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Who Killed Dick Caldwell?

Dick CaldwellTo say that the reviews on Tripadvisor bothered Dick Caldwell would be an understatement. To Dick those reviews destroyed his business and ruined his life. It would not be too much of a stretch to say they killed him, though in all honesty they had plenty of help from Dick himself.

I never met Dick Caldwell in the flesh. We had the kind of friendship/ business relationship popular in the early days of the internet when the primary mode of communication was email because there was no Facebook, and instant messages were used only by people with AOL. My Greece Travel website was also in its infancy and somehow Dick or someone who had done his tours asked me what it would take to be featured in it. At the time I didn't have a criterion since most of the people on the site I knew personally or they were recommended by people I trusted. So I looked at his website which was like mine, poorly designed but content rich, amateurish, but with personality and lots of comments by people who had gone on Dick's tours and loved them.

One thing obvious from the reviews of Sporades Tours, which was the name of Dick's company, was that these were not your ordinary tours and were not for ordinary people. Dick was a professor at USC, an expert on the psychology of Greek Mythology, a respected author who translated Hesiod's Theogony and wrote The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth, books that many of us would love to be able to understand. He was also a lover of Greece and had the kind of intellect that would have made him quite comfortable if he could go back in time to be in the company of Socrates and Plato, arguing into the night and perhaps even drinking them under the table. In fact his tours were known not only for the archaeological sites they visited and Dick's commentary but also for long conversations at dinner, fueled by plenty of wine, that could go on til dawn. You could uncover the secrets of the universe with Dick and be too hungover to remember them the next morning.

As I wrote on my website as an introduction to Sporades Tours "These tours are not for everyone." I compared him to Indiana Jones and Peter O'Toole to prepare people that going on a journey with Dick was probably going to be a lot wilder than Rick Steves. Even wilder than Matt Barrett. But if you were the adventurous type who wanted to learn about Ancient Greece beyond the textbooks and guidebooks, could hold your liquor and were willing if not eager to spend the night discussing just about anything of importance with Dick and anyone else intelligent enough to be on his tours, then it was possible that this was a tour that might change your life, or at least be one you never forget.

One unique thing about Dick's tours was that you paid by the day and you could join or leave any time. So if you have already done Athens you could skip that and meet the group in Veria or Thessaloniki, and since the groups were small it was not a big deal for Dick to pick you up or drop you off at the port or bus station. The tours were flexible too. If you got to a site or museum that was closed for an unexplained reason, or because you spent too much time at breakfast arguing about Zeus and Hera's relationship or whether the ancient Greeks knew how to poach eggs, no problem because Dick knew another more impressive site nearby and though it is not officially open to the public there's this path around here somewhere that leads to that rock over there which overlooks an entire ancient city.

So if you are like me right now you are probably wishing you had done one of Dick's tours. But if you are a typical mid-western American, never miss church, vote Republican and enjoy a glass of wine on occasion, and did not read between the lines enough to know what you were getting in to, then a trip with Dick might be what you imagined hell to be like. In fact you could even be a Democrat, but if you believe in an orderly universe with everything in its place then you might feel completely out of place on Dick's tours. And if you are at the breakfast room by 7am eager to get the day started and Dick and the others start filtering in at 9, bleary eyed and unable to consume anything but coffee and aspirin you might start thinking that maybe this tour is not for me.

So what do you do? That depends on the type of person you are. If you are the understanding type then you might say to yourself that obviously I am not the kind of person who can battle Nazis while searching for the Ark of the Covenant, especially if my entire team and our leader are hungover or still drunk. You are paying by the day so you leave, take the bus back to Athens and maybe go to Santorini. If you are the rigid and fearful type and have no idea how to get to Athens and Santorini and too terrified of Dick to ask you may decide to stay with the group and either build resentment or succumb and eventually become one of 'them'. Or maybe there are others in the group who feel the way you do and you conspire to overthrow Dick and make the tour the way you want it to be. Or maybe you just pretend that all is normal, suffer in silence and when you get home complain on Tripadvisor so nobody else suffers the same fate.

Most people who knew Dick said he drank too much. They will also tell you that the more he drank, the more brilliant he became and was in fact one of the smartest and most learned people they had ever met. However age and alcohol in combination do take a toll on physical health and Dick was not a well man. In fact his life was a mess. His marriage had broken up. He was broke. His books were not exactly best sellers. All he had was his tours and they were not even breaking even.

"The Tripadvisor reviews are killing me" he told me. I did not realize he meant literally. There were only two or three complaints and from what I read they were valid. If I was a normal person and found myself on a tour where the guide has to take up a collection to pay the hotel bill or wakes up so late they miss a ferry I might be annoyed too. But what bothered me was the piling on by people who didn't know Dick Caldwell from Dick Nixon, who acted like cheerleaders for the complainers and then attacked anyone who posted a positive review or came to Dick's defense.  When Dick posted to defend himself he was ridiculed. When others posted about their experience they were accused of being Dick under cover. One woman blamed me and said this proves that you should not trust anything Matt Barrett says. (She brings groups to Greece. Isn't that surprising?) It was all very ugly and the only thing Dick could think to do was ask his satisfied customers to post and hope the weight of their reviews would counteract the bad reviews. But before he could do that Tripadvisor closed the thread and archived it. That meant everyone in the world could read it but you could not comment on it anymore. Whatever was there, was there forever.

