A. Robert Smith was interviewed by Karen Perdue with videography by Deborah Lawton and Michael Letzring of KUAC radio/tv, Fairbanks on April 29, 2009 in a recording studio at KUAC radio/tv on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. William Schneider was also present during the interview. A. Robert Smith talks about his experience as a young journalist in Washington D.C. in the mid-1950s reporting on the congressional oversight hearings for Morningside Hospital, and the battle over Congress' passage of Alaska's Mental Health Enabling Act.
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Section 1: How he got involved in reporting for newspapers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Section 2: Review of mental health treatment in Alaska.
Section 3: Congressional involvement and auditing of Morningside Hospital.
Section 4: Results of the audit of Morningside Hospital.
Section 5: Newspaper coverage of the Alaska Mental Health Bill debate in Congress.
Section 6: Effects of his newspaper coverage of the mental health story.
Section 7: Edith Green’s career in Congress and the role of Bob Bartlett in the Alaska Mental Health Bill.
Section 8: Bob Bartlett and Edith Green’s partnership on passing the Alaska Mental Health Bill, and Robert Smith’s previous experience with mental health issues making him interested in this story as a journalist.
KAREN PERDUE: Bob, good to have you here. Thank you for coming.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Glad to be here.
KAREN PERDUE: Thank you. I understand that you -- you worked in Congress and you were a journalist for a long time. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into journalism and what your career was like.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yes. I was a Washington correspondent almost from the beginning. I had several jobs on small newspapers when I was in college and right after college, but then I decided I really wanted to cover Congress and be a political writer more than anything else. And so I set up a -- I organized my own news bureau in Washington, with the idea of covering Congress for small newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. And the reason for that was that none of the papers out in the Northwest had a representative in Washington in the Press Corps. And it just seemed to me to be an opportunity, if I could do it, and so I said I'll have to do that. And within a few years, I had lined up quite a number of newspapers in Oregon and Washington. And I got into Alaska some few years later. So that's -- that's how it all began.
KAREN PERDUE: And how -- how did you get into the Alaska newspaper coverage? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I got into Alaska without -- I had not intended to do that, but I met the publisher of the Anchorage Times, Bob Atwood, in Washington, and he said, you know, we have a big story developing in -- for Alaska here in Congress, and that's the Statehood Bill which may be coming up pretty soon, and we would like it if you could take us on and cover that story for us. And so that's how I began with my introduction into Alaskan affairs, and was pleased to do it, because as a journalist, I always thought it was great to be covering Congress, it was like writing the first draft of history. And here was something that, if it happened, was really going to be historic. Because there hadn't been a new state added since 1912, I think, Arizona, and this was in the early '50s when Bob Atwood propositioned me, and so then I covered it from then on until Alaska was admitted. KAREN PERDUE: What newspapers were those in Alaska and the big ones in the Pacific Northwest?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, after the Anchorage Times hired me, I took on the Fairbanks News-Miner. And these were the two biggest papers in the state that favored Statehood, and so they were interested in my covering that particular bill. Then several of the smaller newspapers down on the Southeast of Alaska, Ketchikan Daily News and the Sitka Sentinel and the Petersburg Press all took on my stories, and so I had five newspapers. Now, there were some newspapers in the -- in the Territory that were opposed to Statehood, and they didn't have anybody covering the bill. That was the Juneau Empire, particularly, and the Anchorage News. There may have been some others that opposed it, but those were the two principal ones. KAREN PERDUE: Uh-hum. And then you covered in Oregon some of the big papers, as well, right?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yes. I had the biggest paper in the Northwest, the Portland Oregonian was my main newspaper. But I had papers in Eugene and Salem and Pendleton and Longview, Washington, and Bremerton, Washington. And Everett, Washington, and Yakima, Washington. I had -- I had practically all of them. KAREN PERDUE: So you probably knew many of the Congress members from just those districts pretty well, like Bob Bartlett and --
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yes. Yes.
KAREN PERDUE: Did you know Bob Bartlett? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well yes, when I started out, of course, Alaska had only Bob Bartlett who was the delegate, and I got well acquainted with him, but I was -- I was covering all the senators from the Pacific Northwest, as well as their Congressmen from the local districts in which the newspapers were located. So yes. And Bob Bartlett was easy to get acquainted with. He was a very likeable and gracious person, and I must say, probably welcomed the attention of a newspaperman. Because so many members of the Congress crave attention that they don't get much of in the House of Representatives. It's a big body, you know, 435 members.
KAREN PERDUE: Uh-hum.
A. ROBERT SMITH: And unless there's somebody there from their home state --
KAREN PERDUE: Right. A. ROBERT SMITH: -- nobody pays too much attention to them individually, unless they have particularly powerful positions.
KAREN PERDUE: And I understand, Bob Bartlett actually had a newspaper background.
A. ROBERT SMITH: I guess he did. He -- I know who you're -- he did his own writing, and I don't know really what his newspaper experience was, but I had heard that he had some. Section 2:
KAREN PERDUE: Well, today we want to talk a little bit about the coverage that you provided of the Morningside Hospital in Portland and the Alaska mental health story. And I know that you have done a lot of writing about that at the time when it was in front of Congress.
And Bob Bartlett was involved in that, he -- he -- he was very involved, and give us some thoughts on what you saw Bob Bartlett doing in the mental health area and what you think motivated him. A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I can imagine that Bob Bartlett was motivated by trying to reform something that was really badly in need of reform, and I don't know, you know, for a fact exactly what prompted his interest in it, but like so many things, undoubtedly it was called to his attention by his constituents. He represented everybody in Alaska, and so he had many -- undoubtedly had many calls on him to -- to do this and do that, as most members of the Congress do. But that was a situation that called out for reform for many years, and exactly how it happened with him, I can't know for sure. He -- I think he had been with -- had he not been before my time, I think he had been on the staff of Delegate Tony Dimond, and I don't know whether Dimond ever looked into this problem or not. I'm not sure about that. But it could have happened. KAREN PERDUE: And what -- generally what was the problem that you heard Bob Bartlett express about what was wrong with our mental health system in Alaska?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, the problem was that anyone who was judged to be insane was sent outside, was sent from Alaska to somewhere else. And the somewhere else was a hospital in -- a private hospital in Portland, Oregon. And that meant that none of the family, unless they had enough money to travel, would conveniently find ways to -- to be with them, or to see this person from their family. So that in itself was a bad situation.
And I don't know how much he knew about the conditions at the Morningside Hospital, but in 1950, when -- during the -- when Alaska was still a Territory, there was a commission set up to look into the -- how mental health patients were treated in Alaska, and it was done by the Interior Department. And they had a very -- very good panel of independent qualified people, and they -- they turned out a report that said this has to change. This is not good. And for example, one of the things in that report was that most of the people who were sent out were sent by a jury of nonmedical people, that they weren't even evaluated by a psychiatrist, and yet they could be judged insane by a jury of their peers, who might just object if they seemed a little goofy, you know, and didn't behave in the way that -- or they might have been an alcoholic, you know, whatever, they could be dispatched, get rid of, and that's happened to a lot of people, evidently. Section 3:
KAREN PERDUE: And so in Oregon, this hospital where a lot of Alaskans were sent, Morningside Hospital, was -- was in the district of a couple of folks that were important to the mental health story, Senator Richard Neuberger and Representative Edith Green. And you knew both of them?
A. ROBERT SMITH: I did.
KAREN PERDUE: And what -- tell us about them. A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, both of them had been elected in -- for the first time to Congress in 1954. Edith Green was a Democrat, a Congresswoman from Portland, and the hospital was in her district. Richard Neuberger was a -- was elected to the United States Senate, and of course, the hospital was in his state. So somehow they -- here again, I don't know what called to their attention the conditions there at Morningside, but they were both liberals, liberal Democrats, and both immediately wanted to reform this situation. Unlike many Congressmen who would like to protect any business in their district, they recognized that this was not in the best interests of the patients of Alaska, from Alaska, and as a result, introduced the bill that eventually was -- was enacted. And it may be that Bob Bartlett called it to their attention. I wouldn't be surprised because that is usually the way it works. KAREN PERDUE: But it was unusual to think about members of Congress taking on business interests in their own district, and --
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, that was. And it's not only unusual, it's heroic, because most Congressmen try to protect their constituents, whatever their constituents' interest is, assuming it's legal and morally upright, but this is a situation that called for reform. And Edith Green particularly, I think, was outraged because she had a -- she had a great capacity for outrage. Morally, the issues of wrongdoing would infuriate Edith Green.
She was -- she had been a school teacher, and she was not a professional politician in any sense, she had been -- I think she had worked at the state legislature in Oregon lobbying for education, but this was her first run for office, her first office that she held as the Congresswoman. And she -- and, of course, I imagine that the people who owned the hospital were part of the business community that opposed her when she ran, so, you know, it wasn't a -- it wasn't as difficult as it might have been.
KAREN PERDUE: Right. It seemed like she also, along with introducing the bill, began to call for audits of the hospital itself. And you covered that --
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right.
KAREN PERDUE: -- quite a bit.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right. KAREN PERDUE: And what was the motivation there?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, somehow she found out that the -- the hospital, their -- they had a contract with the Department of the Interior, which the Interior Department over -- you know, had oversight over the Territory. The Department of the Interior had an Office of Territories, which Ernest Gruening had been a head of that office at one time before he was appointed Governor of Alaska during territorial days. And the -- the Department of the Interior was supposed to -- I assume was supposed to, or you would think anyway would want to audit this contract, the contractor, and see to what extent their expenses were legitimate and everything. Hadn't been done.
They -- they had had a contract with Morningside for -- since 1904, and over all that years, we're talking about 50 years, had never been audited. And so she, I think, thought it was time to find out what was going on there.
And I -- when the audit came out, I wrote a big story because it showed that they were making a whole lot of money, and this -- this seemed to be somewhat shameful because here you are making money, being -- I think they made over a million dollars over a period of 13 years, something like that, and she was very critical of that. Section 4:
KAREN PERDUE: And that -- that audit did get a lot of coverage in both of the papers -- in all the papers in Alaska and in Oregon that you wrote for, and there were some headlines such as "Oregonian Gets Rich Off Alaska Business," "Owner Earns Over a Million Dollars," et cetera, so it was very damaging, I know --
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah.
KAREN PERDUE: -- to the -- to the situation. What effect do you think that had on the legislation? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I -- I suspect that it helped push the bill along because first of all, the real reason to do this was that this was a bad situation. This was not in the interests of these patients, they were getting custodial care, they were not getting the kind of treatment that you would hope they might get. And yet that was very -- you know, I would think that would be harder to prove as something that should be changed than the question of whether this was a moneymaking operation. And so as soon as it became -- it shifted in that respect, I think, and politically, that was very important because if you can say, well, you know, these people are just making money on this deal and they -- they get $75, the hospital could collect $75 for every patient they buried, and then they didn't really give them a decent burial, you know they are making money on the death rate in the hospital. Instead of treating them, send them back home, they were probably having an incentive to let them die and then bury them. So all of those really worked against the people who wanted to protect this -- this hospital. KAREN PERDUE: Well, the idea of the legislation was to give Alaska something, the Territory of Alaska something, land, money, some combination --
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right.
