A school for the feeble-minded


When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, we would occasionally go to visit my dad’s parents in Grafton, ND.

While there, one of the certain trips was to the city park, Leistikow Park, on the bank of the Park River. It was an awesome place in the eyes of small-town kids in the big city of Grafton (which probably was well on the short-side of 5,000 residents in those years).

Approaching the park we always passed what we knew as the State School for the Feeble Minded. There was one particularly large building that I remember, and on summer days the lawn was crowded with people we knew were very different from ourselves. Even in those years, when there was at least the beginnings of recognition of special needs, the perception was that these people were more-or-less warehoused, much as they would have been in an insane asylum. The financial resources and the political will were not yet there to help these persons who were very different from we supposedly normal folk.

We looked at those people behind the fence much like someone would look at animals in a zoo.

Undated photo of the main building at Grafton

By the 1950s enlightenment was beginning in states across the nation. Apparently, even though I remember the school only as the School for the Feeble Minded, its name had been changed even before I was born to the less descriptive “Grafton State School.”

By bits and pieces, everywhere, came new programs and attention and funding for “MAXIMIZING human potential for greater SELF-SUFFICIENCY*

I’ve come to know about the importance and richness of the special needs community in the years since my youngest child was born Down Syndrome in November, 1975.

Heather is nearing 35 this year, and she is a phenomenal human being.

This week I drew the pleasant duty of picking Heather up at her daytime work facility, Proact*, in Eagan MN. (It is Proact’s operating philosophy which I quote above.)

Off hours she lives in a pleasant suburban home with a couple of other special needs adults.

I’ve written before about her active engagement in after-hours athletic activities most recently last month.

Last night, Heather watched the Vikings and the Saints at her sister’s home. She’s an avid sports fan.

It is easy to take for granted the safety-net we have constructed in this country for those less capable of competing on their own. It is easy to say they’re a waste of precious resources.

In a bygone day my Heather could have been one of those behind the walls of that School for the Feeble Minded. I sometimes wonder how it would have been had she been child, and I parent, 100 years ago. What forces would have worked on me, then.

Those were not the good old days.

And as for going back…when I picked up Heather yesterday, one of her workmates gave her a hug as she was leaving. Then this friend, named Mary, reached out her hand and said to me, “Hi, I’m Mary.”

Can’t get any better than that.

Dick and Heather as photographed by the Smooch Project.