#22 – Dick Bernard: Johnny, Carl and Elmer L.

Yesterday’s post on Heather (#21, May 13) got me to thinking back to those “good old days” about which people my age tend to recall so fondly as we face these troubled times. “Wouldn’t it be nice”, we tend to say, “if only we could be transported back into those good old times when life was simpler.” Indeed, on occasion, around will come some e-mail talking about those past-times when government didn’t intrude so much, and self-reliance was more a value. “Wouldn’t it be nice.”
After I posted the column, my memory went back to the time between 1945 and 1951, right after WWII, between age 5 and 11, when we lived in a little town not far from the Hawk’s Nest pictured on the front page of this blog.
In this town was a kid named Johnny, older and bigger than the gang I ran with, but on reflection, obviously retarded, often with us. In my memory, Johnny couldn’t talk, and lived at home down the street. He hardly had ability (as we measured such), but occasionally we could get him enraged, and then he would be fearsome. Nothing ever came of this rage – we could outrun him. The next day he’d be back.
I wonder whatever happened to Johnny.
It was at this point in time when I remember those visits to the town with the School for the Feeble Minded, briefly described in #21. (The 1982 History of that town headlines the section as being about the “State School”, and says it was established by State Government in 1903 as the “Institution for the Feeble-Minded”, and that it was, by 1982, “the largest employer in [the] County”.) In a recent conversation, a friend remembered an Aunt who had been confined there for some reason and “used the rope” (hung herself), likely to escape the misery of her confinement. Such facts don’t often appear in official histories.
In those same good old days, Carl, in another context, was growing up, retarded, on a farm in Minnesota. He was able to work, and he was worked, hard. In today’s context, his treatment would be called “abuse”. What happened on the farm stayed on the farm. I knew Carl for several years when he lived with my sister and her family. He lived to an unusually old age for someone with his disability, and at the end lived semi-independently in a community up north. He could not have survived on his own. He benefitted from a more enlightened day.
Our society was very late in the game of engaging in the reality of special needs and needs for special education and other special services.
I come from a life-long environment of public education, but even so, it was late in the game when I became fully aware of how slow we were in acknowledging the reality of unmet special needs.
In the early 1990s I became good friends with a former Governor of Minnesota, Elmer L. Andersen. He was a conservative Republican, and I met him through reading his columns in a community newspaper which he owned, and to which I subscribed, largely so I could read his columns on sundry topics.
I liked his philosophy, as expressed in his opinions, so much that in the spring of 1995 I decided to nominate him for the Friend of Education Award from my union, the Minnesota Education Association. I didn’t live in the state when he was in government, so my nomination was based solely on his opinion pieces. It became obvious, quickly, that there was much more to Elmer than what I knew of him.
He won the Friend of Education Award in the fall of 1995, and here I let my former colleague and good friend Judy Berglund complete the story as she wrote it for the MEA Advocate in October, 1995: Then-state legislator Elmer L. Andersen was “the architect of Minnesota’ special education program in 1955.
“At that time, one in 12 children was born with disabilities, and unable to benefit from a normal school environment,” he says. “I thought the Legislature ought to do something about that.”
The Legislature set up an interim commission, which he chaired. Every one of its recommendations was adopted by the 1957 Legislature, which established one of the best and most comprehensive special education programs in the nation. Families with retarded children got financial help to enroll their children in school, training programs and scholarships were provided for aspiring special education teachers.
That was 20 years before federal special education laws were passed, laws Andersen thinks hampered the program by encumbering it with extensive regulation. “Nevertheless, Minnesota took the lead in recognizing that all children have potential, all have God-given gifts, all have special needs,” he says….”
Mr. Andersen never wavered from his commitment to quality education for all, regardless of abilities or circumstance. Our friendship continued until his death during Thanksgiving week, 2004. He and many others are heroes for today’s and tomorrows Heather’s.
But todays most vulnerable citizens are most likely to be on the “chopping block” in tight economic times. Their budgets are easy to cut. They have little voice, only us.