KAREN PERDUE: -- to take care of this problem.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right. KAREN PERDUE: And there were a lot of details to that. And as we started to move into the House Interior committee and the various committees that handled these bills in the House, there were a lot of different permutations, but one that stands out is the Congressman [Arthur] Miller from Nebraska, he had some concerns about the bill when it was in the house committee, and do you remember anything about that? A. ROBERT SMITH: I think the original bill that Bob Bartlett introduced said it would allow the Territory to claim -- to collect 500,000 acres of the -- all the lands in the -- in the Territory, which were owned by the Federal Government, and use the proceeds from the resources of that land to finance a mental health program. And yes, Congressman Miller, for reasons that we can only speculate about, decided to double the amount of the land, and he was opposed to the bill.
I mean, it looks like it's a paradox. Here's a guy who is opposed to the bill for whatever reason, and yet he wants to double the amount of land. And I can only believe that he did so thinking that would kill the bill for sure because then it could be portrayed as a land grab. And it was. There's no question about it. But oddly enough, when the bill did finally pass, it had a million acres in it, and that was -- that is today beneficial for the program. Section 5:
KAREN PERDUE: Very good. You took a lot of heat. Your papers and some of the papers that Edith Green preserved showed that sometimes, when you cover these stories, somebody, whether it's the owners of Morningside or Congress people, kind of got hot and bothered over what you wrote, and they contacted your editors.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Uh-hum. KAREN PERDUE: And so what was that about?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, that's -- you know, that's a good newspaperman's reward. You know you're really touching sensitive nerves when that happens. And if you have -- if you work for newspapers that support what you do, and I did, you just take it in stride and feel I must have done a good job. So it didn't bother me a bit, and it didn't -- it didn't seem to bother the publishers of the Alaskan papers, or the -- even the Oregonian.
Although the Oregonian was right there in that area where the hospital was, and it would not ordinarily want to see a business shut down in Portland, but there -- I don't know that they ever took any editorial positions on it, but I was never hampered in any way as to what I wrote about it. KAREN PERDUE: It seems like the stories were very prominently featured. It was a big story.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah, it was. It got front-page play, and so it couldn't be ignored. That's true.
KAREN PERDUE: Yeah. And the owners of the Morningside Hospital were the Coe family.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right. KAREN PERDUE: And did you ever meet any of the Coes or interview them?
A. ROBERT SMITH: I don't recall. You know, that's been 50 years ago, and I don't recall ever meeting them. I was aware of them, and I may have seen them at a -- at a hearing, there were hearings, you know, held before Congress committees, and -- but I was not well acquainted with -- with them personally. KAREN PERDUE: So then in 19 -- around '56, '55, '56, it seemed like, the Alaska Mental Health Bill had started to get on a path to pass, and all of a sudden a few other issues arose from your writing that we -- we -- for instance, that the bill was akin to the Teapot Dome scandal. Tell us about that. A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I think that all came out of this -- that may have been why Miller, Doc Miller, added another half million acres, for all I know. You know, who -- that could have -- it seems a little nefarious, but the Teapot Dome was one of the great scandals in American history that had to do with western lands that the Interior Department supervised, back in the 19 -- during the Harding Administration. And they had oil, they had discovered oil in Wyoming. And the there was some payoffs being made by oil companies to people in the Harding Administration and Interior Department. So that was the heart of the matter on that big scandal. And so somebody, I think, was trying to draw a comparison, and was attempting to portray this as a way of setting aside some money that somebody was going to exploit for their own private gain, and it would be another big Teapot Dome type scandal. And of course it was absolutely off base. I mean, it wasn't -- it wasn't even close to being something like that. KAREN PERDUE: And similar to that was another phenomenon that seemed to appear, and that was about Alaska becoming a place to send mental patients from across the nation. And tell us about that.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah. For some reason, there was a group in California that began a campaign against this bill, and they -- one of the newspapers down there ran a -- a story or an editorial, and they described this as Siberia USA. And the whole concept they were trying to get across was that this bill would set up this huge preserve in Alaska as kind of a place where you could send mental patients, anybody from the United States who had mental problems, you wanted to get rid of them, you send them to Siberia USA, which is Alaska, and there they had this land all set aside for it. Well, there again, you know, it was so farfetched, there wasn't a shred of truth to the thing. But when people are really out to -- to -- in politics sometimes, smear tactics like that work, even if people aren't convinced, they might just want to be shy of the whole thing. So it was a -- it was a short time -- a short-term campaign, and it -- it dried up pretty soon. Section 6:
KAREN PERDUE: It seemed like in the very end that that emerged and it was in the senate, and the senators, Senator Goldwater and maybe Senator Jackson had to deal with that.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right.
KAREN PERDUE: And it seems like Senator Goldwater stepped forward, and if you remember anything about his involvement in this bill. A. ROBERT SMITH: I don't remember what Barry Goldwater did in that respect. Jackson, Scoop Jackson was the Senator from Washington State, and he was both -- I think both of them were on the Interior Committee, which is why they would get involved in it because this bill would go through the Interior Committee. And Jackson, I know, you know, disputed that there was anything of that nature involved. And of course, if Goldwater did it, you have a Senator from -- Republicans as well as Jackson, so I think it was discredited rather quickly. KAREN PERDUE: I think what happened, Senator Goldwater in exasperation eventually removed from the -- made an amendment to remove from the bill the commitment procedures and left it to the Territory to define them.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Oh, I see.
KAREN PERDUE: And that seemed to quiet down all the people who thought, you know, that this was going to mean they were going to go to Alaska.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah. KAREN PERDUE: So. Well, there were a lot of ins and outs to the bill, and you covered -- you covered the story, it seems, pretty extensively, at least probably every month or more, you wrote hundreds of articles on this subject. And stepping back today, was it a good story to cover? A. ROBERT SMITH: It was one of the better stories that I covered because it was -- it was the kind of story that -- that makes you proud if you -- if this thing is going to happen, it's -- you know it's going to improve the lives of -- of some people. You can't say that about a lot of stories that -- that you write as a newspaper person, and for me, that -- that gave it a -- a sense -- a sense of purpose. This was a good cause, in other words. But as a practical matter for me, representing more than one newspaper, it was a beaut because I could write the same story for the Oregonian in Portland as I was writing for the Anchorage Times or the Fairbanks News-Miner. And so I -- I worked that story to death, you know, and was pleased to do it, and got such good reception, it was usually a front-page story. And that in itself for a newspaperman is the reward, you know. So... KAREN PERDUE: You know, you said yourself that Congressmen have to cover just hundreds of subjects.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right.
KAREN PERDUE: And they very busy. And what impact -- have you ever thought about what impact it might have been for -- that your coverage made to the story? In other words, that you were working for Oregon and Alaska, and you were there to cover the story, do you think that kind of helped the issue get -- get resolved, or -- A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I like -- I'd like to think so. You know, journalists, I particularly, always felt that I shouldn't be partisan in any cause, but when you have a story like this, it's hard to be absolutely neutral, absolutely nonpartisan, or non -- or not take sides. But just the fact that you write stories like this and call it to the attention of the public, there are lots of people who get exercised over things that -- of wrongdoing. You know. And that's one of the great missions of -- of the press, it's -- it should be anyway -- is to find out what's going on that just isn't right. It just isn't right. And expose it. And that was -- this was an ideal story to fulfill that mission. KAREN PERDUE: And now that you're here in Alaska and you've had some time to -- to talk to people who -- you know, who have benefitted from the -- the bill passing, you know, the land was actually awarded and, of course, it was a long history before it came to help the mentally ill, does that surprise you that it -- it sort of took these twists and turns, but now today it's still alive and well? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, I'm so pleased that it worked out so well. It's -- because it's been such a long time since that event took place. And I have not been involved with -- I -- I left covering Congress in the '70s, and so I haven't really been much in touch with events in Alaska since then. And so it's a -- yeah, it's a joy to -- to know that such good benefits came from that successful effort. Section 7:
KAREN PERDUE: And what do you -- what happened to Edith Green?
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, Edith Green served in -- in the House of Representatives. I don't know that she ever suffered politically by taking on this business interest in her district. It was a heroic thing for her to do, there's just no question about it, but that was the kind of person she was. And she -- she was an admirable member of Congress. Her specialty was education. And she sponsored numerous education bills in the years, and during the Kennedy Administration particularly. She was close to the Kennedy's. She was one of the early supporters of Jack Kennedy when he was trying to get the nomination. I one time took a trip with her and Jack Kennedy before he got the nomination, and he was courting her support. And she wasn't sure whether he could make it or not. But she liked him. She really liked him. And I remember she and I talked about him. We flew out cross country with him to Oregon, and he did some campaigning. She got him to come out there to Oregon.
And so she had an illustrious career. I don't recall how long she served in Congress, but she had a long career. That was -- you have to remember also that was in a time when there weren't very many women in Congress.
KAREN PERDUE: Uh-hum. A. ROBERT SMITH: She was not the first one from Oregon, Oregon had had another woman once before, but she -- she was -- I don't remember, there were maybe a half a dozen women in the House. And only one in the Senate in those days. So that in itself was something that -- an achievement for her. KAREN PERDUE: And Bob Bartlett, you became -- you know, you covered him extensively, just a little bit more about Bob Bartlett.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, Bob Bartlett, of course, was one of the founding fathers of Alaskan Statehood. Nobody really did more for that cause than Bob Bartlett. And he became -- as a result, when Statehood was enacted, he became one of the first two United States senators from Alaska and certainly deserves it. It's unfortunate that he died as early as he did. I think he had only served like 10 years in the Senate before his death, and -- but he was -- you know I always thought of him -- I always thought he looked -- he reminded me of Will Rogers. Will Rogers was a humorist; Bob Bartlett was a man of good humor, but he was a hard worker and he was very skilled in ingratiating himself with his colleagues. And for many years when he was a delegate, that's all he had going for him. He couldn't -- he didn't have a vote, he couldn't swap his vote for somebody else's on any cause, and so he could try to make friends and influence his colleagues, and he was very good at that. KAREN PERDUE: And it would seem that the Mental Health Bill might be an example of that where he -- he was a delegate at that time, he was not a voting member.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Right.
