Gordon DuBois is an educator, writer, filmmaker, amateur historian, and activist for marginalized and often forgotten citizens of NH. On March 22nd, he spoke at a showing of his film “Lost in Laconia” at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH. The film was brought to FPU through The England Center For Civic Life and the Franklin Pierce Civic Scholars program, headed by Prof. Joni Doherty.
DuBois became involved in activism when, after graduating from SUNY Cortland in 1968, DuBois said he, “…felt called in a way to work with those disenfranchised by society.” In 1977, DuBois accepted a fateful position working at The Laconia State School located in Laconia, NH.
According to Gordon DuBois, former LSS worker and writer and producer of “Lost in Laconia”, he was attracted to the job by the paradigm shift taking place in the way Americans thought about disabilities during the 1970s. During the time period, the country was transitioning from a focus on institutionalized care to community based programs.
After accepting the position at Laconia, Dubois quickly became enveloped in a world that, “…probably 90% of the population didn’t know about; didn’t want to know about. Institutions… they were hidden away. People really were just lost there…to their families, friends, communities.” In the case of LSS, the school served as a dumping ground for members of society who found themselves unwanted and unaccepted due to the circumstances of their birth.
The institution which became Laconia State School was founded in 1901 as an alternative to the regional “almshouses”, set up on local farms to contain impoverished and disabled community members. According to a former employee of LSS, Alberta Sitt, “…it was like a warehouse.” Some of those who came to live at the school like, Samantha Chamberlain, were homeless, some, like Carol Dow, were born into families unwilling or unable to care for them. Still others suffered from developmental disorders and were sent away when doctors encouraged families to abandoned disabled offspring and start over.
The theory of eugenics was lauded as the driving force behind Laconia and sterilization, usually without consent of the patient, was common practice. Dr. Benjamin Baker, a former employee of the state school and proponent of eugenics wrote on the subject saying, “The world does not need the moron…it could get on much better without them. I strongly support eugenics.” By the time the practice of sterilization at Laconia was discontinued in 1958, doctors had completed over 400 procedures.
The unacceptable care and abuses at institutions like Laconia State School had long been noted by members of the community, but the activism really began to gain momentum when Dr. Richard Hungerford as hired as the superintendent of the institution. He was the first superintendent to be an educator rather than a medical doctor. In his time at LSS, Hungerford helped parents to form support groups and to become a presence in the community, while encouraging them, for the first time, to visit their institutionalized children.
Patients, like Samantha Chamberlain who said in the film, “You had to fear for your life there, you really did…people running around naked and jumping into your bed…Your dignity, your rights, everything, was pulled away from you,” suddenly were given a voice.
As a result of Dr. Hungerford’s work, the NH Council for Retarded Children and the Great Bay Association worked to spread the message of our nation’s inadequate resources for developmentally challenged Americans. Projects like the “Help Wanted” documentary drew national attention and newspapers like The Portsmith Herald published articles and pictures on conditions in the school. The next superintendent of LSS, Dr. Arthur Toll, continued to welcome parents and attempt new therapies designed to aid the patients rather than to just contain them.
In the meantime, the population of The Laconia School just kept growing. According to the film, by 1970 there were more than 1,162 residents and a waiting list of over 400.
The movement which sprung from the activism of the superintendents and others connected with The Laconia State School inspired a class action lawsuit which lead to an order from the Concord Federal Court demanding a switch from institutionalized establishments to community based resources for those with developmental disabilities. During the lawsuit and the subsequent work done to retool the system of resources available, the vast majority of employees of Laconia were supportive of the changes.
Many employees of LSS, like Alyce Jewell, truly had the best interests of patients in mind. Jewell said in the documentary, “If I had to do it all over again I would do it. I wouldn’t change it…I loved them.”
Concerned citizens of New Hampshire rallied around those those being released into the community and those already there by creating the Action for Independence Group, devoted to caring for those who require support to live a fully functioning life.
In 1991, the closing of Laconia State School marked what Gordon DuBois called, “…the end of a dominant paradigm,” in the sphere of developmental disability care. As seen in the film, the closing sparked celebration and made New Hamsphire the first state in the nation to move away from the institutional system.
*Note - All facts and quotations featured in the above article come from the film “Lost in Laconia”, the corresponding press release, or interviews conducted during the FPU showing. Biases can be blamed on the author who may have been slightly affected by the deeply personal nature of storytelling featured in the film.
For more information please visit, the “Lost in Laconia” website.
To contact Gordon DuBois about presenting his documentary at your school or organization, you can reach him by phone at 603-279-0379/229-1982 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.