People First of Oregon     

Fairview: The Closing Chapter


Fairview's Final Chapter
The closure of Oregon's historic institution for the disabled stirs both good, painful memories

Walter Fiest rests in a chair at a very nearly deserted Fairview Training Center in Salem, an institution that housed more than 5,000 people with disabilities since opening in 1908. 

Fiest, 41, moved into a group home last week, making him one of the last residents to leave.  He had been at Fairview for the past 14 years.

It was internment for some, a safe haven for others.

Fairview Training Center, which opened in 1908 as the "Oregon State Institution for Feeble-Minded," closes later this month after serving thousands of Oregonians with mental and physical disabilities.

Charles Richard Parks of Portland certainly won't shed any tears. He was placed at Fairview at age 9, not because he had a mental disability, he said, but because he was losing his eyesight.


  "I've always felt that that was a dumping ground."


For 1 1 years, he remained at the hillside institution, the boy becoming a man. He remembers Fourth of July parades through campus, helping change diapers in the baby cottage and watching friends die of seizures. "I've always felt, that that was a dumping ground," Parks, 53, said. "A lot of them should never have been there to begin with.

Over the years, Fairview employed about 50,000 men and women. At its peak, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, nearly 3,000 men, women and children lived in what amounted to a small city unto itself. During its life span, about 5,000 residents called Fairview -home for some length of time.

When the Southeast Salem institution opened nearly a century ago, its first 39 residents came from the state asylum, and many were there for being epileptic. By 1929, more than 300 Fairview residents had been sterilized, at least some for the "Protection of society," according to a Fairview manual. The same document outlines the mind-set of facility caretakers: "The feeble-minded child living with a family of normal children is both a detriment to the sisters and brothers and a handicap to himself"

Over the years, those attitudes changed, largely reflecting the public's evolving views of how to treat people with disabilities. For decades, parents and advocates pushed for reforms in institutions. Eventually, many pushed to eliminate institutions altogether, even for those with the most severe disabilities.

"We don't create a 3,000-bed facility for our parents when they get older," said Bob Joondeph of the Oregon Advocacy Center. "It's because we view our parents as human beings. For a long time, we dehumanized people with disabflities."

Reforms largely ended the abuse, and Fairview truly became a training center to help some residents adjust to life outside the facility. Nonetheless, by the 1980s, Fairview was among the nation's largest and oldest institutions. It also was among its most poorly staffed. In 1985, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that poor stafring was leading to life-threatening conditions for residents at Fairview. Federal officials sued and threatened to cut off money to force significant changes.

Now Fairview's closure puts Oregon at the forefront of states that have traded similar turn-of-the-century institutions for small group homes in the community.

"For good or for bad, however it is viewed, it was a significant part of Oregon history for nearly 100 years," said Jerry McGee, a former Fairview superintendent.

Rough beginning

By mid-century, Oregonians, many with mfid to moderate retardation, attended school on Fairview's campus, trained for jobs and helped fellow residents who were less able.

Children and adults swam, watched movies, prayed in church and visitedth e barber.

Workers used physical strength, restraints and time-out rooms to maintain control. Psychotropic medications kept many sedated.

in those days, if an aggress ive youngster "hit you, you hit him back," said longtime employee Jerry Oakley.

He and another employee oversaw 60 youngsters in a cottage, working nonstop to get them @kessed, groomed and fed. The daily drill reminded him of Army life.

"It was just an institution,' he said.

Christine Rook's son, Jamie, lived at Fairview for 34 years before moving out this summer. She recalls years when there were "so many unexplained injuries, really bad unexplained injuries." But as time passed, she saw vast improvements in care as the state hired more and more workers and gave them better training.

The last residents move out of Fairview, on Thursday. As it closes, the campus is considered a model institution. "They're using us as an example now," said Fairview's last superintendent, Jon Cooper.

In recent years, life more closely mirrored-the outside community. . Adults with profound retardation and other disabilities lived in small groups and spent more time in the community. But providing quality care while maintaining the large and aging campus cost nearly $600 a day per resident and tied 30 percent of the state's dollars for people with developmental disabilities to 3 percent of that population.

And despite efforts to make Fairview more homelike, it remained an institution.

"What we've learned from institutions is that when you isolate people and try to create pseudo-environments, it's incredibly expensive and almost always fails to include those things that make life rich," said Robert Homer, a University of Oregon professor of special education.

He doesn't have to explain that to Sara Neitling. At first, she was worried and angry that her daughter, Shirley Ann Skirvin, would have to leave Fairview after 31 years. But the move to a group home in Keizer opened up a world Neitling hadn't imagined. Today, Skirvin helps shop for groceries, vacuums around her house and is even communicating more.

With Fairview's closure, the debate continues about how the most medically fragile will fare in the community. The network of specialists Fairview finally could afford must be re-created, case by case. 

Like many, James Toews, assistant administrator for developmental disability services for Oregon, views the closure with a mix of happiness and nostalgia.

A lot of people spent much of their lives at Fairview. Many employees   'were almost heroic in what they did for people," particularly in the lean years, he said. Yet, lives are richer for "the vast majority" of people who have moved into the community, Toews said.

For nearly a century, those who lived at Fairview were inmates, patients, residents and children forever. In the end, they were individuals.

People first, at last.

Their stories:

The resident

The superintendent

The worker

The parents


Walter Fiest leaves Fairview Training Center for the first time in 14 years, moving to a group home in Portland. 

Fiest was first admitted to Fairview at age 28.


This article by Cheryl Martinis was published by the Oregonian, February 20, 2000