Friday, December 7, 2012

An Interview with Francis Walter

The Reverend Francis Walter Talks about Life, Community, Justice and Disability at the St. Andrew's Foundation

My blog series, “Wednesdays with Dorothy” tells of the life of a woman who came to the St. Andrew’s Foundation as part of her transition from institutional life to community life. It is her story in her own words. I have also written some about my story involving the St. Andrew’s Foundation (you can see those essays here and here). My story, however, as well as Dorothy’s story at the St. Andrew’s Foundation would not have happened without Francis Walter’s story.

The St. Andrew’s Foundation was established under the leadership of the Reverend Francis Walter in 1973. He had previously been director of the Selma Interreligous Project during the civil rights struggle and in that role, among other things, had sponsored the Freedom Quilting Bee which was a cooperative that enabled poor black women to raise money for their impoverished region. (You can read about that project here.)

Francis hired me to work at the group homes in 1984. Since those days he went on to become rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. He currently lives in retirement with his wife, Faye, at their home in Sewanee, Tennessee. I was able to catch up with Francis recently by telephone to talk with him about the early days of the St. Andrew’s Foundation. The following is his recollection of how it all began.

Francis Walter during the days
of the Selma Project
(Birmingham Library Archives photo)
The first thing that happened was that the Selma Interreligious Project at the end of our era had a good bit of foundation money. We had two lawyers that worked for us – they later formed their law firm and we were their clients. Jack Drake was one of them, he still practices law in Birmingham and he’s a fascinating guy. He became sort of a sub-lawyer in the lawsuit that was Wyatt vs. Stickney. He assisted. So there was kind of a vote of the Selma Project. We said, well that certainly would help a lot of poor people. We said, “Sure, you can take that on as a project until you start getting paid anything for it, the Selma Project will pay for it.” So we began to hear about it, then the lawsuit was won.  The Psychology Department at the University of Alabama was very helpful – they were on the side of the angels. There were people at the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation who were bitterly opposed to any improvement – they  didn’t like the lawsuit, though there were other people [at the Mental Health Department] who secretly did [agree with the lawsuit] and we got to know them. 

The First Group Home in Alabama

So the University of Alabama Psychology Department thought that they might become the primary agent for de-institutionalization. Ray Fowler was the head of the Psychology Department. He and Jack and I would get together and talk now and then. One of the things we thought of was to have an office in each county and let people  like in Gee’s Bend  let people have one mentally handicapped person in each household. They could be paid a small amount of money and there would be a bus that would pick people up and take them to a center where they could improve their skills. It would bring some money to the poorest people in Alabama and they were also very loving people and most of them were black – and so we talked about that. But then the forces behind implementing Wyatt v. Stickney said we needed to have a group home, so the Selma Interreligious Project bought a house in Tuscaloosa right next door. We hired some people to be house parents. We had read Normalization and knew something about things like that and it was a nice old house. 

I had a little Volkswagen and I set out to Partlow – I had never been there before – to pick up two guys and take them down, show them the house, and ask if they would like to live there. This was going to be the first one, the grand experiment. We decided to name it Wyatt House after Ricky Wyatt. That was kind of a slap in the face of the Alabama Department of Mental Retardation because they were going to fund it, part of it, anyway. 

I had never been around identified mentally handicapped people. These two guys were in their fifties – one of them, I remember, was named Guy Wheatley. I was a little apprehensive, but after we were halfway there, it was only a couple of miles, I realized, well they’re just like me, they’re not any different. I remember I said, “What do you do Mr. Wheatley?” he said “I’m an inside plumber.”  I said, what’s an inside plumber? He said “I live at Partlow and I’m a plumber” There’s a plumbing company that does all the plumbing work and some of us belong to it.”  In other words there was an ordinary plumbing company and they would come on campus [at Partlow] and they would pick up these guys who they taught to become plumbers and they all worked together, but the inside plumbers never got paid anything. Wheatley said “I’d like to live in a group home, and the plumbing company told me they would hire me. If I’m not an inside plumber anymore, I could be an outside plumber and get paid.”  I thought, Well, that’s one example of how these people were taken advantage of.

