George Rogers - Tape #ORAL HISTORY 2008-26

George Rogers was interviewed by Michael Letzring of KUAC radio/tv, Fairbanks, April 4, 2008 in Juneau, Alaska. This interview was conducted by KUAC staff at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau as part of a video documentary project about Alaska's first senator, Bob Bartlett. The interview was videotaped by Deb Lawton of KUAC and it has been edited from its original for this project. In this excerpt from the second tape of the interview, George Rogers talks about his involvement with the Mental Health Trust settlement period. He discusses his role in land selection, and valuation, serving on the Interim Mental Health Commission and Mental Health Trust Board, and the difficulties he faced during the process. George passed away in October 2010. George was also interviewed by Karen Brewster on May 31, 2006 in Juneau, Alaska.


Click to section:

  1. Section 1: How he became involved with mental health issues.
  2. Section 2: Bob Bartlett's efforts to get Congress to pass the 1956 Mental Health Trust Enabling Act to improve mental health services in Alaska.
  3. Section 3: The background of the Mental Heath Trust land crisis and his early role in the settlement.
  4. Section 4: Involvement with land selection and valuation and assessment of the mental health trust settlement.
  5. Section 5: Professional and personal frustrations faced in dealing with the mental health trust settlement.
  6. Section 6: Serving on the Interim Mental Health Trust Commission and the Alaska Mental Health Board, and Bob Bartlett's role in Mental Health Trust related issues.
  7. Section 7: Phil Holdsworth's understanding of land and resource valuation and management.

Transcript:

This recording has been edited. Section 1: MICHAEL LETZRING: Great. We wanted to talk a little bit about Mental Health Trust. Do you know very much about that process, what it was?
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, it was a matter of educating people about mental illness. You had Morningside, you sent your alcoholics and the next thing is it -- that was obvious. But the mentally ill they just didn't sort of register the same way. They needed help as much or more than the alcoholics but they weren't getting it because it was just not -- we had legislation for alcoholism and alcohol treatment but it took a long time to get anything for mental illness.
We have a daughter who when she became a teenager her body chemistry changed she became a chronic schizophrenic. She still is now. She's being taken care of. We don't know enough about it to really cure it but we have ways of alleviating it. And as you get older sometimes you begin to mellow out a bit and adjust things.
And it was such a shock to us because she was such a beautiful girl, very intelligent, sudden a little monster took over and it was just a shock to us. MICHAEL LETZRING: And that's why you became involved in -
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes. MICHAEL LETZRING: And what time period would that have been about? GEORGE ROGERS: Oh, it started -- oh, Lord, it was about 30 years ago, roughly. What brought me to my attention mostly a group of doctors came up here to study the mental health and I was given the job of editing their remarks and putting them into a -- one report.
And Gruening was the Governor at the time and I did that which educated me. This is actually before my daughter became schizophrenic and then the other thing was of the statutes at that time you were considered to be mentally -- a mentally disturbed person at large
and when our daughter was to be committed she had to go before a judge and a persecuting -- prosecuting attorney and a defendant like a court case that she was violating the law by being mentally disturbed.
It was a terrible, terrible experience to go through. And -- but it was shortly after that that legislation was passed that lifted that barrier to -- so it was no longer a felony or something of that sort. It was a condition that can be treated -- or should be treated.
Section 2: MICHAEL LETZRING: Do you recall when Bob [Bartlett] was working on the bill and I'd have to pull out my notes to look at it exactly who it originated with. He was -- there was a co-author but there were some other people involved. And I'm wondering if this idea of a land trust to support the public -
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes. MICHAEL LETZRING: -- service like this was this innovative or was this very, very common? GEORGE ROGERS: Well, this was not -- this was very innovative. The idea is that you -- we couldn't afford as a territory -- as a young state -- to support all the medical and background materials we needed. So we just shipped them out to Morningside.
And that was the wrong thing to do because they were removed from contact with friends and family which was people maybe supported them. And -- but there was then built up this whole program with Morningside that became a vested interest in continuing that to people who were operating the program.
I didn't know if Morningside is still in existence or not but it was one of those things that was -- they used to have this saying when we first came that, "Inside, Outside, Morningside." I don't whether you've heard that one. MICHAEL LETZRING: I have read that. I forgot about that though. GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah.
MICHAEL LETZRING: I have a -- there's a lot of questions about this topic and it's great that you've got a unique insight into it. It was really a -- it's hard to find, actually, too many things that Bob [Bartlett] worked on before statehood that were centerpieces like this. You know, a lot of Congressmen would, for instance, this would be like a centerpiece legislation of their career and he did it and he didn't have a vote at the time. Right?
