By Alan Johnson, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Feb. 12–APPLE CREEK, Ohio — When her daughter was 10 days old, Frances Miller got the chilling news a parent dreads to hear.
“Forget you’ve got her. Place her,” a doctor told Miller coldly. “She’s not going to live until she’s 1 year old anyway.”
But Frances and Roy Miller did not forget about fragile little Nancy, the second of their four children. She was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, an incurable neurological disorder in which part of the brain is calcified.
Nor did Nancy die by her first birthday, outliving the doctor’s prediction by 53 years — and counting.
But after struggling to care for Nancy at home for years, the Millers did place her, first in a state institution in Columbus and later in the Apple Creek Developmental Center, a facility for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled near Wooster in rural Wayne County.
From 1982 until June 2005, Apple Creek was home to Nancy and, in a way, to her aging parents. Two or three times a week and every holiday for nearly 23 years, they faithfully made the trip from Akron to the bucolic wooded campus on a hilltop where the buildings had cheerful apple names: Cortland, Grimes, Jonathan, McIntosh and Ruby.
On Saturday, Apple Creek will close, having written the final chapter in a 75-year history as a state institution once plagued by inhumane conditions but eventually emerging as one of the best care facilities in Ohio.
The Apple Creek saga, while scarred by human suffering and abuse, is also about the incredible triumph of the human spirit over unfathomable adversity, of courage over fear, dignity over disgrace.
It is Nancy’s story and that of 10,294 other disabled Ohioans who lived, and sometimes died, in a place some viewed as home, others as prison.
It began Feb. 14, 1931, Valentine’s Day, when the Apple Creek State School opened in what had been a tuberculosis hospital. It was the third such center in the state. The others were in Columbus and Gallipolis.
While most patients in the early days were “feeble-minded,’ as they were labeled, the place held a mixture of the mentally retarded and mentally ill, alcoholics, cerebral palsy sufferers, unwed mothers and “people who just didn’t fit in,” said Bill Green, Apple Creek’s 16 th and last superintendent.
Families ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with a disabled loved one frequently dropped them at Apple Creek. Some never returned.
Courts and doctors made frequent referrals.
By 1947, the institution had blossomed into a small city covering more than 2,100 acres, much of it dedicated to raising crops, chickens, cattle and hogs. It had its own power and sewage-treatment plants, along with cemeteries where 128 people are buried.
At its peak, 2,100 people lived there, more than all 10 state developmental centers currently house.
For decades, conditions in such Ohio institutions — as in most others around the nation — were deplorable.
Barbara Jones, who worked as a speech pathologist beginning in 1978, recalled her early impressions of Apple Creek.
“When I started, there was a large room of probably 90 to 100 adult-size cribs and there were people with varying degrees of disabilities that lay in cribs all day long,” Jones said in an interview for an audio documentary, Lest We Forget, by a Dayton disabilities-advocacy organization.
Jones said she saw “row and row and row of people just staring at the ceiling or staring off to the side. Some folks could only stare in the position in which they were last left because they didn’t have the the ability to move their own bodies.
“I remember at the time thinking, ‘What am I doing here? What have I done?’ “
Clair Alexander, 82, said Apple Creek was a “hell hole” in 1970 when he first took his son, John, there.
“There was a mixture of wild kids running all over the place,” Alexander said. “But there were no foster homes in those days. We really had no choice.
“We made a point to go down there every other week to visit him. We never brought him home. We were afraid he would stir up too much problem.”
Alexander said things improved dramatically after a landmark 1974 class-action lawsuit challenged conditions at Apple Creek.
“Being an institution, everything doesn’t go exactly right,” he said. “But in the last 15 or 20 years, it has been run quite well.”
Change is difficult, especially for families and patients who have made a commitment, however reluctantly, to institutional care.
Seeing that change was coming, like it or not, Alexander last year moved his son to a group home in Summit County. He had been at Apple Creek for 35 years.
Jack Carroll III, a 17-year resident, also moved out. He lives in an apartment with two other men, has a job and attends church.
“I never could understand why they had to keep those doors shut and cling bells. It’s like going to prison,” he said for Lest We Forget.
“That’s what it is about, freedom.
When John A. Kolarovsky, now 50, went to work as a hospital aide at Apple Creek in July 1974, the rooms had bare walls and no furniture other than a bed and a dresser, he said.
He remembers a “timeout room” for unruly patients — a bare 8-by-10-foot room with mesh on the window and a 2-inch-thick locked steel door.
“It wasn’t a nice place in those days, but many times we did the best we could with what we had.”
Things gradually improved in the late 1970s and ’80s, in part as younger, better-trained staff members were hired.
Eventually, Kolarovsky knew it was time to leave, which he did in 2004 after 27 years, most of it as staff training leader.
“I was ready. It was too sad. It was like watching an old friend die.”
The “old friend” was dying because Gov. Bob Taft decided in 2003 to close Apple Creek, along with the Springview Developmental Center in Springfield, to save $23 million a year.
“It was indeed a sense of grief,” Superintendent Green said of the closing decision. “It was devastating. It took us by storm.”
Even Green, a veteran administrator, got caught up in the emotion of closing a place haunted by historic human struggles.
“It doesn’t feel good on so many levels,” he said, pausing to choke back tears. “Knowing we finished well is the best.”
The site is expected to be turned over to Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, which already uses nearby land that was once part of the Apple Creek campus.
For months, residents have been moving to other centers, community facilities or homes. Some died while waiting.
One of the last to leave will be Patty Benko, a resident for more than 50 of her 69 years.
“I’m not ready to move yet,” she said recently while sorting drinking straws as part of a workshop project. “I kind of liked it here.”
But soon Benko will have to move, too, as Nancy Miller did last year.
The Millers vigorously fought Taft’s decision to close Apple Creek; Mrs. Miller went to Columbus to testify before a legislative committee.
Roy Miller, 82, who worked 42 years as a carpenter, remains bitter about the closing and having to move his daughter out of her “home” at the institution.
“The state of Ohio takes better care of a murderer than a handicapped child,” he said. “We didn’t have much trouble until Taft came in. I’m a Republican, but I’ll never vote for another one.”
But once the battle was lost, the couple placed their daughter with five other women in a group home in Tallmadge, about 20 minutes from the Akron area. The transition wasn’t easy or without problems, they said. While they generally like the care Nancy has received, there are issues with diet, therapy and her state of mind.
Nancy, who cannot speak, has lost her limited ability to walk in the past year.
Mrs. Miller remains totally dedicated to the child whose birth she considered a miracle after seven miscarriages. At 80, she still lifts Nancy in and out of her wheelchair even though she has a bad back.
“Mommy loves you,” she said, gently patting her daughter’s hand recently when Nancy was home for a visit.
Mr. Miller’s bitterness about the closing of Apple Creek softens instantly when he’s asked about his wife of 62 years and his delicate daughter — “my two angels,” he calls them.
“Nancy’s definitely got her place in heaven,” he said, his eyes glowing with tears behind gold-rim glasses. “She’s lived her hell here on earth.”
Copyright (c) 2006, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
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