So the other guy said, “I work in the canteen that sells soda pop and candy.” I asked him what he would like to do if he gets out. He said, “I don’t want to lose my job.  I’d like to come back to work at Partlow.” I asked him why, he said “They take state holidays – I’d have more holidays if I worked for them.”

They both moved in to the group home and we were the very first group home in Tuscaloosa. The Selma Project managed it, and it was right next door.  These were pretty high functioning people who first came out of [of the institution]. I think we had about eight residents there at Wyatt House.  So that was when I got interested in the work.

The Second Group Home

Then my wife and I got divorced, I resigned from the Selma Project and needed a job.  Ray Fowler said, “You could work with us. The state wants us to start a group home in Montgomery.  We’ve gotta do it in a big hurry and then we’ll take politicians through it to show them how nice it works – that they should continue to fund the de-institutionalization of Partlow and Bryce.”

So there were three of us on this task force. We didn’t have any time, we had to do it all at once, and it was really not very good. I just moved down to Montgomery, rented a hotel room and started reading the newspapers and talking to people. Within a few days we found this house that we could rent. Then I began to look for staff members. We were working from the idea that we could operate a group home from Tuscaloosa that was in Montgomery. So we had house parents and other workers who could relieve them. Well, then all of a sudden one of the relief workers doesn’t show up. They [the house parents] telephoned and said they were mad, that they were just going to walk out and leave all these people [the group home residents]. It was not a well thought out plan but it was the second group home [that was set up for residents from Partlow].

Things Fall into Place for the St. Andrew’s Foundation

I heard that the state was willing to talk to churches and non-profits about operating group homes. I knew that the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama had inherited these three houses on Birmingham’s Southside.  A woman had wanted a religious community to move to Birmingham and live there. She wanted St. Andrew’s Church to sponsor them. That didn’t work out, so she decided to just leave the property to the diocese. I went to the bishop and told him about how they could be group homes. Maurice Branscomb, the rector at St. Andrew’s said it would be great, the parish would love to sponsor it, and the residents would be welcome to worship here. So one thing led to another.

 Three houses in a row came to be the Women's Group Home (left), the Intermediate Group Home (partially pictured at the center) and the Men's Group Home (right)

Then a really generous thing happened that was so implausible for a political agency to do it. A lot of women worked as social workers in the Department of Mental Health. I was talking to one of these women there about this possibility.  She said, “That would be great, but we won’t have the money to do it until October.” She then said, “Here’s what we’ll do – we’ll hire you as a consultant for the Mental Retardation Department.” I asked her what I would do. She said I would just wait until it was funded and then I would go on the payroll of the Mental Retardation Department.  So I moved into the house in the neighborhood which I later bought.  An elderly woman lived there and initially I was going to move into the upstairs portion, but she died. The owner of the house was a member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. She told me to just go ahead and move in, and until we got things funded, she wouldn’t charge any rent.

It was perfect, because I had been reading about the problems that arise when you try to have a group home in a neighborhood.  Living there, I was able to join the Neighborhood Association and talk to people beforehand.  So the Diocese gave the go ahead to use the property for group homes. I hired Jim and Cathy. They were hired before we had any residents. We would do things like mow the lawns and clean the houses. We went to talk to mentally handicapped people and got ready to fund the thing.

The Road to a New Life

Something else had happened back before what I’ve been talking about here. Right after the divorce, I was really at a low point. We had sold our house and I moved into a room at the Selma Project House in Tuscaloosa. I knew the Trinitarian Sisters, a Roman Catholic order. Their mission was to work in the very poorest of parishes.  I had come to know them through civil rights work. One of them called me up. She knew what had happened to me and she said, “I want you to drive to Mobile and you are going to experience something that will change your life.”

I was ready to do things like that, so I said, “Okay, what is it?”

She said, “We are going to show a movie about a community for mentally handicapped people in France. “

“Where will it be?” I asked

“Are you familiar with the Allen Memorial Hospital in Mobile?”

“Yes, I was born there.”

“Well, after we show the movie, they’re going to tear it down.”

