The Skirt Man: Richard Deyo

By Devon O’Brien

There is a man in the front yard. He has a big beard and is wearing clothes that must have come from the women’s floor of an ‘80s department store. He is climbing the tree in front of a home that doesn’t belong to him. Within minutes the police are called and they are pulling him down, putting him in a car and driving him off to a psychiatric ward.

“Why did you do it?” officers ask.

“The birds made me, they told me to,” is the man’s response.

Some call him Santa. The burly man towers six feet tall. The brown receding hairline at the back of his forehead morphs into white wiry hairs that form a thick shrub from his ears down to his chin. Nothing but two apples for cheeks and square-framed glasses perched atop a plump grape tomato nose peeks out of the mane.

Others call him the skirt man. A long silk scarf adorned with a flower and paisley print delicately cascades over a big, round belly. At the peak of the mound two buttons of the white checkered shirt don’t quite meet, exposing the patch of curly fur beneath. A knee-length free-flowing skirt drapes over bare legs before revealing black boats for sneakers.

Those who know him call him Richard Deyo. Surely one of the top 10 most well-known citizens of Ames, Iowa, Deyo separates himself with one key detail: no one knows him by name. Say the “skirt man” or “Santa” and suddenly Deyo is the most identifiable person in Ames.

 Devon O’Brien / Ethos magazine

But none of those people know that the black boats on his feet are as smooth and flat on the bottom as the cement he’s walked millions of miles on, or that he would prefer not to wear the skirt around his waist, but rather live the way he was born: naked. They don’t know Deyo spends each morning opening the doors at City Hall voluntarily. The proof is in the phone calls, walk-ins and third-party complaints the police receive while Deyo is out there.

“The people who know Richard aren’t surprised, but people who don’t see a man with a beard and a dress and are surprised by it. They just don’t know how to take Richard,” says Jerry Spencer, mental health advocate for the Ames Police Department.

When Deyo first came back to Ames in 2002, people were confused to see a big man wearing women’s clothing. Spencer says a lot of people call in with concerns because, “he sits down and for the lack of proper attire, he is exposing himself and people get upset because their children or their wives might see it—that’s when there is a problem.”

Kate Gibson, Ames native and Iowa State student, remembers when Deyo first came to town. The first time she saw him he walked up to her elementary school playground wearing a denim skirt with a big slit up the front.  People didn’t know who he was or how to react to him, but he stood out and scared her.

“I would see him at the public library. I would tell my mom, ‘we have to leave,’ and I would probably start crying because I was so scared of him … It wasn’t normal, especially for Ames, Iowa,” says Gibson.

Deyo was a student at Iowa State 35 years ago, studying to be a math teacher, when in English 150, his entire outlook on the world was altered. His professor assigned him to a group for a research project about nuclear weapons and the things he found disturbed him—the number of weapons all over the world just waiting to go off, the amount of damage those weapons would do and the chances scientists were willing to take to set them off anyway.

Because of his research, Deyo considers himself a Luddite, just like the men and women in England who would destroy machinery during a time when the wheel was high-tech. Deyo does not use a phone or a computer because he is against the technological advancements.

“I read in science magazines that [computers] have already killed people … computers can do science better than the scientist can and I mean, you can tell a computer ‘do not lie, do not harm, do not murder people,’ and at the same time bend those rules to the point of breaking those laws because they are trying to get them to behave just like people,” Deyo says.

Photo by Devon O'Brien/Ethos
Devon O’Brien / Ethos magazine

He also doesn’t drive—he never has—which is why he walks so much. The furthest he has ever gone was from Des Moines to Czechoslovakia for a peace walk with a group called “A Walk to Moscow.” But he didn’t stop there—when Deyo sets his mind on a destination he takes off. After returning from Europe he traveled all around the United States until settling in New Mexico for some time where he lived in a tent in the woods. One day he saw Minnesota in a dream and decided he would walk there. He walked for a day, about 40 miles, before becoming delirious. He was shedding clothes as he walked along the road and that’s when the police showed up. They packed him into the car and took him to a state psychiatric unit. This wasn’t Deyo’s first trip to a place like this. He has gone to psychiatric units “too many times,” with the longest stay never more than three months.

“My diagnosis by other doctors has been schizophrenia … I think that’s sort of a catch phrase they use that they can call things I suffer from every year and a half on average,” Deyo says.

The symptom most common to the suffering Deyo refers to is his interaction with animals like birds, crows and squirrels. The way a dog barks at his owner to get what he wants is the way birds and squirrels appear to Deyo. He feels as if they follow him and ask him to do things, like climb trees in a yard of a person he doesn’t know.

“I’m just as likely to think that it’s because I was getting food out of dumpsters in New Mexico that they would put rat poison on it and things like that. I lived in the woods and they sprayed the woods with DDT … that sort of stuff was in my system and those things affect your brain and they affected my brain,” says Deyo.

“I diagnosed him in my own family of dysfunction and he is the one who is mentally ill, but I can’t say that my other brothers aren’t,” says Deyo’s sister Linda Deyo, who is also a social worker in Florida.

Since his time in Ames, the police have picked up Deyo several times, mostly for walking around town in his birthday suit in protest of clothes being legally binding. In response, he has been taken to a psychiatric unit a couple of the times, but generally police try to work with Deyo and help him understand how other citizens perceive his actions. Spencer is one of the officers who addresses Deyo. “He needs to understand how [others] perceive it, not just how he sees things,” says Spencer.

Through the counseling the police department has provided for Deyo, Spencer is finding it is more of a behavioral issue now than a mental issue. That being said, the next time Deyo repeats an action they have been working on, he could be arrested and either fined or taken to jail.

Linda says Deyo has always been “different.” Adding, “I noticed that when he was a teenager, he was the kid everyone made fun of because he walked around without a jacket in the winter time. A lot of kids made fun of him, he was very antisocial. Anything they could pick on him about they would.”

Each morning Deyo stands outside City Hall is a new shot at interacting with someone new. He opens the door, asks how everyone is doing, tells them to have a good day and when he’s given the chance he will ask them to join him for lunch. More often than not, the answer is no, many try to simply give him some cash and go about their day.

“I’m the guy with the cooties. They think I am diseased or that there is something definitely wrong. There are a lot of things wrong with me, but I think there is something wrong with them for being like that. I feel very alone. I feel very empty,” Deyo says. “If I die tomorrow there will be a lot of people who will say I deserved to be dead 10 years ago, but there will be a lot of people that miss me, too.”

People like Sandi Rund, a friend of Deyo’s for the past six to eight years. They met at church during a sermon series on loving people who may be difficult to love.

“I was arrogantly thinking, ‘I do that, I’ve got that nailed.’ Then Richard walks in wearing a dress and backpack, looking angry and I heard God say, ‘All right sister, prove it.’ So I walked over to him and introduced myself,” says Rund.

Ever since that day, Sandi has been going to Deyo’s house most Wednesdays to spend time with him. She says she usually goes alone because she doesn’t like to share Deyo. She wants him all to herself.

“You have to guide and direct him at certain times but if you treat him normal, he’s going to act normal … He is very intelligent, very kind. He would never hurt a fly,” says Linda.

There is a man in front of City Hall. He has a big beard and is wearing clothes that must have come from the women’s floor of a ‘80s department store. One side of the sign in his hand says, “Will work today” the other reads, “Free Hugs.” A few people will deliver and most will ignore him, but either way, he will be back again tomorrow.

RichardDeyo from Ethos Magazine on Vimeo.