GEORGE ROGERS: That's right. That's right. He had to rely upon his persuasive -- he was very good at persuading Congress to do what he thought should be done. He had a very good record, I think. He had nothing to trade but he -
MICHAEL LETZRING: Now when you first got involved and you were putting together your -- you said that you were compiling some reports from a group of doctors about this and this would have been when Ernest Gruening was Governor of the Territory. GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, it was, yes, um-hum. MICHAEL LETZRING: So maybe early '50s, right? GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah.
MICHAEL LETZRING: You don't recall what the name of that doctor -- that panel was -- was it a Federal panel or -? GEORGE ROGERS: It was a Federal panel. They were sent up to Alaska. They made a tour. They talked with doctors locally, they gathered information and then we put this thing together in a report.
And this was before my daughter was -- became a case. And it was shocking to hear some of the stories. Like, while we were doing this study a woman had been committed to the local jail and she committed suicide in the jail cell waiting for her trial.
MICHAEL LETZRING: And I -- for instance, you read about cases where someone wasn't even examined by a medical professional at all. GEORGE ROGERS: That's right. That's right, exactly.
Section 3: MICHAEL LETZRING: Can you -- do you know what led to what's described as the Mental Health Trust land crisis? This is -- we're fast forwarding now. This is much later, I think. GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah. Well, it was very interesting. Phil Holdsworth who was Commissioner of Natural Resources had made some recommendations of lands that should be selected for the trust.
These were lands that had potential for development. They were mineral lands and so on. Furthermore, they were lands that could be accessed from the roads system, existing roads system. When it came time to put the trust into effect we tried to have them adopt that thing and they said, "No, that's out of date." Well, what they meant is there were more Outside interests in getting control of those lands without having to go through the trust.
And it was a very difficult thing because they tried to say that the trust was not a real trust, for example, because they were allowed to trade land.
Well, the reason they had that there is that they were looking at this -- at the land was, for example, most of the lands that were -- Phil Holdsworth selected were mineral lands. That's a wasting resource.
And so he tried to select these lands so they could be developed and then the Trust people tried to then say that then that money that you got from the sale became part of the trust and was not income.
And I argued that it was a form of transfering a non-renewable resource to a renewable resource, namely cash, which could then continue to be drawn upon from the investment of the -- so that the income became income when they returned from the investment. The cash that you got with that was -
Well, that then evolved into the whole mental trust, the permanent fund idea. And then - MICHAEL LETZRING: This is during the Hammond administration? GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, Bill [Jay] Hammond for some reason got talked into this thing, "Well, we should give it back to the people. It belongs to the people." Well, that was all crap anyhow but that's what happened.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Well, did the -- was there -- did the Hammond administration try to specifically do something with lands or with property of Mental Health Trust?
GEORGE ROGERS: This -- I wasn't involved with this now, my memory is just -- fail me a bit on that. We had an awful time and I finally had to give up and resign because I couldn't get anyplace on this. MICHAEL LETZRING: You were a member at this point? GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, the Board of Trustees.
MICHAEL LETZRING: And -- well, let's back up then. Okay, you're a member of the Board of Trustees. Okay, and maybe you can describe that and then why you left.
GEORGE ROGERS: Well, the -- we thought at the time that we could deal with the Department of Natural Resources and work out a system that would be -- we weren't trying to deprive the state of the money we were just trying to say, "This was set up for the purpose of underwriting the mental health programs." And it was very hard. In the first place they were keeping such terrible records. You couldn't identify where the lands were. There were descriptions made but they were never, never surveyed.
There were all sorts of things that we had to wait to be done and it was one of the most frustrating periods of my life. I just couldn't get anywhere with them. I did get -- the Supreme Court upheld our interpretation of it being a really a trust. The fact that we could then convert the income into the trust and make it part of the trust and then from the investment from that money that could then become -- go to the Treasury.
But there was a conflict between the time they were trying to get more money that could be spent immediately for construction projects and that sort of thing, capital improvements.
Section 4: MICHAEL LETZRING: Were you involved with the Department of Natural Resources in the actual land selection valuation?
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, we were in that thing but what we wanted to do was just take Phil Holdsworth's selections because I felt they were the most ones that had been -- weren't influenced by factors such as who gets the money. And he was just looking at the land being a land that could be developed and money could be derived from it.
