My husband and I had watched “60 Minutes” on May 2, transfixed in horror as an ignoble chapter of American history unfolded. It was the story of the eugenics movement in the first half of the 1900s and highlighting the Walter E. Fernald School in Waltham, Mass. This school was part of a nationwide system where children labeled feebleminded (some were and some weren’t) were warehoused, treated awfully, deprived of everything good and necessary in life, and given no hope.

“The idea (of the eugenics movement) was to separate people considered inferior from the rest of society, to prevent them from reproducing,” according to the Web site cbsnews.com. The reason this is coming to light now is the recent publication of the book “The State Boys Rebellion” by Michael D’Antonio.

The day after the TV program, I received an e-mail from my friend Karen Gagne. Her father had been kept at the Fernald School for years! She also said, “My dad is the most gentle, loving person you could ever meet. He just loves everybody. Dad has been able to forgive completely.”

My first thought was how sorry I was that my friend’s father went through that. My next was that I wanted to talk with him.

Karen arranged to come over with her father and mother, Albert and Doris Gagne. Before they came I read up on the history and formulated my questions. The main one was, “How did you survive?”

Al was at Fernald from 1948 to 1956, from the time he was 10 until he was 18. He said that he, his brother and sister were put there because their parents had few, if any, of the skills necessary to parent, and all their lives were in turmoil. Schools like this provided an easy dumping ground for wards of the state.

The hardest parts of his childhood incarceration included losing all hope for any kind of normal life, bearing up under cruel treatment and unbelievable deprivation himself, and even worse for him, witnessing these things in the lives of his peers.

How did he survive? Several things jumped out at me as Al talked. One was that early on he became a little social worker, coming to the aid of those younger or less well off than himself. He survived by helping others.

When he was 13, he had two epiphanies. One was that he somehow sensed that he needed something larger than himself to lean on. As he sat outside on some steps, he thought, “There has to be something greater than all this and some purpose to my life.” He developed a deep and personal relationship with God that has remained steadfast throughout his life; he had a spiritual conversion that kept him whole.

Also at 13, he became proactive rather than reactive in his approach to his life and his service to the other boys. He initiated activities; he threw himself into work duties. He took on various younger children as projects, planning ways he could help them. He learned to assist others with their seizures and medical emergencies, and even performed some drowning rescues. He became a heads-up person for many younger boys.

Thankfully, Al himself had one special heads-up person, Abigail Bacon, a social worker. He remembers her as kind, caring and encouraging throughout. He often wonders what a toll working in a place like that must have taken on her.

There were other kind teachers, he said. “If only the teachers and the attendants could have changed places.” The attendants were there 24/7 and their treatment was often inhumane.

Al was the first “student” at Fernald to get out on a work release. It was 1956, and eugenics was finally becoming politically incorrect. He went to work in a prearranged placement in a hospital. That job, combined with Al’s work ethic and various assignments he’d had at Fernald, including a stint at a morgue, set him up reasonably well for the working world.

As an adult, out in the world, coming from the childhood that he did, Al has been a stunning success.

He has always worked, has a family that loves him (so many of the people who grew up like Al could never sustain a primary relationship) and is a valued member of the community. He cares about the welfare of all children and advocates for them every chance he gets. He is writing his own book. And he thanks God for all he has.

Karen knew from her youth that her father had had an awful childhood, but until D’Antonio’s book, which includes stories and photos of the Gagne children, and the TV segment, she didn’t realize how grim it was. This Father’s Day, more than ever, she is grateful for her father, for his love and his goodness, and for his remarkable resiliency.

Dianne Russell Kidder is a writer, consultant and social worker, who is based in Lisbon. E-mail: [email protected]


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