KAREN PERDUE: He had pushed this issue, and then he found a partner in --
A. ROBERT SMITH: That's right.
KAREN PERDUE: -- the Oregon delegation. A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah. That's really a very unusual situation that he was able to, as you say, partner with Edith Green in the House, and then the support of -- of Richard Neuberger was important in the Senate.
KAREN PERDUE: Well, I think that is my -- that's my list of questions on the script, and wondered if we want to take a drink of water and -- and ask Bill what I left off. Section 8:
KAREN PERDUE: So it seems like Delegate Bartlett and Edith Green paired up on this issue, and that was effective. And why would that have happened? Why did Bob Bartlett need a -- need somebody to push legislation for Alaska? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, as you know, Bob Bartlett, as a delegate, before he became a Senator, could introduce legislation but he couldn't vote on anything. And so he had minimal influence, except through friendship. And he was a very friendly man. And of course, I suspected after Edith Green was elected and joined the House in 1955 that he probably quickly made friends with her, probably welcomed her to the House, and made himself known to her, and he -- since he had already, was conscious of this problem in her district, he probably sought her out and said, you know, I've got a problem, and I'd love to have your help in solving it. And she -- I would guess she never heard of Morningside or didn't know what was going on there until Bob Bartlett called it to her attention. So that she being the kind of -- of reform-minded person that she was, I would guess that she was immediately responsive. There is some correspondence between them that we've discovered that took place later when she was so exasperated that she said to him, why did I -- why did you ever talk me into getting into this, because it was -- it was a distraction for her in many ways, and certainly she wasn't going to win any -- or she didn't probably think she was going to win any -- any votes in Portland by -- by killing this business. KAREN PERDUE: It also seems like a very interesting set of timing because the whole basis of the bill was to give land away to the Territory to deal with the problem, and of course, after Statehood, that would not have been possible because Statehood dealt with that issue. And so it seems like timing-wise, this could only have happened in -- in the territorial days, and so it was kind of at the last part of the Alaska's territorial history. A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, the Mental Health Bill passed in 1956, as I recall, and Statehood didn't happen -- wasn't passed for another two years. And so it -- it had a good lead.
And I don't know how the enactment proceeded after the bill was enacted. I don't know how quickly Alaska, the Territory, began to select lands for it. So that -- but obviously, there was a two-year lead time there that made it possible probably to get some pretty good parcels. KAREN PERDUE: That's -- that's right. That's what happened.
So back to your -- the very beginning of our conversation, when we talked about how you got started in -- in journalism and -- and your -- your early experiences, what was your first experience with mental health issues? A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, one year when I was in college, I got a summer job, I think before my senior year, if I'm not mistaken, in a mental -- in a mental hospital in Maryland. And I had no idea -- you know, I had no idea about how mental health problems were -- were dealt with. And I only took it because it was a job. I needed a job, and they were hiring young people to be -- what did they call them. I've forgotten what we -- what we were called, but we were just to do whatever needed to be done. You know, we weren't professionals in any way, but it was just to help feed the patients and keep the place clean and that kind of thing. And so I was maybe more sensitive or more conscious when this thing came along, which was not too long -- you know, just a few years later, actually, than I might have been otherwise, but I don't know that that had much of an effect, I think I just saw this as a great story, just go for it. KAREN PERDUE: Go for it. How old were you, roughly, when you covered this?
A. ROBERT SMITH: I was in my twenties. I was only out of school for a few years when I started as a newspaperman, and then this thing came along in '54, so I would have been -- I would have been in -- yeah, I was in my late twenties. That's when this happened. Yeah. KAREN PERDUE: We're lucky you did it.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Yeah.
KAREN PERDUE: I think those are the questions that I have. And it's a wonderful interview. Perfect interview.
A. ROBERT SMITH: Well, thank you.
Don Brandon was interviewed by Bill Schneider on April 20, 2009 in his office at the Region 10 Disability Business Technical Assistance Center in Seattle, Washington. He shares the story of his family, their care for his two brothers who resided for a period of time at Morningside Hospital, and his observations on disability services in Alaska.
Click to section:
Section 1: Early life growing up in Alaska and family history.
Section 2: His mother trying to raise four boys, two of them with developmental disabilities, and finding educational opportunities for them.
Section 3: His mother’s decision to place his brothers at Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Section 4: Living with another family for a year in Washington, and visiting his brothers at Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Section 5: His mother’s death and his decision to become his brothers’ guardian.
Section 6: The loss of his mother, the transition to being his brothers’ guardian, and challenges in changing his brothers’ care from an institution to independent living.
Section 7: The challenges and responsibility of guardianship, and the effect past experiences at Morningside may have had on his brothers’ behavior.
Section 8: On the challenge of bringing mental health care to Alaska and the role his mother played in advocating for better care and bringing her sons home.
Section 9: His career and views on disabilities.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is April 20th, 2009. I'm Bill Schneider. I have the pleasure today of talking with Don Brandon.
And we tried to get together earlier but the volcano got in the way, so thank you for taking time and making this opportunity for us.
Let's start by having you talk about your family history a little bit, about your parents and growing up, and then we'll get into the issue of Morningside. DON BRANDON: Okay. I am the son of a first generation Mexican-American family that lived in Colorado. My two older brothers were also born there. And my dad was -- did a variety of construction jobs. And in about 1950, he got in trouble with the police in Pueblo, Colorado. And Pueblo was one of those communities that had a lot of back -- racial tension between the White -- well, what do you call it, the White Government and the Hispanic population that lived there. And after getting into a series of brawls with the police, he figured his best course of action was to get away from Colorado, and in the late '40s and early '50s, the best place of refuge was a Territory that was called Alaska. And it seemed to attract a lot of people who were running from something or looking to -- for gold or whatever, and my dad had both of those visions, looking for gold and, you know, trying to get away from the constraints of life in Colorado. And so he separated from the family to go find a career and -- and make his way in Alaska in about 1949. And after securing a job with the F. E. Company, working at Chatanika Gold Camp, eventually brought us up to Alaska. "Us" being my two older brothers, Joseph and Norman, who were 3 and 4 at the time, my mother and I. And I was 8 months old when we made the trip to Alaska. And some of my earliest memories are growing up in Chatanika Gold Camp when it was an active gold camp and the dredge was running and my dad worked out on the dredges. And you know, it was really extremely hard labor. Even though they provided cabins for the workers, they were one-room cabins, so when you bring a family of four into a one-room cabin that they had at Chatanika, it created a lot of challenge for -- for the families. And you add to that two -- two children, the one baby and two children that have developmental disabilities, and you kind of get the picture of what was going on. I think the cabins weren't much bigger than 10-by-12 one-room cabins, or something small like that. I don't know the exact dimensions, but having visited up there since then, I know that they weren't very big. And so my dad worked at F. E. for -- and in Chatanika for a few years, and eventually he went to work at Usibelli Coal Mine as a coal miner because I guess it was more year-around work or something like that. And so he would fly in and out of Healy at the time before the highway was there, the Parks Highway. And I do have memories of us visiting him while he was in Healy and arriving -- driving -- riding on what was called the Doodle Bug. It was a big Chevy Suburban that was mounted on tracks, and the engine of the Suburban was used to cross the train trestle because there really wasn't a road connecting Healy to the Usibelli Coal Mine area, which there is now. And some of my earliest adventures were walking with my dad along the train trestle from the mine.
And because of the nature of work in Alaska, my father worked construction in the summer and tended bar in the -- in the winter. And about every March when things started thawing out, he would leave his -- his job as a bartender and go start working construction.
This had its impacts on our family. My mother was a rather independent woman, one of the first liberal women that you might want to meet, and she wanted to go to work. And -- but she had three of us to tend to.
And toward the end of my mother's and father's relationship, a fourth child showed up, my younger brother Merle, and he was born right at the end of their marriage. Section 2:
And so my mother is raising three boys in Fairbanks prior to Statehood. And she has two with developmental disabilities, and me, an extrovert with up syndrome, as I put it, because I was always looking for something to get into. And then there was my little brother. And my mom's way of trying to take care of the family and keep things together when we lived in Fairbanks was to hire a live-in baby-sitter to offset some of the cost for taking care of my older brothers, as well as providing, you know, some sort of stability when she wasn't available all the time. And so we went through a series of baby-sitters, and we lived in a house on 16th Avenue in Fairbanks. It was a log cabin that burnt down during the flood of 1966 or '67 -- '67. And -- but it was -- it wasn't a big place and it was really cramped. I think it had two bedrooms, so if you can imagine having four children living in bunk beds, a live-in baby-sitter and my mom, and it was pretty -- pretty tough times. And during the course of these things, she tried to find placement for my brothers, Joseph and Norman, in the school system in Fairbanks at the time.
And at that time, the -- the places that had -- that they could go to were place -- there was a real small program, as I recall, at Main High School, or in the Main High School building on Cushman Street. And eventually, they developed Special Ed services at Barnette, what is now Barnette Elementary School, which I think was sort of a junior high location when it was first built in the very early '60s. And -- but it was in those -- I guess Barnette was built in the latter part of the '50s, it was in those settings that my brothers would go to the school, and because they were lower functioning, kids with developmental disabilities, they were placed in class settings with kids that were older and had various levels of functionality. And so you can imagine it was quite a challenge for the school teachers and the educators at the time to try to maintain what I remember was just one class that everybody was in. So it was more of a day care scenario than it really was Special Ed, as I look back on it. Section 3:
And in the course of this, because of all of the challenges of how our family was being raised and the things my mom was trying to do, working from Eielson Air Force Base and then eventually, Geophysical Institute. It became pretty evident to her that it was just too many balls to try to keep in the air at the same time, with two younger children, and then my brothers, Joseph and Norman, starting to get in the age range of 7, 8, 9, and 10, those age brackets. And so she made a decision during that time to have my brothers placed in Morningside Hospital.
And as I recall, it seemed like that was the only other option that was available besides the Special Ed classes in Fairbanks. And her biggest concern was the level of independent living skills that my brothers didn't have. And that, please remember, as I use those terms, those weren't the terms we were using back then. The terms she was looking at was -- were things like, well, how to deal with their incontinence issues, how to deal with their lack of attention, or you know, because she really believed that there was opportunity for them if we could find the right environment, and I'm sure she placed a lot of hope in Morningside being a place like that. And I think a lot of families in Alaska did something like that, in spite of some of the information that was coming out of Morningside that was circulated in the Daily News-Miner in the mid '50s and stuff saying that there were --
(Break in interview.)