He was also the one who urged the Governor to select the Prudhoe Bay lands. He said to me, he says, "Politicians just think of land as though it were just real estate and it's more than real estate." And -
MICHAEL LETZRING: I don't know if you had any input in that -- in what he was doing or if he was, you know, how well you knew Phil Holdsworth or if you talked to him or worked with him. GEORGE ROGERS: Oh, yes, I worked with him on that.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Were you thinking of, like, for instance, I know there's other schemes in other states like Texas, for instance, with funding the University of Texas, I believe they take $1 off every barrel of oil or did when they still had oil. But were you looking at things like that or -
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, there are things like that. You know, this is a period in my life which the frustration was so intense that I think I've wiped most of it out of my memory now.  It's just one of those things I don't like to think back on because I felt the mentally ill were being dealt out of what was rightfully theirs.
MICHAEL LETZRING: At the hands of a legislator and administration? GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, um-hum.
MICHAEL LETZRING: And that, to me, is still actually a little bit confusing because if the land -- were they saying that the Mental Health Trust land was not in trust and could be disposed of? What would they then do with the value of that? Where was that going to go?
GEORGE ROGERS: Well, what they were trying to do is have it go directly into the revenue stream for general expenditures. And that was not the intent. It was to be -- to support mental health. It didn't mean that they had to put it into the mental health but it -- the land would be kept so that it would be a source of income as needed.
And, you know, this is very strange to try to review that whole thing. It's a - MICHAEL LETZRING: Okay. It took a long time to resolve that and there was a lawsuit. Is that correct?
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, um-hum. MICHAEL LETZRING: And at that time you were still a member or still a Trustee? Is that true? GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah, um-hum. MICHAEL LETZRING: And do you recall any of the details of that or why it took so long to resolve or --? GEORGE ROGERS: No, I can't and there's just a big block in my mind now. I can't bring that back. It's –
Section 5: MICHAEL LETZRING: Was there one thing that stands out as being the biggest obstacle or the more difficult thing about working on the Mental Health Trust settlement?
GEORGE ROGERS: Well, one of the problems we had was that I had trouble relying upon the Department of Natural Resources to do what they were supposed to be doing. And I found that they were changing the minutes and so I, as the Chairman at that particular time, I said, "From now on, you are to record verbatim everything that was said and not edit it." And that created quite a stir because that added to their problems.
But I said, "I can't trust you to interpret what actually was done in the meeting." And I was able to get them to do that. But, you know, it was a very unpleasant time because I was being thwarted on all sides and some of the people I thought were on my side were not. It just --
MICHAEL LETZRING: That's unnerving, to be sure. Did it have fallout on your career? GEORGE ROGERS: No, it didn't at all. Nobody sort of was out to get rid of me in that way, but I just found that I was incapable of doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing.
MICHAEL LETZRING: In retrospect looking back, do you feel that, you know, that you accomplished things working with the Mental Health Trust or, you know, what does being involved with Mental Health Trust mean to you?
GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah, I think we did do this. We educated the population about the nature of mental illness. Bill Ray, for example, said, "I'm not gonna have the State pay for putting somebody on a couch and have the psychiatrist analyze them." And then I went to Bill, I said, "Bill, you don't understand. It's not -- we don't put them on a couch. These are people who are really in danger."
And I told about Sabrina's problems and Bill started crying. So he changed his whole attitude. He realized that it was not a silly little psychoanalytical exercise that was going on it was trying to bring people back into a normal life.
And, you know, Bill Ray was a tough character but when he -- and he thanked me for educating him on that. I don't know whether you remember Bill Ray or not. MICHAEL LETZRING: I'm very familiar with the name, but this is when I was about 14 or 15.
GEORGE ROGERS: Oh, yeah, you weren't paying any attention. GEORGE ROGERS: This whole period in my life is one of turmoil and then frustration and it wasn't the happiest time.
MICHAEL LETZRING: But you see, again, it's these things -- I know we keep pestering you about this stuff but there's just not that many people that can talk about it that - GEORGE ROGERS: I know. MICHAEL LETZRING: -- were there and so it's gonna be valuable, I think. Yeah, I think it's important for people to hear your point of view, too. You know, I trust your point of view on these things.
Section 6: MICHAEL LETZRING: You served on the Interim Mental Health Trust Commission. GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, yeah, um-hum. MICHAEL LETZRING: And what did that organization do?
GEORGE ROGERS: Well, it was one of just trying to keep something moving along, managing it and getting the money out to the programs. We were -- programs were being designed and put into place. I don't know how many different programs poor Sabrina's been going through but the medications would change and the -- it was a terrible devastating experience for her.
Right now she's in her 40's, she's -- or maybe she's 50 now. God, time flies. And right now she's in a halfway house situation which is very good because she is getting some of -- she's able to go out on her own quite a bit now. She wasn't before.
