story with SFGN. His recollection is similar to Watkin’s. He remembers the showering and the nude exercises.
“I just have to get through this to get my weekend back,” Dorgan, 57, remembers thinking as he was going through the motions. “I justified it in my head. He’s getting his rocks off and that’s fine, he’s not touching me and I get my weekends back.”
Bruce Presley during his time teaching at Lawrenceville School.
An Open Secret
Student Government knew about it. An administrator knew. And even students outside of the house knew what was going on.
But nothing happened.
According to Dirk Digiorgio-Haag, a former day student at the school the same year as the victims SFGN interviewed, it seemed Presley’s punishments were an open secret.
“I remember one discussion among several boys about it. It was news to me, but others already knew about it,” said Digiorgio-Haag, who unlike the other former students SFGN spoke with, did not live on campus. “The conversation was gossipy, like, ‘Better stay on his good side or he'll make you do pushups, haha.’ I was very naive and would not have appreciated the potentially serious issues involved.”
Digiorgio-Haag only knew Presley through class and did not experience any of his punishments first-hand. He said his former physics teacher was “stern” but “fair” and “expected a lot from us.” He also remembers Presley threatening to electrify the doorknob to make sure students arrived on time. “He never did anything to the door, but I was always sure to be on time just in case.”
Watkin believes this pattern of alleged abuse continued over the course of many years. In fact he’s close to the house president from 1974, who told him the same behavior was happening that year as well.
Lawrenceville Investigates and Responds
The Lawrenceville School is a college preparatory boarding school located in Lawrenceville New Jersey. It’s one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation and it was even more so 40 years ago when Watkin and the others attended. It was founded in 1810 and has an esteemed list of alumni that include country singer Dierks Bentley, former press secretary Jay Carney, former President of Honduras Ricardo Maduro, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and many others.
When Watkin, Presley, and others attended in 1978, Lawrenceville was an all-boys school. It’s been co-ed since 1987.
SFGN obtained an email to alumni regarding a year-and-a-half-long investigation into whether any sexual misconduct has ever occurred at Lawrenceville. The letter detailed four past incidents. Three of them were discovered at the time and the abusers were forced to resign.
The fourth involves the same allegations SFGN investigated. Below is a portion of the email the school sent out to its alumni.
“A number of people interviewed alluded to secondhand information of a housemaster, who, in the words of one alumnus, engaged in an ‘abuse of power’ and ‘sexual harassment.’ According to the reports, students who had broken a School rule could avoid detention or other discipline by agreeing to perform push ups fully unclothed, while the teacher in question watched. At the time, the administration conducted some level of review but it is not known whether any follow-up action was taken.”
One alleged victim is unhappy with the school’s investigation. He didn’t want his name used in this story but sent an email to the current headmaster of the school.
“As an investigator with over 30 years of experience, I was personally dismayed at the apparent lack of effort demonstrated by your legal team to obtain first hand information regarding the allegations,” the retired federal law enforcement officer wrote.
The school’s letter calls this incident “serious adult misconduct” and “harassment” but they have “no information that it involved any physical contact with students.”
SFGN has not spoken to anyone accusing Presley of inappropriate physical contact.
SFGN reached out to the school for a response to the allegations. Jennifer Szwalek, the director of Communications and Public Affairs at The Lawrenceville School, emailed a statement.
“Mr. Presley was a member of the faculty at The Lawrenceville School from 1960 to 1984. The December letter noted reports of inappropriate disciplinary behavior toward students but, until recently, no victims had come forward to share their experiences. Subsequent to the December letter, we began receiving communications from alumni regarding Mr. Presley. We are in touch with those alumni, we are grateful for their outreach, and we are investigating their reports with the assistance of outside legal counsel. As underscored in both letters to the community, we are committed to engaging with anyone who has any information they want to share with us, to addressing forthrightly allegations by victims of past misconduct, and to ensuring a safe environment for all students to learn, grow and thrive.”
Two of the victims SFGN spoke with forwarded their email conversations with the school to SFGN. Here is part of that correspondence between the school and the victims.
“Please don't take my silence for inaction. We are currently assessing a range of responses we have received, yours among them. These things take time -- many thanks for your patience,” current headmaster Steve Murray wrote to John Watkin. In a follow up email Murray stated: “I am writing to reiterate our appreciation for your recent communication and to let you know that we are organizing a process to carefully and thoroughly look into the information you shared, and in fact this process has begun. This may take some time, however, as we will try to proceed methodically, but I just wanted you to know that we are taking steps and will remain in touch.”
Watkin responded: “I must demand a response to my report of being sexually abused as a student at Lawrenceville by Bruce Presley. Glacial speed is not acceptable. Not when you have alumni who are struggling with the embarrassment, guilt, and anxiety of coming forth and baring their souls to you.”
It wasn't until the #MeToo movement exploded last year, as a slew of prominent celebrities were outed as sexual abusers, that Watkin decided to look Presley up. He had assumed his former housemaster had long passed so he was shocked when he came across a couple flattering profiles of the former teacher in the South Florida Gay News.
He wanted people to know the truth and so he left a comment on the story detailing his abuse.
Guy Dorgan had been following Presley for years and grew frustrated when he also read glowing profiles of Presley’s life on SFGN’s website and wanted the world to know the truth. He first left an anonymous comment in 2016 detailing his own story of coercion and abuse. But it took almost two years before he emailed an editor at the newspaper directly.
He said it started to irritate him when he saw women coming forward decades after being abused and people not believing them.
“I understood why they waited so long. It’s embarrassing. Until something provokes you,” explained Dorgan, who is now a freight broker.
“Throughout the last eight years I would Google him. I once saw an article about him working with younger people, and I thought, ‘That’s not a good situation.’ I just kept thinking about it,” Dorgan said.
Later when he came across a profile of Presley on SFGN’s website, he said, “It was just a big step to leave my comment there even though no one knew who I was.”
More recently Watkin and Digiorgio-Haag also left comments on SFGN’s website and SFGN was able to track them down to interview them.
“I read somewhere that [Presley’s] had a pretty charmed life,” Dorgan said. “I hope it doesn’t end so charming.”