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let's -- let's pick up from there. We're recording now, and you were talking about the decision that your mom made, that very difficult decision. DON BRANDON: And she didn't have anybody really to bounce that decision off of, that I'm aware of. Not being married, I'm sure whatever investigation she did about services that were available she had to do with either social workers in the community at the time. And my mom was not an unintelligent woman. And so I am sure that she was dealing with some of the concerns that were being raised in the News-Miner about Morningside Hospital, some of the concerns that were -- were just floating around in the state. But I also think that it was probably one of the closest facilities. Looking back on it now, I realize it was an institution, but it was probably one of the closest areas that was set up to deal with the concerns and needs of people with developmental disabilities. So she put -- she took a look at what our circumstances were and the tensions that we had at home and what Morningside apparently seemed to offer and made the difficult decision of placing my brothers as residents at Morningside Hospital. And I'm thinking the year was 19 -- I said 1960, but now that I recall, I have a picture of us visiting there in 1960, so it had to be earlier than that. It was probably right about the time when I turned 4, which would be probably the latter part of the 1950s, 1958, '59, something along those lines. I do know that the decision was traumatic enough for her that after my brothers went to become residents at Morningside that I -- because of the smallness of our little log cabin, I could remember hearing her cry and pine about the separation of -- of the family. And I didn't quite understand all of the anguish she was going through, but I did miss my brothers because, you know, when you grow up with -- in a family with disability, that's normal for you, and it doesn't seem like there's anything different about it, it's just other people don't have brothers like I had, but so what. You know, it was just -- just the way things were. I do know that over the years that she had lots of issues about their care and she would make visits to see them about two or three times a year, particularly during the holidays, and it was on Christmas and Easter that they came home a week -- a week or two at a time. And we could see some progress, seemingly, in some of their independent living skills, but not all of them, because a lot of the concerns that we had as far as why they were placed at Morningside were still concerns even after when they would come visit -- with -- with the family for a week or two period during Christmas and Easter. Section 4:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. That's -- sounds like your mom went to some pretty long lengths, though, to maintain the contact and to keep the family together. It must have been very difficult as a single mom. DON BRANDON: My mom was an unusual woman because eventually, we all became residents of Washington or Oregon. I'll tell you what I mean by that. My mom really knew that she wasn't going to be able to make it on her own, even when there was just two of us, my -- my younger brother and myself. And the process of meeting someone new was overshadowed, oftentimes, by the fact that she had two little kids at home, or four little kids at home. And so one of the things that happened was that we met a family, because my mother worked at Eielson Air Force Base, met a family that was a large family, as I recall they had 10 kids, which was not all that unusual in the late '50s, and when they moved to the Tacoma area, my mom created some sort of contractual arrangement with them, in the sense that she would pay so much money a month for me and my little brother to stay with them for about a year while she was able to sort of improve her circumstances where she was at and not have to be concerned about paying for the baby-sitters because that still was an issue for us even though my older brothers weren't -- were no longer a part of our -- our living situation. So for about a year, me and my little brother lived in Tacoma while during that time my mother transitioned from working at Eielson Air Force Base on the flight line as a civil service worker to working at the Geophysical Institute for the University of Alaska. And it was during those times, too, when she would come down, we would all sort of -- she would bring my older brothers from Portland up to Tacoma, and we would all sort of hang out at the Anderson's house in -- which they had. The good news was they had a huge house for us all to be in. And of course, when you're kids, camping out in the front room was a big deal, it was like camping out in the backyard almost, so it really wasn't that strange of an event for us to be piled all over the living room floor and that kind of thing, as we were able to visit. And I remember on one occasion, my mother came to Tacoma and we traveled to Portland, but I don't remember all the details of it; you know, it was a first grade memory, as I recall. I do remember one visit that we made with my stepfather. My mother remarried in about 1962, '61, '62, somewhere in that area, and my stepfather had not met my older brothers. And so we made a trip to Portland, and we -- I remember arriving at Morningside Hospital and feeling a real sense of this place is really different. It felt scary to me because my -- when my parents went into the office or wherever they were going to get my brothers, Joseph and Norman, so we could go do some stuff together, I remember all these unusual young people and adults with developmental disabilities scurrying back and forth from place to place. And one guy actually got into the driver's seat and started like he was going to drive away. And one of the staff members at work there came and discouraged him from doing that. And it was after that we started locking the doors when we were there because it just -- you just never knew what was going to happen. At least that's the sense that I -- that I recall from it. And I remember making one other trip there when I was 12, which was the last time I saw my brothers as residents of Morningside Hospital. And it was after my mother had passed away. And by that point, they were in the process of becoming wards of the State of Alaska. Section 5:
BILL SCHNEIDER: When did your mother pass away?
DON BRANDON: My mom died in 1965. And in Fairbanks. And one of the big concerns she had was what the outcomes were going to be like for my brothers. Because she wasn't going to be around to sort of guide that process or influence it. And I don't -- I do know -- like I said, I do know that my stepfather and my brother and I visited Joseph and Norman on our way out of Alaska in the process of moving to South Carolina.
And from that point on, all I had -- we didn't have any contact with them from the time I was 12 until I was about 25 years old. But during that 12 or 13 years, as wards of the state, they were moved out of Morningside and brought back into the state, were residents at API [Alaska Psychiatric Institute], and then residents at the Forrest Charles Boarding Home for a few years before I became their guardian again in 1984. BILL SCHNEIDER: And tell me about that decision to become their guardian.
DON BRANDON: The decision to become Joseph and Norman's guardian was based upon a real sense of family and responsibility that my mother had built into me early on. And even though living in South Carolina, going to high school and college there, and even graduating from college to go on to graduate school in Texas, I always had the sense that I need to go back and collect my brothers or become responsible for their welfare. And in 1978, I took a trip to Alaska to do two things, to find my biological father and to find my two older brothers.
And my biological father, even though my parents were divorced when I was 3, never had any contact with my brothers from the time when I was 3 until I was 25. So that's, what, about 24 years or so. Or 22. Whatever the number is. Might even be 23 years, if I do my math correctly. But anyway, there was a significant period of time when he didn't have contact with them. I don't know that he made many attempts to contact them, but toward the last five years of his life, he was very actively concerned about coming in contact with them. My progress for moving back to Alaska was, like I said, was to catch up with Joseph and Norman, get reacquainted with my biological father who I didn't know, didn't grow up with, and in during the course of that, it gave my biological father the opportunity to get to know his oldest boys. And -- and I kept pushing him to become their guardian, and he resisted that, mainly because he thought that their situation was better where they were at, and if he became their guardian, he might mess things up for them. And I think a lot of that has to do with his lack of familiarity or with dealing with some of the issues that -- for people with significant disabilities, thinking that the state or an institution understands the needs of people with disabilities better than the family might. Because I think that was kind of one of the -- well, I know that was a prominent concern that he had. But because I didn't want to fight him in court to become their guardian, I just sort of waited and bided my time, so to speak, until when he passed away in 1985. One of the first things that happened within about three months of his passing, was I became my brothers' guardian. Well, he passed away in '84, so it was -- I became their guardian in 1985. Section 6:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did your mom know that she was going to die?
DON BRANDON: My mom knew that. She was getting worse and worse. She had a gallbladder operation that -- and at the time, Fairbanks Hospital had the highest morbidity rate of any hospital in the United States. We didn't know that at the time. It's one of those things that you find out as you look back in history and you discover that. And she had a gallbladder operation that wasn't done well, and it caused her liver to get infected. And that infected liver, because of that gallbladder operation, caused her to develop cirrhosis of the liver. And so it was a slow, gradual death over about an 18-month time frame. And she was hospitalized for long periods of time. And there was one summer that she thought she was going to die, she sent me and my younger brother away to South Carolina again for a summer to live with my stepfather's family, because she didn't want us to be around to see her continue to deteriorate. And -- and it was that following winter that, after we came back, that she -- that following spring that she actually did finally pass away. So she didn't -- all she did was give us a summer vacation in South Carolina, and -- and her condition continued to deteriorate over the next 9 months or so. BILL SCHNEIDER: So when you took over guardianship, was that for both Joseph and Norman?
DON BRANDON: I became the guardian of Joseph and Norman together.
It just so happened that guardianship is something that has to be renewed every so many years, and they had been wards of the state, I guess, since they -- since I was 12, and by 1984, I was in -- I was in my early 30s, so for about an 18 year time frame, they were wards of the state living at API, and at that time at the Forrest Charles Boarding Home, outside Palmer. And my first -- and -- and at the time, I was also the manager of the farthest north independent living center in the state, called Access Alaska. We opened that office in 1984, in the fall of 1984. And one of the things that independent living centers are charged to do is to, more so then than they do now, was to liberate people from institutional settings. And the first two people that I liberated from an institutional setting were my brothers Joseph and Norman. And it was kind of funny. As they are now residents of Fairbanks Resource -- or they became residents of Fairbanks Resource Agency [FRA], and I had a contact there whose name was Colin Showley (phonetic), and when I described their circumstances at the Forrest Charles Boarding Home, he put them on an emergency list, and which actually gave them priority for placement at FRA. And so I became their guardian in October of 19 -- I think I said January -- I became their guardian in October, but Joseph and Norman became residents at FRA somewhere around January or so of 1985, which was fairly quick, which was a fairly quick transition. And from the time I became their guardian to the time they were involved in the -- in a community based living program. And so it was -- it was really different for them because they had so many institutional behaviors that they brought with them. I remember one time they were teaching or giving people responsibilities, and they told Norman to make lunch. Well, Norman's process for making lunch was to make sandwiches for 23 people. Well, when he went to the kitchen to make lunch, by the time they caught up with him, it was 23 sandwiches later. And your -- everything that was done in a group process. Even in those types of institutional settings, you know, there were certain days when everybody took a shower and they were just lined up like cars at a car wash and run through the shower. When it was the day for haircuts, everybody got the same hair cut, they got a buzz cut kind of like mine. And then so those types of institutional behaviors were pretty prevalent with them. And they -- when they came -- came out of those things, situations, at FRA.
And one of the other features about institutional behavior is that you don't really own anything. Everything in other places belongs to you. And so that -- they didn't have a boundary of ownership. I recall one time I took them a bunch of clothes that we had gathered for them, and then our next trip the next month, we saw all the clothes that we had gotten for Joseph and Norman being worn by every -- everybody at the facility where they were located. And it was kind of like, well, this isn't going to work, you know, because we were trying to take care of Joseph and Norman, but they literally didn't have any ownership of stuff. And I guess the institutional setting that they were in didn't allow for them to maintain ownership of things, or people came and took them or whatever. But when they came to the community-based program at FRA, it became problematic for Norman particularly to know what was his and what wasn't his because he figured everything was his because in an institutional setting, that's the way it is. You don't have any ownership. It's very -- very -- much more communal, or -- unless you really stake out a claim on it in some vivid way where nobody else will touch it. Section 7:
BILL SCHNEIDER: So Norman is now living in Fairbanks?
