Listening to Anthony
Angelo, John, The Humanist
Mansfield Training School in the gentle hills of northeastern Connecticut, like brick institutions for the mentally retarded all over the country, was closed within the past decade to the purpose for which it was originally constructed earlier in the twentieth century.
The dozen central square three-story buildings of Mansfield stood mute when I walked the grounds last fall. Vines had taken over an outdoor phone booth. A weathered sign denoting "Barber" was a reminder of the function of a small building, outside of which rested a pile of rained-on textbooks discarded from the University of Connecticut campus only ten miles distant but a universe removed. An ironic title in the pile caught my eye, so I picked it up: Human Societies.
I followed distant voices past the central buildings through the light rain. There was a women's rugby game being played on the site of the former institution's agricultural fields.
I saw a light on in one of the smaller buildings. The sign on the door read "Connecticut Small Business Center." I knocked and inquired inside amidst a group of happy children in brightly colored tights stretching in preparation for a dance class. No, there were no artifacts of the campus' prior history, I was told by an instructor. Nothing left over from before the training school's official closing in the spring of 1993. No markers. No trophies. No records of the thousands of human beings who had once lived here.
I continued my walk outside the shuttered and abandoned buildings of the central campus. A pitted cement wheelchair ramp followed the slope of the grounds to Route 32. As I looked across the road to the lower Mansfield campus I sadly and ironically realized that I was confronted by the only tribute to this training school that fit the architecture: the lower campus had been converted into a prison.
Roger MacNamara, a former superintendent of Mansfield who lobbied for its closing, wrote in 1994 for the journal Mental Retardation, "These buildings ... were a perfect design for ease of housekeeping, mass care, and lost humanity."
In October 1974, I boarded a bus with forty other UConn students for the first time to spend a few hours one evening a week at Mansfield. There I met Daniel, a teenaged "trainable" (in the jargon of the time, lower functioning than an "educable"). We bowled, played with his toy trucks, or took walks.
My overwhelming memory of my first human service work was of the smell of the buildings' interiors. They were filled with an air that had been breathed too long, with tile floors that had been scrubbed and mopped and scrubbed again. No carpets. Nothing that couldn't be disinfected. I never sat on the floor.
My father, Frank, supported my work in human services but it wasn't until he was dying that he told me about his uncle, Anthony, who had died decades ago at Mansfield Training School. When I asked my great-aunt Emma about her brother-in-law, she replied:
All I can tell you about Anthony is what was told to me by his mother. She told me he was perfect when he was born, but when he was about a year-and-a-half old he developed a high fever. And while she was rocking him at night he had these strong convulsions, and she said the doctors had thought his condition was due to these convulsions. They put him in Mansfield when he was in his early twenties because the neighbors complained he was annoying them. …