I thought, “Boy that is really synchronicity. The Holy Spirit is telling me to go. Here my life has been turned upside down.  Then I get this call to go and have a life-changing experience in the building in which I was born and then they’re going to tear it down the next day. “

It was a movie about the L’Arche Community. Then Jean Vanier [the founder of L’Arche] was invited by the Roman Catholic bishop in Birmingham to come to lead a retreat at Camp Tekawitha. So I got myself invited to it. It was three or four days. He lectured; there were a lot of mentally handicapped people there. It was very moving. Vanier is an incredible human being to be around. I saw how he related to mentally handicapped people, and I got to hear what his theories were.  That really also set me on the path.

The life of Vanier is just amazing. His father was the governor-general of Canada, which is like being the president. His mother was a university professor. He was on the road to being an academic at some university. He was in Europe and he had this experience of meeting two mentally retarded men under a bridge – that’s where they were living. He said to them, “How would you like to live with me? We’ll just get a house.” He decided to turn his back on a brilliant academic career and start this community. The little town was called Trosly-Breuil in France.

Learning from the L’Arche Community

After we got the staff members hired [at the St. Andrew’s Foundation], even before we got the first residents we got some money to send some of our staff members to a L’Arche Community in Toronto.  Those buildings there were designed according to normalization and L’Arche principles. The houses in Toronto, I can’t remember the name of the community up there, it was mostly Roman Catholic, so they were not using government funds. The houses were decorated with lots of beautiful colors. The center of each house was a large dining room and a big table where everybody sat.  All of the mentally retarded people had their own napkin rings and cloth napkins and were very fancy. When guests came, they had paper napkins. The guests were expected to prepare at least one meal for the house in which they were staying. Everybody had a wonderful time at the table, talking and joking.  All of these people, the staff members, were just living on a token salary – that was how they operated – so they would stay there two or three years.  That was a great experience, though I knew we couldn’t have a L’Arche community. We didn’t have the money to start one in Birmingham, but one got started in Mobile as a result of that retreat that was held in Birmingham.

So that’s how the St. Andrew’s Foundation got started. John Prince [who was a priest as well as an attorney] drew up our papers. He said, “Let’s call it a foundation, then we won’t be using any terms that refer to mental disability, and it will be linked to the church.” It was stipulated that parishioners would make up a certain percentage of the board.  We also had the space at the church to have our offices. So I read Normalization and I read materials that came from L’Arche.  We often said, Harry and I, that we never had any trouble relating to our clients. All the trouble we had was relating Mental Retardation Department of the State of Alabama. I have to say that one of the things that made the St. Andrew’s Foundation work was Harry Hamilton – he is an exceptional human being. I’ve been re-reading The Canterbury Tales, and there is that line, “Gladly would he teach and gladly would he learn.” That’s Harry.

Some of Our First Residents

We had a resident, a black woman named Earline. She died while she was a resident. We organized a funeral for her. If we had done nothing, her body would have been taken back to Partlow and placed in a grave that had a concrete marker with a number on it.  The whole staff said, “We’re not going to let that happen.” It was a wonderful event.  Very moving. I wrote a paper about it for an organization we belonged to of group homes for mentally retarded people. The title of the paper was “Earline.” I thought it was very illustrative of how the St. Andrew’s Foundation operated.  

Francis Walter in 1990 as
rector of St Andrew's Church
I’ll tell you one story about Earline. Earline always came to church at St. Andrews. She would sit in the back pew. When the celebrant [at the altar] would hold his or her hands up in the orans position, Earline would always do that. It was not the first time that I had thought this, but as far as the bodily parts of the liturgy that involved moving around like that, the people who were mentally handicapped, because they weren’t so uptight, they were more open to doing things like that. So Earline would always hold her arms up like that, and I thought, well she would fit in a second or third century church because everybody held their hands up. So when the priest held his hands up so would Earline, and I always really liked that. Then at the end of the service when the deacon said, “Let us go forth in peace,” and the response would be “Thanks be to God,” Earline would really shout out “THANK YOU GOD!” Everyone else would of course be saying the quote the right way, and I thought you know she is full of the right spirit, and to hell with the order of the words.