DON BRANDON: Joseph and Norman both lived in Fairbanks. Norman passed away about two -- two years ago. Joseph still lives in Fairbanks, and he's probably about 59 years old now. And he's still a resident at FRA. He lives in an apartment cluster. And he works with a spud buggy at FRA and participates in a lot of the recreational programs that Fairbanks North Star Borough has and events like Special Olympics and stuff like that. BILL SCHNEIDER: And as guardian, what are your responsibilities?
DON BRANDON: Basically to make -- whenever there's a decision to be made about their health, welfare, you know, I'm the one that makes that decision. It's -- when you make a decision relating to what kind of benefits they get, what types of -- how to spend down their money, which is a real challenge for some people, because they are in a -- they actually can save money living off Social Security, and so we have to look at ways to spend down their money within the time frames or the constraints of what -- what Alaska state law allows and Social Security allows. So making decisions about what's an appropriate purchase for some of that money. Because they do pay their own way as residents there at FRA using their Social Security, Alaskan housing supplements, and stuff like that, sort of compensates and offsets the costs of where they are living. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, you've had kind of a unique perspective on the evolution of services.
DON BRANDON: Yeah. Yeah. I've -- I watched in the early years from an uninformed understanding of what was going on around us because, you know, you're a kid, you're growing up, you're trying to survive your own teenage years. But at the same time, when I became their guardian, they came with a little bit of history about where they had been. And I say a little bit because their years at API, their years at Morningside, their records or their medical history was very, very limited. I was concerned about some of the fears that my brothers had picked up along the way. Joseph still doesn't like anything inserted in him, like even an oral toothbrush, he can't stand those types of things. And there's some -- some of these behaviors are reactive to other memories in his life that are very uncomfortable. And so, you know, some of the things that would assist him functionally are he still rebels against -- and we just sort of let him, we have to just approach it differently. Like going to the dentist and all those types of events are not easy things for him to do, for whatever reason for -- that -- because of things that have taken place in his past. And -- but we just don't know what those reasons are because the medical records don't really tell you the bad stuff, they just tell you what, you know, they want you to know. But something definitely happened along the way that has created some of the fears that he has in those areas because, I mean, there's no -- no memory that I have about why they might be what they are. Section 8:
The thing that I think's been interesting about Alaska in their transitionary phase is the way they tried to export people with severe disabilities, provide services for them, because they didn't have the infrastructure for themselves. The other thing that was unusual is that when they built API, they had people with developmental disabilities in mind in that process. I don't know what good that was because I remember their medical records talked a lot about the ways they would -- in order to control behavior, they would sedate people. And so there was a lot of discussion in their medical history about the kinds of medications they were taking to suppress behavior. When they came out of API and went to the Forrest Charles Boarding Home, a lot of that medication went away because they were getting much more free range to participate in the country living that they -- that they had there in Palmer. But even in that scenario where they were -- it still wasn't the very best scenario for them, in my mind, and that's why we got involved with FRA. I remember my mother was -- you know, we were talking about some of the concerns she had. She was an active member of the ARC [Association for Retarded Citizens] in Fairbanks, back in the early -- I think the early renditions of it, late '50s and early '60s. And she participated in fund-raising to build programs. And Alaska has seemed to have had this as a theme among their programs, to bring our children back home. Because she was actively trying to do whatever she could to get Joseph and Norman closer to Fairbanks and out of Portland. And she participated with Margaret Lowe at the State Fair, and my mother would sell tacos. And her and Margaret were active taco sellers or dispensers at the State Fair every year. And I remember Margaret, I ran into her in Juneau when she was the Commissioner of Health and Social Services several years ago, and I mentioned to her who I was, and she remembered my mother, and mainly because my mother was so protective of her taco recipe. She would take her ingredients down to Foodland and have them placed in the meat and she would pre-mix them. And so nobody really knew what went into the taco meat, but everybody really liked them. But nobody knew what the recipe was. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, that's good.
DON BRANDON: But it was those types of things my mother would do, and part of that, her history of trying to, you know, make things better and working in Fairbanks to -- to make that happen. So I've seen the cause of why institutionalization takes place, I saw my brothers placed at Morningside, I saw my mother working to try to neutralize that, and then in their personal history, knowing that they participated at API, and at some of the rural homes around Alaska, too. They also lived at Harborview for a few years because right after they built API, I think they built Harborview in Valdez, and they lived there for a few years. And it was from there to the Forrest Charles Boarding Home that we eventually -- that's part of their progress. So they were involved in most of the major institutions -- early major institutions in Alaska as residents. Section 9:
BILL SCHNEIDER: The proceeds from that taco, how were those proceeds used?
DON BRANDON: I'm not exactly sure. I was only, you know, 11, 10, 12 years old, but I think they did it for fund raising to build, you know, a local home for people with developmental disabilities that -- so that the families could be closer to their kids. That's how I understood it. But I'm not -- I'm not -- I'm not real sure. All I remember is having to clean up the tables and doing what the kids do to help support it, but not really understanding the issues per se. BILL SCHNEIDER: We have an interview with Margaret Lowe in this series.
DON BRANDON: Oh, cool.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, this has been -- this has been really good. Is there -- is there anything else that we should add at this point? DON BRANDON: You know, when I think about the lives of my brothers and their 25 years of institutionalization, outside and in Alaska, I think that Morningside was one of the darkest times for them. Factored by the distance, separation from family, and just not really knowing what was going on for them at Morningside. I know it certainly was one of the most difficult times for us as a family for them to be there.
And it was during those times when we did have a family because my mother passed away when I was 12, we sort of had a very dysfunctional version of that with my stepfather's leadership for me and my little brother. And it was always a concern that they were in Portland, and I was glad to hear that they were back in Alaska, but I really wasn't sure about what that was like either. But I do think that Morningside stands out as just one of those enigmas in their past that I think Joseph is still recovering from. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, and it's interesting that you've chosen to work in this field yourself.
DON BRANDON: I don't know if I chose it or it chose me. Working with people with disabilities was not necessarily a career goal of mine, or being involved in civil rights for people with disabilities wasn't a career goal. My experience with disability has -- has been a huge factor in this. And sometimes you're taught lessons about the experience of a disability, but you don't know you're being taught them. And that's kind of the way I kind of wandered into this. My career goal prior to being involved in this type of work was ministerial work, working with people in churches, working with people, help rebuild their lives, and -- but it became -- it's become a much more purpose -- purposeful impassioned part of what I do, it is what I do because I've -- you know, when you walk in a fog for X number of years and you finally wake up and realize you're in a fog and try and find your way out, you realize there's probably lot of other people that are walking in that same fog. And I think that's the way disability affects people is that we live in denial of its impact or its effect on us, and we build services to protect us from them, or to deal with them in a separate capacity, and not realizing that we and them are the same people. You know, we're genetically the same. And disability is a normal part of our life experience. It's our way of reacting to different disabilities that makes disabilities such the enigmatic feature that it is in our society. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, this has been very good. I appreciate you taking the time.
DON BRANDON: Well, Bill, thank you. And thank you, Karen Perdue, for calling me one day.
Thelma Langdon was interviewed by Bill Schneider on May 24, 2007, at her home in Anchorage, Alaska. She is the wife of Dr. J. Ray Langdon, who was a former medical director at Morningside Mental Hospital in Portland, Oregon and director of mental health services in Alaska just after statehood. She describes their involvement with treating Alaska's mentally ill and broader mental health services. She describes living and working conditions at Morningside Hospital, her husband's approach to treating patients, and she is critical of a federal investigation that occurred at the hospital. Thelma discusses her husband's dissatisfaction with Alaska's approach to mental health services, his firing by Governor Egan, and establishment of the Langdon Clinic to deliver services to patients statewide. Thelma was the first chair person of the Alaska Mental Health Board (1988-1990), and started the first statewide effort to serve people with dementia. Thelma demonstrates a deep connection with and compassion for the mentally ill and feels that not enough has been done to address their needs.
Click to section:
Section 1: Personal background and employment history prior to coming to Alaska, and meeting and marrying her husband and their first years of marriage.
Section 2: Living in different places around the country because of her husband's psychiatry training and military service.
Section 3: Her husband becoming the medical director at Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon where Alaskan patients were sent, the 1957 congressional investigation of the hospital, and memories of escorting patients from Alaska to Morningside.
Section 4: Describes living on the hospital grounds at Morningside, patients visiting her home and playing with her children, and the experience of the 1957 congressional investigation of the hospital.
Section 5: Moving to Anchorage in 1958 when her husband was hired by Alaska's new division of mental health, and her assessment of the state's plan for mental health services.
Section 6: The innovative treatment programs her husband initiated at Morningside Hospital and her view of the quality of patient care provided.
Section 7: The establishment of a mental health program and facility in Valdez and her husband's disapproval of this effort.
Section 8: Her husband's resignation from Alaska's mental health services program because of disagreement over the direction of the program, their staying in Alaska instead of returning to Morningside Hospital, and his continued contact with and care of mental health patients.
Section 9: Describes her husband's outspoken personality.
Section 10: Her husband's continued involvement with mental health issues in the State after his resignation and establishment of his own Langdon Clinic.
Section 11: Personal involvement in the mental health field.
Section 12: Continued involvement with mental health issues, service on the Mental Health Board, and seeing herself as an advocate.
Section 13: Key issues that existed while she was on the Mental Health Board.
Section 14: Compares the old Alaska Psychiatric Institute building with and the new one that was being planned when she was on the Mental Health Board.
Section 15: The impact of the Molly Hootch case that required schools to be built in every community in Alaska, and her thoughts and observations on the outcome.
Section 16: Assessment of Alaska's mental health programs and compares with knowledge of services in New Zealand.
Section 17: Her role in starting an Alzheimer's support group in Anchorage that later expanded and developed into the statewide Alzheimer's Resource Agency.
Section 18: People involved in mental health issues.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today, we determined is May 24th, 2007, I'm Bill Schneider and I had the pleasure today of talking with Thelma Langdon. And I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. We're in your home here in Anchorage. And we're going to talk about the history of mental health delivery. And in particular, we're going to talk about your background and involvement and your husband's background and involvement in the mental health issues as they've emerged. So let me hook you up and we'll -- we'll begin. Let's start with your personal background, where you were born, and who your parents were, and some of your early childhood influences. THELMA LANGDON: I was born in Pueblo, Colorado, on May 1925, to Helen and Tony Perse, and last name is spelled P-E-R-S-E. And I was one of two daughters. My sister was three years younger than I. We grew up in Southern Colorado, both Walsenberg and Pueblo. I went to school in both -- in both towns, and to parochial school, and the names in both towns was St. Mary's.