And she was never suicidal, thank God. But so often they are and then you lose them right away. MICHAEL LETZRING: I wanted to ask you about just a little bit pretty much the same question about the Alaskan Mental Health Board. You were on the Alaska Mental Health Board, is that right? GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Could you describe what that did and when you served on it and what you did there?  GEORGE ROGERS: Yeah, I wish I had had my resume here. I could look it up and see what the words really meant. I don't have it with me but the difficulty is in trying to resurrect that part. There was so much -- I took a whole box of material and put it out to the University. Then they put it into the archives.
So most of that material that before the fire is in the archives. I could go dig into there and find out more of those answers. MICHAEL LETZRING: It took a long time to implement a lot of things with the Alaska Mental Health Trust. GEORGE ROGERS: Oh, it did.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Because, you know, the legislation passed well before statehood. GEORGE ROGERS: Yes. MICHAEL LETZRING: But the actual execution of everything how long did that take? Can you describe that process to me at all or if Bob [Bartlett] was involved at all? Let's get back to Bob Bartlett.
GEORGE ROGERS: I don't think Bob was involved after the legislation was passed. He felt that was his job, he did it and it was up to us now to see it through. Now it was not a cause that he had, but it was one that he was aware of and took action to set up the programs to follow through on it.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Were you aware of any kind of personal connection that Bob had with mental illness? There was -- I've heard at least something that had had an uncle or perhaps a cousin who had had some problems. GEORGE ROGERS: I never did hear that. There may have been. If you dig deeply into any of our background you'll probably find something like that.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Now there's a lot of interesting detail stuff in all this period of time. You knew the Birdman of Alcatraz was over, right? GEORGE ROGERS: Oh, yes. Yeah.
MICHAEL LETZRING: That's one of my favorites. If -- were you actually in consultation with Bob when he was trying to get the legislation passed about mental - GEORGE ROGERS: No, I was not in that period. Yeah, I knew he was working on it. I was working on something else at the time.
MICHAEL LETZRING: Did you hear anything about sort of the wild opposition to it about turning Alaska into a concentration camp for political enemies, any of that stuff?
GEORGE ROGERS: There was some of that but that was -- I don't know where that came from but it was such a wild thing and the best one was the opening it up to Jewish refugees. And there was a novel out about this. About -- what was the name of that one? MICHAEL LETZRING: (inaudible) GEORGE ROGERS: Let's forget about that. I can't remember.
Section 7: MICHAEL LETZRING: We're almost done here. I'd like to -- I don't know if we've moved around too much for you, if you could -- Phil Holdsworth - GEORGE ROGERS: Yes. MICHAEL LETZRING: - we hadn't talked about him too much. Was there a connection between him and Bob [Bartlett]?
GEORGE ROGERS: Yes, there was. He was -- he and Bob got on very well together. MICHAEL LETZRING: You'll have to say his name, I'm sorry. GEORGE ROGERS: Phil Holdsworth and Bob got on very well together. Phil Holdsworth was one of my heroes because as you know he had been in a Japanese concentration camp during the war, he and his wife both. They came back to Alaska. They were in the Philippines when the war broke out and they were captured.
They -- but Phil was one who knew, had an understanding about how lands should be managed and why it was important that the state, as I said, for example, got some of the oil lands before the Standard Oil Company and others moved in.
He said at one point when we were working on the Constitution on the Natural Resources provision, he says, "George, if we waited another five years Standard Oil Company would be writing this for us." And he was right, of course.
Because at the time we were doing it they knew about the oil but they didn't -- they figured that we're not gonna go anyplace with statehood. That's where they went wrong because if they realized that we had a Chinaman's chance of getting statehood they would have been here in the strength. We had no lobbies except the sportsman, the teachers and the liquor lobbies. Those were the three lobbying groups.
MICHAEL LETZRING: And it's kind of like, you know, I think that Bob and I'm not sure about Ernest Gruening but Bob's vision certainly I think, and I don't know if I can speak for him, of Alaska it was a resource based state. GEORGE ROGERS: Yes.
MICHAEL LETZRING: And -- but the actual mechanics of doing that and nobody really went so far as Phil Holdsworth, the man who chose Prudhoe Bay, you know, this is how you make a state rich, I guess.
GEORGE ROGERS: That's exactly right. Phil knew about that. The interesting thing there is that it was people like Phil who saw that as he said, "The politicians think of land as just real estate" and the Anchorage people wanted the land to be selected about their city because that would be a prod to developing the land around there.
But Phil held out and he convinced Bill Egan that this is gonna be a major oil province and that's gonna be our future, not real estate, the resources. Seward selected Alaska not because of its resources but because of his geopolitical system -- position on the Great Circle Route between the continents. He did the same thing, he traded also -- purchased Greenland at the same time and it didn't quite get through.
But it was location that was important at the time we actually bought Alaska from Russia, not the resources.

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