Misjudged and sterilized, Velma Hayes remains haunted by all she lost

Portland Oregonain


Velma Roth was a terrible 2-year-old. She never wanted to eat anything but candy. She had trouble toilet training. She threw things. She'd bite. She'd cry. She always wanted her own way.

She was, the state of Oregon concluded, "very much retarded." And so, in 1937, her mother committed Velma to the Oregon Fairview Home, where she grew up, as did hundreds of children there, without attending a day of outside school. At 15, the state ignored her protests and sterilized her.

But the state grossly misjudged both the girl she was, and the woman she would be:

Velma Jean Hayes, a Mona Lisa-like beauty who taught herself to read and write, married happily, has worked for the past 51 years in Portland, rescued dozens of abandoned animals and is the first person friends and relatives call for help.

State officials looked at Velma, a healthy, intelligent girl, and saw a "defective" danger to society who should not be allowed to reproduce. Decades later, Oregon would junk its eugenics law, concluding that the science behind the state's decision to sterilize was as false as it was repugnant.

"Nothing was wrong with her, I tell you," Velma's maternal aunt Lucy Mattioda says. "It was a scandal and a tragedy."

Fifty-two years after her sterilization, as Velma read news reports this summer of Oregon's history of thousands of forced sterilizations, she pondered the extent of the state's invasion in her life.

She never had to look far to see what might have been.

While she was in the institution, her fraternal twin, Thelma Ann, grew up at home in Southeast Portland with birthday cakes, Santa Claus and cousins. Thelma graduated from Franklin High School, served two years in the U.S. Navy and gave birth to three daughters, who gave her eight grandchildren.

Aunts recall that as babies, the twins were alike in most ways, save one. At 2, Thelma was better behaved.

Raised by the state Her earliest memories are of mush.

Spoons of too-thick oatmeal that Velma brought carefully to other children's mouths. Surrounded by children with a wide range of mental and physical disabilities, she was quickly tapped to feed and, as she grew older, to bathe, calm, diaper and change the sanitary napkins of those who couldn't.

Like many children at Fairview, she awoke to work, scrubbing long hallways with blocks wrapped in cloth, picking beans and berries, bucking hay. The children had no toothpaste (they used salt and soda), no bras or clothes of their own. Her Christmas one year was a new packet of bobby pins.

She had few visitors. Neither set of grandparents nor 16 aunts and uncles immediately knew of the commital.

Her mother, Louise Roth, told them Velma was in the hospital having her legs straightened. When relatives learned the truth, they also learned that Louise and her husband, Sigfrid, would not discuss the matter. They knew Velma's mother was bitterly disappointed that Velma was not a boy.

Sigfrid, a truck driver for a produce company, occasionally visited Fairview but made Velma swear not to tell her mother.

One kind employee, Mrs. Pat Arnold, who took Velma home for dinner and shopping, tried to adopt her, but Velma's parents refused to relinquish their parental rights.

They did bring Thelma and older sister Bobbi to the institution once when Velma was about 9. A photo captures the visit: Thelma beams in her white bobby socks, stylish wool coat, her hair brushed and curled. Velma has crudely shorn hair and a state-issued dress but looks out with the same bright eyes and smile.

"It was terrible there," Bobbi Snow, 69, says as she studies the photo at her Gresham kitchen table. Her voice trembles at the memory of all the children in the rearview mirror that day and the sterilizations many had to undergo in order to be released.

"It could have been anyone," Snow says. "It could have been me."

Sterilized The quarterly meeting of the state Board of Eugenics took place Nov. 1, 1948. Invited were the nine members of the Board of Health and the superintendents of the Oregon State Hospital, Eastern Oregon State Hospital, Fairview Home and State Penitentiary. Where the men met, what was discussed or how Velma's case was presented are not known. The state won't disclose, can't find or has illegally shredded the record of the discussion.

But Velma's Fairview medical records reveal the remarkable differences -- or miraculous progress -- that doctors observed. The child committed by doctors for being "feeble-minded" in 1937 was, 12 years later, "dull normal" and discharged after making "considerable social and academic progress" in just a few months outside of the institution.

But she could not leave until she was sterilized. Like all of the people the state sterilized before 1967, Velma never appeared in person before the Board of Eugenics. Nonetheless, the board concluded that the state did not want any more people like her. She was 13.

Velma was scheduled for the ordered surgery two years later. By then, she was working for Superintendent Irvin B. Hill in his large elegant home at Fairview. She baby-sat his children even as he ordered the operation that would prevent her from having any children of her own.

Her mother signed off on the decision. "I knew what the operation was and I refused, but they said I had no right," Velma recalls. "I'm sure I was capable of having children, of being a good mother, but I didn't get to prove it.

"I never got the chance."

Medical records show that her fallopian tubes were snipped and tied in a 72-minute procedure on Jan. 12, 1950. A fire had damaged the infirmary at Fairview where operations were usually performed, so she was driven to Oregon State Hospital. The pathology report notes that her reproductive organs were normal.

No one visited during her recovery. A snowstorm blew in, and for five days, she lay alone in the mental hospital listening to anguished moans and murmurs of those around her. She was more frightened than she had been in her life.

"I made up my mind that I would make it," she says. "If you are a fighter, you will. I was determined to be a fighter."

In 1983, five years after the last known board-ordered sterilization, Oregon's Legislature repealed the 1917 law that created the Board of Eugenics.

Although former board members say they were attempting to do the best for society and the individual, state officials acknowledged that sterilization was "highly intrusive" and represented permanent and significant consequences for the people involved.