And I graduated from high school in 1942. There were 42 in our graduating class and I graduated in '42. I was too young to go into nurses training, so I stayed out a year and I worked as a cashier with the J.C. Penney company. In 1943, I went into nurses training at a hospital in Pueblo, Colorado. It was a hospital that was run by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, which was a steel mill for the people who worked there, as well as their families. And I graduated from there in 1946. As I entered the nurses training, I also became a Cadet Nurse Corps -- a member of the Cadet Nurse Corps, which started during the war in order to provide nursing care for people in -- in the hospitals because so many of the registered nurses and nurses who were available had gone off to World War II. So the Cadet Nurse Corps was started to fill that gap. We had our education paid for and there was $10 a month was a stipend we got until we were seniors, and then we got $15 a month.
I met my husband, J. Ray Langdon, when he was a patient at the -- Corwin Hospital. That was the name of the -- of the hospital. And he had been burned, badly burned in an accident at the steel mill. So I was -- I was finishing my last six months of nursing when I met him. And he had -- had to have many, many skin grafts and I just had -- had taken care of him for quite awhile, so I got to know him quite well. And then one of the interns suggested I take him to mass with me on Sunday. And I said, okay, I'll do that. Well, it was about a threeblock walk to the church, and I was just so scared that he was going to pass out on me and then I didn't know what I would do, but that didn't happen. Well, we were married in August of 1947. He was going back into his second year of medical school at St. Louis University, so we moved to St. Louis, then, in August or September of 1947. And he finished medical school in 1950. While we were in St. Louis, I worked as the operating room supervisor in a small hospital, a private hospital in St. Louis, and our first child was born. Steve was born in Colorado while my husband was still in St. Louis finishing -- or in medical school, so then I returned to St. Louis and finished -- oh, finished our -- his medical school in -- when was that -- 1950.
Then we went back to that same hospital where he was a patient and I had my nurses training for an internship for one year. Then he decided to go into psychiatry. So we went -- moved to Indianapolis to a private hospital there for his start in his residency program. Section 2:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So we were talking about your husband's psychiatric training at -- what was the name of it?
THELMA LANGDON: It was in Indianapolis at a small private hospital called Norway. And he was there for two years. And while we were there, we had a letter from the draft board in Pueblo, Colorado, saying if you don't enlist in one of the services, you will be drafted. So he wanted to go back into the Navy where he had been during World War II, but they didn't have any openings, so he chose the Air Force. We moved to San Antonio to Lackland Air Force Base, in 1953, and we were down there from 1953 to 1955. By that time, I had two -- two sons. One was born in Colorado when Jay was in medical school at St. Louis, one was born in Indianapolis, and then we had our first daughter when we were in San Antonio in 1954, I guess it was. Then after San Antonio, we went back to Medfield, Massachusetts, I think there was about 9 or 10 months that he needed to qualify to take the -- to be certified in psychiatry with the American Psychiatric Institute. So we were there from the summer of '55 until February of '56 when we moved to Portland, Oregon. Section 3:
Jerry had been hired to be the medical director at Morningside Hospital there. So in February, we took our three kids and flew back to Portland, Oregon, on a very, very long flight. Of course, this was before the jets, so it was twice as long as it would be -- would have been five years later. And that became a very interesting period in our life. We lived on the hospital grounds of Morningside. And things were going along pretty good. And then we started hearing rumblings about a congressional investigation that was to be held at Morningside Hospital. There was a -- I think she was a representative, and her name was Edith Green. And she was not too happy with the way the Coe's operated, so I guess she created enough of a fuss there in the house of representatives that one of the committees decided they should go out to Morningside and have some kind of an investigation. So that happened in September of 1957. It was a very traumatic experience, to say the least.
Then, of course, Morningside was where patients from Alaska were sent. Psychiatric patients also developed -- developed mentally disabled patients were sent there. It also served as kind of a stopover place for other people who were coming down to Portland for medical treatment.
On one trip from Anchorage to Portland, my husband and I were escorting patients down. He was escorting a man who was in a -- who was bedridden, and they were sending him to Morningside Hospital. He must have been -- he must have been demented. I can't remember that exactly, but it seems to me. And they rigged up on the airplane kind of a hammock where they had him, the patient, and I was -- I had as a patient going down there, an infant who had cleft -- a hair lip and cleft palate. So that was a real experience. Another time I escorted a woman patient who was going down for psychiatric treatment. And it was just when the jets had come in. And so that was my first experience riding on a jet. Of course, the time was cut in half from the old prop planes to the jet planes, so that was a real step forward. Really liked that. Anyway, it was interesting because the woman that I took down about, oh, 10 years later, maybe a little bit more than that, I was on the Office of Child Advocacy, which was under the auspices of the Governor, and I was on the board and the staff person for the Office of Child Advocacy was this woman that I had taken down --
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's okay. THELMA LANGDON: that I had taken down as a patient. So it was one -- it was a wonderful success story, I thought. I don't think she remembered me, but I remembered her. But of course, never, ever said anything to her about that experience.
So let's see, now, we're in Anchorage. BILL SCHNEIDER: You were moving patients down to Morningside?
THELMA LANGDON: Uhhum. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You would escort them down?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. Oh, there were a lot more than that that went down.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure.
THELMA LANGDON: But those were the three that -- you know, that -- Section 4:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you give us a description of the grounds at Morningside.
THELMA LANGDON: The campus was lovely. They had I don't know how many acres. 90, 92 acres. I think it's somewhere in that report. It was a lot bigger than I had remembered how big it was. We lived in a small corner. We had a really nice home and nice yard, right next to our house was an apple orchard. And then out the back, out our backyard and across the way was where the children's cottage was. Then there was another home on the grounds where another doctor who was the night doctor lived, he and his family lived. They had pigs and they had cows and I think they had a small garden. I know the two boys, their big thrill was to go -- to go with their dad down to look at the pigs. And then my oldest son, you would go down and watch him play baseball, softball. And then patients would come over and play with the boys. They played cowboys and Indians or pirates or whatever kids at that time were playing. So they interacted very closely with a lot of the men patients. BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's talk about that investigation. You said that was very disturbing when the Representative Green came?
THELMA LANGDON: Well, she didn't come. She -- she stirred up enough of a interest in -- in Morningside Hospital that this committee came and there were -- I don't think there were any women that came with this committee. I think they were all men at the time. There was some women on this committee on government operations, but I don't think that any woman -- women came. But it seemed like they weren't as interested in what was going on right there at that time, say, within the last two or three years. They were pretty interested at what went on during World War II when there weren't very many docs around for them to have on the staff there. That seemed to be the period that disturbed them the most. But -- well, I just thought it was silly, this whole thing was silly. And then they terminated the -- they were going along with all their testimony by people and then all of a sudden they said the meeting is adjourned, this hearing is adjourned, and no leadup to the -- to the end of the hearing, no comments, no nothing. Just boom. That's it. And it was -- and I felt that they were very arrogant. They were all Democrats, and so we switched parties immediately from Democrat to Republican. And then a few years later we decided that wasn't working, so we became Independents. So now I am no party. But that's -- that was that period of time. Section 5:
Then J. Ray was coming back and forth to Alaska, meeting with the child study group and doing various things in Alaska while he was medical director there. So when they -- when Alaska got the million acres of land and 6 and a half million for a hospital, he was approached by the state to come -- this was before Statehood -- to come up and work in their division of mental health. And so he brought this topic up to me, that we -- he had been asked to move up. Well, I wasn't all that hot on the idea. So he brought home a plan that Alaska had put together of how they would go about setting up the mental health treatment of -- of the -- of the people of Alaska. And I read it very carefully. And it was just, I thought, just a great plan. Really, really cutting edge kind of, you know, great look into the future and all. So I was really excited about the possibility of being in on that step of the -- along the way. So I said -- I said, okay, we'll move to Alaska. So then we came up to just have a look around in February of '56. Was that '56? No, '58. February of '58 we came up to have a look around, and then we moved up in April. This was before Statehood, and then that summer is when they were having the bonfires, and then it was the next January when we became a state. So we got here in territorial days. We did not want to live in Juneau. We wanted to live in Anchorage. So that -- that was negotiated when -- when J. Ray was negotiating to come up here. So that the main office, of course, was down in Juneau, and they hired a director there. So trying to follow that plan and -- and get things moving in that direction was just not in the cards. I don't know whatever happened to that written plan, but I would be willing to bet that there's not one thing in that written plan that has come to fruition. So that's been a very, very great disappointment. BILL SCHNEIDER: You're doing great. You're doing great. When you stop and think about the -- the plan, what are some of the aspects of that plan that you thought were so great? THELMA LANGDON: They had set up within the state in various communities, not just the big communities, but the smaller communities, smaller communities, not the smallest, but smaller communities, access to mental health services all around the state. And they had the plan outlined how this -- how this would work, and it sounded very possible. But, of course, that didn't happen. Section 6:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hmm. Before we get into why it didn't happen, I want to go back to your discussion of Morningside. And you were saying that you were -- I got the impression that you were pleased the way it was being run at the time that you were there. THELMA LANGDON: Well, it was -- I think -- I think if you read a lot of the written stuff, especially in this report on the investigation and some of the other things, and that report that was done on Morningside, my husband made a lot of changes there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh. THELMA LANGDON: He was one -- he believed in what was called -- and I don't know if the term is still in use or not -- a therapeutic community. And the two nurses, Helen -- Helen Nye and Lanette McCoy and my husband all had the same philosophy of what a mental health treatment program should look like. And they worked together so beautifully. And they just started a lot of things that had never been done before. One of the things that I've always been impressed with was the medications of the patients. They would make the rounds, however often they did that, maybe once or twice a week, maybe more often, I'm not sure, but they would never put a patient -- say, a patient was getting three drugs, they would never add another drug to make it four drugs. They would take away one of the drugs and then add the new one, so they never, ever wanted to highly medicate people. They were very, very cautious about that. I thought that was -- that was a pretty -- pretty big step. And then some of the other innovations that they started, I tried not to be too involved with it because my husband used to say, well, then you'll just find fault, so -- so I stayed -- I stayed a little bit away from it. But I had a pretty good idea of what kinds of things were going on in the big picture. BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum. I know there have been complaints that in the early days, people might be shipped out of Alaska for any number of reasons to Morningside other than mental illness. And was -- was that going on at the time in which you were there or had that changed by then? THELMA LANGDON: I never heard that thing. I never heard any kind of comment like that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: There was criticism that in the early days that if you were living out in some rural area and you showed any sort of unorthodox behavior that your neighbors might go to a judge and get you shipped out. THELMA LANGDON: That might have happened. I can't remember ever hearing of any -- you know, any specific cases of that happening. I think in that report that was done in 1957, they give a pretty good view of how many patients they had, how many new admissions, how many discharges, and things of that sort, and I think maybe from that, you could get some idea on, you know, what might be going on. Section 7:
BILL SCHNEIDER: So what was the main reason for moving medical -- mental health services to Alaska? THELMA LANGDON: Well, the people felt that -- that it was too far away. Portland was too far away. And that -- that Alaska should have -- have their own mental health program. Because the problems here were, you know, a lot different than elsewhere. The Bush communities and also, you know, the distance for the big three hours to get down to Seattle and Portland, at one time, six hours prior to the jets coming in to be. So they just felt that they were entitled to it and should have it. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So we've got you up in the story line here now, we've got you up to Anchorage, and there's a disagreement that occurs. THELMA LANGDON: Yes. Yes. Big disagreement between the gentleman running the -- the director, mental health director in Juneau, and my husband. And I don't know what direction he was trying to go in, but certainly wasn't the direction my husband wanted to go in. So there was a bit of a rub there. And then when they -- they came up with the idea of moving patients to Valdez. And that's when my -- really, when my husband got very, very upset about that. Valdez was in a depressed area then. I don't know that their hospital was adequate at the time. I think they -- I'm not even sure they had one doc down there at one point in time there. And then there were these apartments that had been built, and never been occupied. And a couple of these gentlemen in Valdez owned these apartments, so they were successful in selling them to the state. And then the state, between 1960 and '64 moved the developmentally disabled patients over to Valdez, and I'm not sure when the first API was opened. So maybe they kept those who were, quote, mentally ill down in Portland until API was ready. But they had moved the developmentally disabled people into Valdez. Well, these apartments in the Valdez townsite at that time were not in a very good spot. So when the 1964 Earthquake came, all the damage in Valdez and the damage to the apartments where the developmentally disabled were being housed necessitated the move of those patients up to Anchorage. And I think they went into API. I just -- that's very fuzzy to me. I don't know why I can't remember that particular scenario.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's okay. THELMA LANGDON: I was dealing with my own problems here, with my own house, that's probably why. So then, of course, they decided that they did not want to rebuild the town of Valdez in that same site. So they moved it around to the other side of the bay, where it was a lot safer. And now it -- if you go down and try to find the old townsite, there's nothing there. Everything's gone. They really cleaned it up very well. Then the state, as a result of the earthquake, got a -- a grant to rebuild something in Valdez. Well, there was some talk of not putting any kind of a -- a facility down there for mental -- mentally ill or the developmentally disabled, but maybe using it someplace else. Well, that was not permissible. They had to build something in Valdez. So they built Harborview, that did have the developmentally disabled program there. And the two nurses that had worked at Morningside with my husband -- with my husband moved up to Valdez and they ran that facility for a few years. And we made several trips down there and they -- they were doing a fabulous job. Section 8:
BILL SCHNEIDER: But let's get back to your husband's dispute with the state --
THELMA LANGDON: Okay.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- at that time.
