Elmer L. Andersen

The Honorable Elmer L. Andersen, former Governor, spoke at the February 7, 2011 luncheon, recalling in great detail the historical moments and events that contributed to the closing of institutional care facilities in Minnesota and the development of a respectful service delivery system for people with developmental disabilities. (Run time 13:25)

Video is open captioned. Transcript is provided below.

It has been wonderful to be here, and I think it's a great tribute to everyone to have the occasion for this celebration. It brought back countless memories to my mind and I've enjoyed it ever so much.

There were two things that were going through my mind – one was, of course, the governmental leaders of both parties that saw the vision and helped the professional workers who were not members of the legislature to accomplish their goals.

And then that both parties were involved. Minnesota has a wonderful tradition – practically every governor in the series was shown in the films. I thought it was so splendid. And then there was one other thing that occurred to me...

Frequently when any reference is made to the media, it's critical. They're doing this wrong or they're doing that wrong, or they don't get stories right. We're very critical of the media. But yet in the battle for the rights of individual people the media has been outstanding.

Certainly, in Minnesota, there were people like Sam Newlund and Geri Joseph. At that time it was Geri Hoffner. I remember them both very well, they were dedicated professionals, but they had a vision of what the state could be, and were pleased and happy to report what was going on in the legislature.

I was elected to the State Senate in 1949 at a special election following the death of my predecessor, so things were rolling along actively, and it was at the height of Governor Youngdahl's battle for increased appropriation to the mental hospitals.

One of the active groups invited me to go down and visit a mental hospital, which I had never seen. And we went down to St. Peter's, and I was so appalled at the human conditions, that it affected me for weeks before I could recover some composure to think of human beings in such desperate conditions.

I still remember that the food allowance was sixty-five cents a day, and people were huddled. And I also came to have the greatest regard for the psychiatric aides who worked in those places trying desperately to bring some measure of consolation and affection and attention to the patients.

And I remember also in a frequently-made reference to a letter that I received, trying to urge people: When you feel concerned about something, write your legislator, write your congressperson, write your governor. Let them know from your own personal experience.

I remember a family writing me a letter, I remember it as clearly as anything to this day. I didn't know them, but they said that a member of their family had become mentally ill, and they had exhausted family resources in the care of this loved one, and now were faced with commitment to a state hospital.

So they had visited the state hospital to which their loved one would be committed, and they said they were appalled at the conditions, and they're torn, how can they possibly commit their loved one to that condition? And yet they could no way continue to stand the expense personally. And I remember the concluding sentence in the letter: "For God's sake vote for that mental health appropriation."

Governor Youngdahl called for an increase of one hundred percent in the appropriation, just, mind you, doubling the amount that was needed, and when it came on a vote in the legislature it was practically unanimous.

The part that relates me to this great celebration occurred in 1955. At that time the legislature met biennially, and it was the custom to have interim commissions of legislators, sometimes with lay participation, to study problems of the day and bring to the succeeding legislature recommendations.

And that was where Maynard Reynolds played a key role in interesting a group of us legislators in setting up an interim commission on the problems of the mentally handicapped, or the handicapped in general. We came to realize they were exceptional children. They were not handicapped, they were exceptional.

We had a wonderful interim commission that was just dedicated. We had many wonderful experiences that come to mind so freshly today. I remember once when we visited the home of a blind child.

And at one point as we saw this beautiful little girl skip around the house, apparently not handicapped in any way, we asked how that was possible. Well they said, "We had to have the furniture in all the right places, and we can't change things because once she gets accustomed to where everything is she can manage very well."

And then someone asked her, "Is it a handicap or a disability to the rest of the family to have a person, an exceptional child in the family?" And that lovely mother said, "No, she contributes to the rest of the family. Her blindness has led to the other children having increased sense of touch."