Buford was another one of the residents who like Dorothy and Geraldine moved through our group homes and was ready for his own apartment. We had made the arrangements and he was getting ready to move. He was over in the office with Harry and me and we told him, “we’ll keep track of you, Buford, we’ll still be around, but is there anything you would like for us to do before you move?” He said, “Burn my file!” I thought, you know we could get into some trouble for doing that. If I do it, I’m not going to leave anything. Then I thought, well the hell with it – so we get in trouble, that’s what he wants. And it was so powerful.  We went out into the parking lot at St. Andrew’s.  I got some kerosene and candles and Harry, Buford and I burned that sucker up. Nobody ever said a word about it at the Mental Health Department – they didn’t know anything about it. It would never have occurred to me with my I.Q. to do that, but Buford knew exactly what he wanted. 

And the Work Grew

(The first expansion of the work of the St. Andrew’s Foundation came as a result of one of the residents. Cecil Cruise lived in one of the group homes and had befriended a young man in the community who in turn made the St. Andrew’s Foundation the beneficiary in his life insurance policy. I had heard the story when I worked at St. Andrew’s and I asked Francis to tell the story again.)

Joe Haney was a young man who was a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He became a member of St. Andrew’s Church.  He was an acolyte, and Cecil [a resident at the group home] was also an acolyte, so Cecil befriended him.  Joe had cystic fibrosis, but nobody thought not to have incense [during the service].  This guy would just be choking and Cecil would say to him, “There’s nothing wrong with you – you’re going to be alright. You’ll get over this.” And Cecil would slap him on the back and encourage him. Well in time he died.  It bowled us over – here we get a notice from an attorney that Joe had left $50,000 to the St. Andrew’s Foundation. It was from an insurance policy. The only reason he had it was that to be a student at UAB, the students automatically got an insurance policy. I don’t think any insurance company would have given him a policy. He had reached more than the average age of a person with severe cystic fibrosis.

The apartment building that became
the Joe Haney House

I called his mother up and said to her, “I don’t feel very good about this, how do you feel?” and she said “That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted that money to go to the St. Andrew’s Foundation.” Then she told me about how Cecil had encouraged him and befriended him.  He didn’t specify how the money be used, but there was some kind of federal program, I guess the word you would use today is leverage, we could take that $50,000 and we got a loan at an incredibly low interest rate. So with that money we bought the apartment building and fixed it up.

(The apartment building was dedicated to Joe Haney with a plaque in his memory. There were four units in that apartment building and thus some of the residents, including Cecil, were able to move to another level of independence and still have supervision on the premises. It also allowed the St. Andrew’s Foundation to serve a larger number of clients.)

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Where Sorrow and Beauty Dwell

My conversation with Father Walter reminded me of how fortunate I was that my life intersected with St. Andrew’s Church and the St. Andrew’s Foundation. It was there that I came to know more about what it means to be human. It was in that setting that we sought to recognize the worth of every individual, and to help those with disabilities live normally in the community. It was in that unique community at St. Andrew’s that all of us – residents, staff and volunteers alike – joined in an endeavor to celebrate the rhythms of life together.  There were some trying days, some times of frustration.  There were times when in a moment tears were elicited that came from a deep core where sorrow and beauty dwell together. It was real life. The kind of real life many of us for some reason try to avoid. We think we could save our life by avoiding those things that touch upon our own sorrow and brokenness, only to realize that “whosoever shall seek to save one's life, shall lose it.”

Time and Change

Many things change with time. The old houses where the St. Andrew’s Foundation began were bought by the hospital on the same block as it expanded its facilities. New homes were built on the same street. Also two new houses were acquired in the neighborhood to facilitate further independence for some of the residents.

Today, the work that was begun at the St. Andrew’s Foundation continues by way of the Jefferson County Association for Retarded Citizens. The ARC oversees operations of the group homes and supervised apartments.  In addition to the ARC, other places in town such as the United Cerebral Palsy Center of Greater Birmingham, Workshops, Inc., and the Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Health Center provide training and opportunity for a number of people. The need for services for people with disabilities has not diminished, and thankfully there are people and organizations who are trying to fill that need.


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