Coming home Once sterilized, she was placed, as many girls from Fairview were, as a domestic servant in a Salem home. Photos taken shortly afterward show an appealing teen-ager with a radiant smile.

Husbands apparently thought so, too. She said the husband at the home where she was first placed grabbed her breasts. She was terrified of being sent back to Fairview, but she told her caseworker anyway. She was placed in a second home where the husband tried the same thing. She kneed him. Her Fairview records show that the man's wife countered that Velma was a flirt who made suggestive telephone calls to nearby gas stations. Velma didn't know how to use a telephone.

Finally, after Velma proved herself capable of functioning outside the institution, she was sent home. She moved into her parents' home in February 1951. She was 16.

"Here I go again," she remembers thinking. "Back among strangers."

Her sisters and aunts seemed kind, but she felt self-conscious, awkward and terribly ignorant. She couldn't even make change.

When Velma did things wrong, her mother called her "the idiot."

"She wasn't a warm and loving mother," Bobbi Snow says. Both parents are deceased.

Velma, who learned most of what she knew from the radio, longed to go to school. But she says her mother demanded she pay rent, so she went right to work, making wieners at the local meat market for a penny a pound. At 19, she fled her unhappy home life, into a brief and unhappy marriage. She says she left her husband when he began carousing.

"Life is too short to take that," she says.

She was in her early 20s and working in the kitchen at Good Samaritan Hospital in Northwest Portland, when she spotted Myron Hov at a shop near her bus stop. He was good-looking and had a kind smile. They married a year later.

Myron helped Velma learn to read and write. For the next two decades, they worked, hunted, fished and took care of each other. Myron's mother bought her a car and taught her to drive. She became the mother Velma never had.

Before they were married, Velma told Myron straight up that she'd been sterilized. It didn't faze him, but it haunted her. Happy in her marriage and desperate for a family, she underwent two surgeries to repair her tubes.

"I wanted kids," she says. "I was willing to try anything."

Both operations failed. She broached the subject of adoption. But Myron wasn't interested. So Velma took care of her sisters' children and her twin sister. Whenever Thelma needed money or child care, Velma stepped in, cooking, cleaning, making the children's clothing.

"She would have been a great mother because she gives out so much love," says her niece, Debra Snow, 49.

"I have so many happy memories of my Aunt Velma," says another niece, Gina Stallard, 33.

Then one afternoon as they sat in their Portland living room, Myron began convulsing. He had a massive stroke and died five days later. Velma threw herself into work and taking care of others, including a neighbor, Ted Hayes, whom she married in 1989. They had about 18 lovely months together, before he died of an aneurysm.

Her marriages had created a sanctuary that for her had been shattered when she was 2. She speaks daily to her sister, Bobbi. But when other relatives embraced her after she returned, she never got over feeling like an outcast, scrutinized and judged to be different.

Her twin died of breast cancer six years ago this week.

To the end, they were never really close.

The measure of Velma Now, at 68, as she has for the past 28 years, Velma Hayes whooshes into a North Portland parking lot every morning about 5. She fills every position in the Holladay Park Plaza kitchen: chef one day, inventory the next, stock clerk, trainer.

"I want it done, and I want it done right," she says.

When youthful executive chef Shawn Hanlin started a few years ago, she looked him up and down and said, "I got shoes older than you."

"She's the den mother of dining services," Hanlin says. "And my most prized possession. She is awesome."

Even on her days off, Hayes is at the Holladay Park at dawn, to drop off a co-worker who has a new baby and doesn't drive. She reverses the trip eight hours later to give Julie Larson driving lessons -- and other life tips.

"Julie, you've got to recycle! You've got a child!" she says. "You've got to save the world for him."

"Velma is always the first one to help, whether you need a ride, a loan, a friend, anything," says Larson. "We need 10 more of Velma."

An admitted "news junkie," she reads two newspapers a day, brings puzzles and wordplay books to colleagues and pores over the journals of an anguished neighbor who recently died. The woman's kids aren't interested in their mother's story, but Hayes is.

"I just think about her life and how sad it was," she says.

She also thinks about a neighbor who lost his job. She doesn't believe in credit but says she put $5,000 on credit cards to tide him over. She's spent twice that much saving stray cats.

Spider, Sheba, Samantha, Rambo, Tina and Charlene are the current roster, rescued from trash cans, untied from a telephone pole, liberated from the shelter.

"I can't stand to see anything abandoned," Hayes says, "because that's how I felt."

Other ghosts linger, as well. She insists on wearing her hair long, after all those bad haircuts at Fairview. She can't sign checks in front of store clerks either, self-conscious about her shaky cursive. And sometimes, when it is dark and she is tired, she feels the ache for the children who never were and the woman she will never be.

'"I think with any education, I could have gone a lot further and done more," she says. "I think I would have liked to have been a veterinarian."

She would have liked to have been a grandmother.

And for that, she thinks Gov. John Kitzhaber should apologize on behalf of the state to her and to the nearly 2,650 others who were involuntarily sterilized. Kitzhaber is considering the formal apology, which advocates asked for in July.

On her bookshelf where photos of grandchildren might have been, Hayes has pictures of her cats and her sisters' grandchildren. In one frame is a scrawled note from her late husband Ted, eight words that may well be the true measure of Velma Hayes.

"Thank you for being you and loving me."

Julie Sullivan: 503-221-8068; juliesullivan@news.oregonian.com