I remember once, in the case where we visited the situation where children were learning to talk with physical disabilities. And we warned when we went in that as they were working to walk they might fall. And they would fall very heavily, and you'll have every impulse to go and want to help them up, but  restrain yourself and just let them find their own way to get up. That's part of the training.

And sure enough as we were watching these children learning to walk, one of them fell very heavily. We felt so sorry for that little girl. And yet she crawled over to a pole, pulled herself up, and the smile of accomplishment when she had done that was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. It shows that one of the greatest participants in rehabilitation is to help people do for themselves, rather than doing things for them.

There's so much to learn from people with disabilities as well as things that can be done to help them. But we live in a country that's dedicated to the idea that every child, every person has potential.

Every person is equal. Every person is due the respect and confidence of others. And given the tools they can accomplish a great deal, and history is full of stories of those with disabilities that have overcome them in wonderful ways and had great impact for good on civilization.

Well, I'm so delighted to be here, and I feel so grateful to all who've had any share. I think of some of the members of the interim commission back there in '57. We came with our reports in '57 and every recommendation was made.

And it wasn't always easy, it isn't always an uphill rise. There are setbacks. At that time there was great loyalty to the institution for the blind and the institution for the deaf. As we studied the situation as best we could as lay people, we felt that the goal should be to orient people to normal life, that to institutionalize people and segregate them and isolate them wasn't really the happiest solution.

But there was an alumni group, and a parent's group that was so loyal to the school for the deaf and the school for the blind, which had done excellent work in the past, that we decided not to make any change in that situation, but that the program we were going to recommend was to adapt the public schools to responsibility for every child, regardless of exceptionality.

There were professional differences of opinion, and there always are, and we asked the professionals, we said, "We're going to the legislature with a new program and we need unity. Whatever you believe, let's get together on a program that we can all support. "

"And if you have professional differences, please keep them to yourself, at least for the legislative session, because the slightest indication of difference of opinion will play into the hands of those who never want to spend money for anything." And so we had unity, even though there were ardent supporters of institutions at that time.

Through history now we come to the point where the last person is released from an institution and put into a normal life situation. That's a glorious accomplishment, and there's much more to be done.

A meeting of this kind, of this dimension, with the people who are here and the influence and power you all have, Minnesota can continue to be in the vanguard of progress. I remember one thing about legislative log rolling that affected the program. We passed every recommendation that the interim committee made.

But one of the real helpers was Senator Bob Dunlap of Plainview, Minnesota. He was carrying the bill for a library program The federal government had made available some funds and his bill provided for full participation by Minnesota in a regional library system and bookmobiles that was going to bring library services to everyone in the state.

And I remember talking to him. I said, "Bob, you have good program in your library bill. We think we have a tremendous program for special education. Why don't we pool our resources and get both of them done?" So we did.

So the library group plugged for special education and the special education group plugged for better libraries and we got it all done. It was one of the few times when the entire program was adopted.

But I must mention Jerry Walsh. He was a real pioneer, the first institution effort for the mentally retarded. I remember once when we asked Ottertail County, "Why don't you have any classes in Ottertail County for the retarded and trainable children?"  They said, "We don't have any retarded children in Ottertail County." It was amazing, the lack of information, the lack of interest, from where we started.

And yet so much has been done, and it reminds me of one closing thing – you never lose. There are times when the progress is discouraging. There are times when the mental states of people seem to be beyond belief in their lack of understanding and lack of vision, lack of humanitarian concern for other people. And yet, everything effort is a part of continuing progress.

You never lose because every effort contributes to an ultimate final good result. And this is a glorious day to know that visions that have existed now for over sixty years. It took the federal government until '71 to get anything like a special education program going, where Minnesota was in the vanguard of the states in 1957.

So it's been a wonderful progress. Minnesota continues to be a wonderful state, and it will only so continue as there's eternal vigilance and a caring heart for people, not out of the goodness of heart but out of the value to society of utilizing the potential of every blessed human being on Earth.

Thank you very much.