THELMA LANGDON: He was not happy with that. And then -- there was something else, some other thing. I can't -- I mentioned it earlier and I can't remember what it was. The -- take -- putting the patients in Valdez. That was one of the big ones. There were a couple of other things that he just had a hard time --
BILL SCHNEIDER: I think in one of the -- one of the newspaper articles there was something about him speaking out publicly. THELMA LANGDON: Oh, yes. Yeah. That was part of it. That he went to the press. They didn't like that, that he went to the press. And that he was saying bad things about the -- the way the government was being run, and things of that sort, and he just -- he just couldn't -- he could not go along with the direction that was being set in Juneau. So that's when he decided that he just had to -- had to -- had to resign.
And it was funny. He sent the letter of resignation in, and then Governor Egan fired him. And so that -- that was the way that happened. And then he and Governor Egan got to be real good friends later on. They were good friends. But that was kind of interesting to watch. This Henry Coe who was the owner of Morningside wanted -- wanted us to come back to Portland. So he came up here to try to convince me that we should move back to Portland, back to Morningside. And then my husband said, well, the final decision is up to -- to me. So I said, no, we're not going. So that's why we stayed in Alaska. BILL SCHNEIDER: Why did you say that?
THELMA LANGDON: Because I felt that Henry, the guy that was in charge of running the hospital, was -- was not very understanding of a lot of the changes that J. Ray had made, and I didn't think that he was very -- you know, worked very well with it. You know, there was disagreements from time to time. And I thought, you know, I don't know, he says -- he says that J. Ray can have free reign, but Henry was always trying to micromanage the medical side of it. And -- and it was -- I mean, it was inevitable that they were going to have to close that hospital because they were moving the patients and moving -- moving them up to Anchorage. So -- or into Alaska. So what's the point of going back there when you know the hospital is going to close. It just didn't make much sense to me.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum. THELMA LANGDON: So that's why we -- I decided we better stay here. And my kids are very happy that we decided to stay here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I guess at that point you were starting the Langdon Clinics? THELMA LANGDON: Oh, we started the Langdon Clinic about two -- two or three months after he left the state. But you know, he stayed in taking care of a lot of those patients -- patients that were back up here. There was a place called The Lodge on Spenard somewhere, and it had a lot of the developmentally disabled men who had been patients down at Morningside, living there. And they were all on medication and so he would go to see them and give them their medication. I remember he got me to go there once with him. My training as an RN came in handy then, so I went with him a couple of times.
Then I had -- oh, several of the patients that came back here would call here from time to time just to chat. Section 9:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about your husband's personality.
THELMA LANGDON: Well, some people called him curmudgeon. He was very outspoken. He had very high ideals. He was very controversial. I think he was one of these people which you either liked or you didn't like. He had a lot of friends, but he had a lot of enemies, too. He was -- his father had died before he was born, so he had to learn how to be a dad because he hadn't had that experience in his own life. He had uncles and a grandfather, but it's not like having a dad. So he had to -- he had to learn that. And he played a lot with the -- with the boys. He was interested in everything they were doing, academically and sportswise.
What else do I need to say? BILL SCHNEIDER: Why was he controversial?
THELMA LANGDON: Well, I think his expectations of people was very, very high. And when people didn't perform the way he thought they should because he felt they had the responsibility to do certain things, he was very outspoken about that, you know. He criticized his fellows -- his fellow MDs quite a bit because he felt that they weren't as involved as -- as they should be in the social issues, nor were they willing to give of themselves to make things better for the community or for the people. I think he just got really discouraged because he thought that we could be doing a lot better than we were, and it was possible to do a lot better. It wasn't a question of there isn't the money or there isn't -- you know, there aren't the resources, it was the fact that if people were more involved, then these things would come about, you know. I think that was his -- his philosophy. But people were not and still aren't eager to be involved in a lot of these issues. I know he used to get very upset when my kids -- the kids didn't learn a lot of things that he knew. I could never get him to understand that how do you expect them to know these things if they are not being taught these things?
He never got that connection. His own -- he had three or four aunts that were school teachers, and he was exposed to a lot of the things that my kids weren't because, you know, we were up here all by ourselves. So he he got very concerned about what they were teaching in the schools.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But he wasn't afraid to speak out. THELMA LANGDON: No. He was not afraid to speak out. It probably would have been to his benefit had he been -- had he been afraid to say some things, or used the good judgment to not say some things. But, no, he had to say what he thought. Section 10:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Before we get onto discussing the Langdon Clinic, talk a little bit about how his relationship with Egan changed and re-emerged as something positive.
THELMA LANGDON: I don't know how that happened. BILL SCHNEIDER: Was there any particular event or occasion where --
THELMA LANGDON: Not that I can recall. Not that I can recall. Maybe it was just kind of interesting that that did come about. And he still -- he stayed involved with the state for years. He was -- he worked with vocational rehabilitation. He was their -- their consultant here for years and years and years. And then he was on the Medicaid -- the Medicaid advisory commission with the state. And so he stayed involved in -- you know, in a lot of these things.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's talk about the Langdon Clinic. THELMA LANGDON: Oh, he started the Langdon Clinic, as I said, two or three months after he left the state, and I'm trying to remember. Let's see. He started -- he got a secretary. And then he hired a social worker. And then a couple years later he hired the psychologist that had been at Morningside with him, Allan Parker. He brought him up here. And so that was the -- the nucleus. His -- his idea was to have a multidisciplinary service, psychiatric service with the social worker and the psychologist. And also, Troy Sullivan who was a reading therapist was also on the staff of the Langdon Clinic for a number of years, I think until he was killed, until he died. And so that was his -- his idea was to have the kinds of help people needed, not just medically, but in their personal lives. And so that was the kind of a clinic he envisioned when he started. BILL SCHNEIDER: That's neat, yeah. Is Allan Parker still living?
THELMA LANGDON: No. Allan died about three or four years ago. Section 11:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let's get into your role in the mental health field. You weren't just sitting on the sidelines through all this.
THELMA LANGDON: No, I was not. I was involved with my kids in the -- in school and PTA, and I was involved with the Medical Auxiliary, the docs' wives. And I was involved with Providence Hospital Auxiliary. And I started out being concerned about health issues. We had the polio vaccine, or I don't know whether it was -- if it was the shots or the oral vaccine that we did for the kids. And eventually, my interest in health issues kind of spilled over into education issues. So I was PTA president and I was the president of the State PTA for four years. And then Governor Hammond appointed me to the Alaska Board -- State Board of Education. And I served on the State Board of Education for eight years. And then I -- I was involved with, still with these other things, Medical Auxiliary, and by that time I had gotten so involved with other things I was no longer with the Providence auxiliary. So let's see what happened then.
Then the -- oh, the lands issue. We never talked about that. Section 12:
BILL SCHNEIDER: The Mental Health Trust lands?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. When Hammond was Governor, Mike Bird, who is still living, Dr. Mike, Dr. Mike Bird believes that the land should belong to the people. And so he thought that the Mental Health Trust lands, I think it was -- I don't know whether he was involved in that particular issue, but anyway, he still believes that the lands belong to the people. But someone in the administration thought that the university lands, the school lands, and the Mental Health Trust lands should not remain as designated to these specific areas. So they took all those lands and put them into the general pool of lands. The university immediately took it to court. And it was years before -- gosh, I don't know how many years before the Mental Health Trust Lands, Jim Gottstein got involved when his mother was running the mental -- Alaska Mental Health Association. Jim got interested in that, and so -- and so that's when that litigation started and went on for I don't know how many years, five or six years maybe. And then they -- then they finally came around to setting up the Mental Health Trust Authority. But when that -- before that, prior to that, about three or four years, they set up a Mental Health Board. And I was appointed by -- I forgot what governor, or asked to serve on that one. So I accepted.
By that time, my husband was dead. He died in 1981. And so I said, okay, I'll do that. So we got started on that. And I was president of that board for a couple of years. And I stayed on that board, I don't know how many, four or five years, I guess. And then -- and then it was settled and the Mental Health Trust Authority was set up. I was out of the picture by that time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Why do you think you were chosen for the Mental Health Board? THELMA LANGDON: That's a good question. I don't know. Somebody must have suggested my name.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Had you been -- continued to be active in mental health issues? THELMA LANGDON: Uhhum. Yeah. Kind of on the sidelines. I was with the Mental Health Association and I knew some of the people who were also appointed to that, to the Mental Health Board to start with. So maybe one of those folks suggested it and so they decided to ask me to serve. BILL SCHNEIDER: So you had stayed active in mental health issues?
