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William Compton Jr.; used his own struggle to help others


By 1990, William H. Compton Jr., a former Boston theater producer, had walked away from treatment for schizophrenia and disappeared into the scores of Hollywood homeless.

Twice, his brother, Jeffrey went to the morgue, fearing he would find the body of the man who produced a play starring Harvey Fierstein at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in 1975 and started Boston's first charge-by-phone ticket business.

Then a miracle occurred. "It wasn't somewhat of a miracle or almost a miracle," Jeffrey said. "It was a miracle."

Mr. Compton overcame the voices pumping him full of fear and walked into a hospital in 1991. A few years later, he became a nationally renowned advocate for the mentally ill, preaching recovery through self empowerment.

Mr. Compton died of liver cancer Aug. 27 in a hospital in Anaheim, Calif. He was 61.

"He just had a real gift for taking his life experience of just about utter isolation and homelessness and using that experience to support people to have a meaningful life," said Larry Fricks, who served with Mr. Compton on the Mental Health America board of directors.

Mr. Compton started out as a member of Project Return in Los Angeles County, where he began rebuilding his shattered finances and relationships.

Richard Van Horn of the National Mental Health Association of Greater Los Angeles recognized his organizational skills and passion. In 1994, Van Horn decided to drop the professional staff and put Mr. Compton in charge.

"He had an infectious manner. You couldn't say no to him. He built the project from less than half a million [dollars] to $2.2 million," Van Horn said. Mr. Compton increased peer support groups from 30 to more than 100 groups.

His life inspired others to believe "recovery is a real option," Van Horn said, and the project is credited with keeping thousands of mentally ill people off the streets of Los Angeles.

"My brother had two traits: He was a dreamer and he never understood the meaning of the word no," said Jeffrey, of Las Vegas.

In 2005, Mr. Compton performed in his one-man play, "Stuck Out There or The Week That I Went Crazy."

Mr. Compton was born in Rockford, Ill., to William H. Compton and the late Rosella Compton. His mother used to sing Broadway songs to her children and once performed as a singing sales clerk at a department store in Cleveland during the Depression, according to his brother.

As a teenager, Mr. Compton went to military school. "He loved military school because it was fun; it was play military school," said Jeffrey.

During the 1960s, Mr. Compton became an antiwar activist and was arrested for demonstrating during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, his brother said.

In 1969, he earned a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of Akron and worked at the Provincetown Playhouse in the 1970s. He took one play, "Haunted Host" by Robert Patrick, to Cambridge with Fierstein in the lead role. The play was booked at the Charles Playhouse and ran for several months.

Mr. Compton, who lived on "the cheap side of Beacon Hill" then, had an inspiration, his brother said. He launched Quickcharge, allowing theatergoers to buy tickets by phone with their credit cards instead of going to the theater box office.

He later sold the business to a predecessor of Ticketmaster and went back to Cleveland to earn his master of fine arts degree, before settling in Los Angeles.

He became rudderless in California and began using crystal methamphetamine, a drug that his family believes may have spurred Mr. Compton's late onset of schizophrenia in his early 40s.

He began hearing voices and was hospitalized several times. His family took out a second mortgage to pay for his care. A guardian placed him in a hotel.

"I obeyed my voices, left all of my belongings, and moved to the streets where they promised they would go away," Mr. Compton wrote in a 2001 essay in the National Mental Health Association newsletter.

The voices stayed and Mr. Compton descended into a hellish nine months of homelessness and wandering. Shelters didn't want him because he talked all night. When he tried to reach family, he could utter only obscenities. Police couldn't help because he had no record.

"I was stuck out there," he said. "I am on a mission to make life better for other consumers so that they do not have to be stuck out there, too."

He escaped the streets when his guardian found him at an unlicensed shelter and helped him go to a hospital, where he got proper medication.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Compton leaves his father, who lives in Cleveland.

A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 in First Congregational Church of Long Beach. Burial will be private in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

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