Dick's tours were dying. He would leave Athens with two or three people because anyone who googled his name or Sporades Tours found the archived Tripadvisor reviews listed first and dismissed Dick as some kind of rip-off artist. He returned from his tours to Athens and he was broke. He picked up part time work here and there helping travel agencies with historical information for their tours, which kept him from starving, but he did not even have money to get back to California. The next thing I heard was that he had died. When I searched Google for his obituary there at the top of the page was the archived Tripadvisor reviews.

To say that Tripadvisor and the people who used it to complain about Dick's tours killed him is kind of unfair. To be sure there was bullying or intimidation going on, by people who had no valid reason to post anything, having never met Dick or taken his tours. But these things happen when there are people whose lives revolve around their own Tripadvisor posts. The people who were unhappy with their tour had a right to air their complaints. But those who defended the tours, including Dick himself did not deserve to be ridiculed, especially by people who had no business commenting at all. I think that if Tripadvisor had the manpower to monitor every thread they would have removed some of the more antagonistic comments, or kept the thread open to allow Dick supporters to voice their opinions. But in Dick's mind that archived thread killed his business and he begged Tripadvisor to remove it to no avail.

So that is pretty much the end of the story of Dick Caldwell and Sporades Tours. I regret not going on one of his tours or even meeting up one night in Athens for a night of retsina and a discussion about what Freud thought about Poseidon's bed wetting problem. But where Dick had failed to get the archived posts removed I was actually successful. Though the young lady I spoke to did not agree with me that Tripadvisor's policies were partly responsible for destroying the reputation of Dick Caldwell and Sporades Tours, she did agree to remove the archived posts since "it appears that Mr Caldwell is indeed deceased."

I guess you could call it closure.

Review of Sporades Tours by Matt Barrett from 2006

... I have gotten e-mails from people who have gone on them and come back feeling as if they had been kidnapped by Al Queda, wondering why I would promote someone as hard drinking, irresponsible and decadent as Dick Caldwell, calling me irresponsible for even having him on my website, sometimes demanding I remove him or face their wrath on Tripadvisor....

And then there are the fans of Mr Caldwell who call him brilliant and claim they learned more on his tours than they have on any tour in their lives.

So who to believe? Are Dick's tours a journey into hell or an unforgettable experience with drama, comedy, some terror and a lot of learning, not all of it academic?

I suppose if you are looking for a tour similar to those in 'My Life In Ruins' which are offered by all the travel agencies then carousing with Dick in Greece and Turkey, laying awake at night hoping that Dick and those still at the taverna you left 6 hours ago and can still hear laughing, will be in any shape to travel tomorrow, then you are best advised to avoid Dick Caldwell's tours. Personally I can think of a number of people I like very much who I would not send on a tour with Dick....

So I guess I am reneging on my promise to the tour participants whose journey with Dick left them on the verge of nervous breakdowns, to take him off my site. This is not an endorsement of Dick's tours. I have never been on one. But I understand that there are people who would enjoy and benefit from his wide-open pedal-to-the-metal style of tourism and I am probably more like them than those who would not enjoy it. (I bet I learned more in a 6 hour drinking session with an archaeologist than I did after 36 University classes in Greek Archaeology.)

It actually took a lot of soul-searching to put this page back up. I had taken it down because of the complaints that came directly to me and when I did I knew that I was probably condemning Dick to poverty in some small town in California for the rest of his life. I never read Tripadvisor but I decided to take a look at the complaints and see if there were people defending him. The complaints seemed to dominate though it also seemed like there were just a handful complaining, the same people who had written to me actually. Most of the other posts were from the people who spend their lives posting on Tripadvisor,who did not know anything about Dick, or his tours but felt compelled to chime in as they often do (some of these people have several thousand posts on Tripadvisor which to me suggests either psychological problems or a hidden agenda if they are not employees of TA hired to 'spice up' the 'threads').

This is what I had written on my site that someone posted on Tripadvisor as proof that Dick had my blessings:

Dick Caldwell is a legend. A renown professor of mythology at USC, translator of Hesiod's Theogony and an the world's #1 expert on the Psychology of Mythology, he has been leading his tours for the last several years. If you are expecting a purely academic and cerebral tour, well, let me put it this way: The Dick Caldwell legend has as much to do with his ability to drink some of the best minds under the table in the course of leading them through all night discussions as it has to do with anything he has written. We are too late for Socrates but we still have Dick. People who go on his tours come back changed.

Anyway this is the final word for me on Dick Caldwell's Tours. The guy is an old warhorse who knows more about Greece than any of the people who spend all their free time posting on Tripadvisor. He drinks.

If you have any Dick Caldwell stories you would like to share please E-mail me.

See also Dick Caldwell's Greek Myths

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