THELMA LANGDON: Uhhum. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Why was that?
THELMA LANGDON: Once an advocate, always an advocate. That's what my friend who is a child advocate told me years ago. So that's why. Even now, I see that as my role. Those people can't -- don't have anybody to speak for them, really.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum.
THELMA LANGDON: I mean, they've got some of the organizations, but lay people to come out and speak on their behalf, there aren't many of them. Section 13:
BILL SCHNEIDER: What were some of the key issues when you were on the Mental Health Board?
THELMA LANGDON: Oh, that's a good question.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you want me to shut this off and have a minute to think about it?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. That would be good. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. We're back on and we're -- we're talking about some of the things that took place when you were chairing the Mental Health Trust Board. THELMA LANGDON: One of the things that we worked on for years was try to decide what the size of the hospital that was being anticipated, the new hospital was going to be. This must have gone on for three or four years, meeting after meeting after meeting, trying to come up with a decision. And so, you know, ideas would change and it seemed like even philosophies would change and I was just -- it was just a really difficult time. Because I felt a lot of money was being spent needlessly in doing all these meetings and all. Then I remember meeting with the architects, too, several occasions. And I think when the hospital was finally built, the one that's now in operation, I don't think they used any of those ideas that came out over the period of these years. BILL SCHNEIDER: Which hospital was this?
THELMA LANGDON: API (Alaska Psychiatric Institute).
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, API?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. Yeah. So that's -- that was one of the things that really took up a lot of our time. And then we had special committees on that, too. And trying to oversee what was going on in the community mental health centers, the ones that are nonprofits, about funding them, how much state money they should get, that kind of -- that kind of thing took up a lot of time. And then with the four groups, the four that were entitled to some of the resources from the mental health lands, the developmentally disabled and mentally ill, the Alzheimer's, what do they call them, people with psychosis -- I don't think they called it Alzheimer's -- the senior population, and then the alcoholics with psychosis, that was -- that was always -- we dealt with that, too. The individual groups, and then they would come to us and tell us what the needs are.
And so we would try to get together and take a big look, a look at the big picture on the four groups and what they should get and what direction they should go. And so it was -- it was time consuming. It took a lot of energy. Took a lot of patience. Section 14:
BILL SCHNEIDER: But there were certain things that you wanted in the architecture at API?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. Yes. Yes. There were. Yeah. We wanted it to be -- well, keeping up with what's going on now as far as building psychiatric hospitals, that it should be not into the -- not the kind of an institution that the old API was. And that old API was another story. That hospital had to be built like a general hospital because they were getting federal funds. Halliburton -- no, there was a name for it. Certain funds that they were giving out to build hospitals. So it had to have an operating room, which they never used. It had to have some kind of facilities for OB, and all those things were costly and -- and of no use in that -- in that institution. Then as time went on and the asbestos thing became a real issue, I can remember putting on all those suits that you put on to go to look to see how the asbestos is deteriorating. I remember going into the innards on the old API to see how bad it was. So that hospital, it's a good thing it's gone. BILL SCHNEIDER: But the new API, there are things you would have liked different there?
THELMA LANGDON: I've not been in the new one, so I don't know what they ended up with.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. THELMA LANGDON: I think they wanted it, you know, so that patients would not feel so confined, they could get out into the yard and be more of a homelike situation than an institutional situation.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum. Uhhum. THELMA LANGDON: So I think -- I think that was the -- the goal of the architects that I know that were working on it, that was -- that was their vision.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Good.
THELMA LANGDON: So, but I -- I guess I should go out there just out of curiosity to see what the new one's like. Section 15:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Before we talk about the Molly Hootch situation, how do you think the trust is doing today? Do you think it has challenges?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. It has challenges. BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum. Okay. Okay. We're back on. Let's talk about Molly Hootch.
THELMA LANGDON: Yes. That --
BILL SCHNEIDER: When you were on the State Board of Education, I guess. THELMA LANGDON: Yes. Yes. Well, that went on for several years, too. Trying to decide what to do and how to do it. So we -- there was a group of lawyers, either was Harvard or Yale, I think Harvard, that were really interested in it. So, you know, we would work with them. And the final thing that happened was we had to make the decision whether we were going to have the courts tell us how the education program in Alaska out in the Bush area would go, or whether we as a state would make that decision. And that is what made us come to the decision that we thought it should be with the state and -- and not have the Feds involved at all. So that was the decision that was made.
Well, now, hear a lot of -- a lot of criticism about the Molly Hootch case and how it was settled. But if you think of the alternative, I think -- I think the right decision was made. I think that after it was made, maybe there was some mistakes made. I had my own vision of -- of how it could happen. But I imagine there was many visions as there were people thinking about it of how it should happen.
I always thought that the schools should be more than just schools and small communities that could serve as community centers, they could have -- maybe take care of the nurses passing through, they could have it as a medical and as a clinic, and I just felt that there were a lot -- a lot of uses that could be made of the schools.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uhhum. THELMA LANGDON: But that -- I think in some -- in some communities it's probably better than in others. And another thing that happened with the schools is they didn't have anybody on site to really keep -- keep an eye on the construction of the schools. I thought that was -- that was pretty -- pretty critical. And there are some of them that didn't happen, so now they're having all kinds of problems -- or they, immediately afterwards, were having all kinds of problems. But I still think that probably was the best decision. Section 16:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let's finish this interview up here. We've been going for quite awhile.
Any final thoughts on the Mental Health Trust that we should talk about? Any thoughts about mental health delivery of services, some of the dreams that you had and that your husband had and things you'd like to see happen? THELMA LANGDON: Well, one of the things I think I -- I don't know, and I really would like to find out is how -- for example, how does Fairbanks -- what's Fairbanks' philosophy about mental health services for the citizens of Fairbanks? What kind of a system do they have in place for mental health treatment? And I still really need to do a little bit more research on what is going on in Anchorage right now. My daughter works at the Langdon Psychiatric Clinic and she spent five years in New Zealand working in psychiatry -- psychiatric services. And she says that we are so deficient in some of the areas that -- components that are needed in the good -- good psychiatric or good mental health program. We just don't have a lot of the things that she had available to her when she was working down in Auckland in New Zealand. So I think there -- I don't know that -- how to figure out just what all or where all we're deficit and what to do about it. I don't know if anybody knows that. I guess I could talk to her and see what her suggestions are, but we don't really talk about that all that often.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure.
THELMA LANGDON: So... Section 17:
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. We're back -- we're back on, and we want to talk a little bit about the Alzheimer's support group and how that got started and your personal involvement in that. THELMA LANGDON: Okay. In 1981, the year that my husband died, and that's the year that my sister and I were responsible for taking care of our father who was suffering from dementia. So my dad came and lived with me for a few weeks, and then he went back to live with my sister for a year, then he came back to Anchorage to live with me. And we got him in the day -- day break -- day care program. And he was the first man in that program. There were several women in the program, I think there was another man, or another one or two men, and the -- one of the women had two daughters. Becky Clemmen (phonetic) and Beverly Tallman (phonetic). And then Darlene Sutherland had, I think it was I think -- I don't remember whether it was her mother or father in that program. And we started a -- a family support group. So we met maybe once a month, the four of us. And then it grew, oh, maybe three or four more people, and I cannot remember their names. But the four of us stuck together. And then Becky is really a gogetter so she decided we should become a nonprofit organization. So then we became a nonprofit organization, wrote the bylaws, and got our -- got our paperwork into the state and got squared away on that. And then it just kind of grew out of that to what it is today, the Alzheimer's Resource, I think it's -- Alzheimer's Resource Agency. And they had services through -- throughout the state. I know they've got staff -- a staff person up in Fairbanks, and then they have people in the Valley, and then somebody down in Homer. And I'm not sure where else they may have branched out to. But that's one of the things that I'm very proud that I was on the ground floor as an advocate for, for these folks. That's... And I think they -- they receive money from the -- from the Trust Authority. I'm -- I know they do, but I don't know to what degree they -- they receive money, but I'm sure they do because they are one of the four -- they represent one of the four groups that are entitled to receive resources or money or whatever from them.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's good. I'm glad we -- glad we got that down. Section 18:
BILL SCHNEIDER: You had mentioned some of the people that had been involved over the years with mental health issues, and I wanted you to maybe just mention them again. You mentioned Pat Claskey (phonetic)?
THELMA LANGDON: Pat Clasby (phonetic). BILL SCHNEIDER: Clasby.
THELMA LANGDON: Yes. Her mother was Irene Ryan. And Irene Ryan was, I think she was -- she was in the first legislature. I -- I don't know if she was a representative or a Senator. Anyway, when we got Statehood, she was involved in -- in that whole setting up the mechanisms for the state. Pat is a psychologist, and she worked down in Seward for a while. She currently lives down in Juneau. And she stayed in the field as a psychologist, and then she's retired now, but she was a lobbyist for one of the advocacy organizations. I can't -- I can't bring the name to mind. But she and I were very interested and talked a good deal about doing a history of mental health -- mental health services and the mental health systems in Alaska, but never got around to it. George Rogers was on the Mental Health Trust Board, or Mental Health Board with us, too. Oh, what a great guy he is. I really enjoyed having him on that board. He had so much background information and such good insight. And that was good. John Malone was on the Mental Health Trust Authority now, was also on the Mental Health Board. Evelyn Tucker was on there. Alicia Iden (phonetic), who was Lidia Selkregg's daughter, was on the board. She died a couple of years ago. Mike Graff from Fairbanks was on that board. And the last three of them had served as chair -- as chairman of the Mental Health Board over the years. Kay Burrows in Anchorage was also very active in the mental health field. Janet McGilvary ran the Mental Health Association for a number of years, it's no longer active or functioning. I know there are some more that I'm --
BILL SCHNEIDER: No, that's fine.
THELMA LANGDON: that I can't bring to mind. BILL SCHNEIDER: No. You've done well. Lidia Selkregg is somebody who would be important to talk to.
THELMA LANGDON: No. She's -- she's gone, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: She's gone?
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah. And then her -- her husband Fred was also active with the Mental Health Association, but he's no longer here. You know, I mentioned that there are a lot of people that I can think of that I'd like to touch base with and try to verify my own memories, but they are not around anymore. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Okay. Well, this has been great. I appreciate the time you've put into this.
THELMA LANGDON: Oh, you're very welcome.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I'll leave and you'll remember lots of other things, but we will have to get together again. Thank you.
THELMA LANGDON: Yeah.