The Backstory: Richard Dresser recalls his days at the Belchertown State School 

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser holds a photograph of a room and bed he slept in at Belchertown State School as he speaks to a quarterly “person-centered practices” training for students at the Commonwealth Community Services office in Northampton on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser and students attending a quarterly “person-centered practices” training at the Commonwealth Community Services office in Northampton view an expose of the conditions at BSS made in 1972, the year after Dresser was released. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst views works of art, some of which were created by other former residents of BSS, on display at the Commonwealth Community Services office in Northampton on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, a former resident of the Belchertown State School, speaks to a quarterly “person-centered practices” training for students led by Cristen DeTour, right, at the Commonwealth Community Services office in Northampton on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst, a resident at the former Belchertown State School, speaks to a quarterly “person-centered practices” training for students led by Cristen DeTour, right, at the Commonwealth Community Services office in Northampton on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. Photographed in North Amherst on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. Photographed in North Amherst on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. Photographed in North Amherst on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. Photographed in North Amherst on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

@KevinGutting
Published: 3/12/2019 12:24:53 PM

Richard Dresser, 66, spent nearly 10 years of his youth at the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, an experience that formed and shaped the person he became — an advocate for the disabled.

In 1972, a year after Dresser left the residential school, a news documentary and a class-action lawsuit alleged neglect and abuse by staff and residents at the institution which, at the time, had a population of around 900. The school was so understaffed that some of the more capable residents were informally enlisted to help maintain control. These residents — Dresser calls them the “enforcers” — were responsible for much of the abuse he so vividly recalls.

A victim of abuse and neglect himself, Dresser, who now lives in Amherst, has made it a mission to pass on his memories of BSS and to be a voice for those residents — whom he calls “clients” — who could not speak for themselves. He speaks regularly at the Department of Developmental Services to help staffers understand the people they support in group homes, many of whom are former residents of the Belchertown State School.

Charming and gregarious, Dresser lives in the present but is so tied to his time at BSS that he often speaks of it in the present tense. What follows is excerpted from interviews over the course of two days, one of which was at a DSS training where Dresser spoke following a screening of the 1972 exposé, titled “They Need Love, They Get Angry, They Bleed”.

‘I don’t forget things’

My name is Richard Dresser. I’m a regular talker, I can’t help it. I’ve been like that most of my life. Because I love talking about my story about Belchertown State School to people, what it was like. Sometimes they say, “Rick, you don’t look like a person that’s ever been in an institution.”

I’m a spokesperson, advocate for disability. I’ve been doing it for 28 years. Plus I did it when I was in the State School.

See, a lot of my friends don’t understand. I believe, OK, ‘cause I was a twin, alright? My twin died. We were born Halloween, 1952. She weighed 3 pounds, and I weighed 3 pounds, a couple ounces more than she did. She died three days later. See, a lot of people don’t believe in God. I do. God probably had me here for a reason, for kids, to help stick up for people who have problems — that are scared, you know. I’m here for a purpose.

See, I’m on the side of disability. I’ve been on that side ever since I lived in Belchertown State School.

I could tell you some things that happened to me when I was in State School. I don’t forget things. It’s like a nightmare, going to a movie or something. And that’s one thing you don’t forget — the tragedies and abuse and all the stuff that happened to you as a kid livin’ in a place like that.

Early life

I have five brothers and five sisters. I’m probably, like, number six — I don’t know who came out first. I might be the sixth or I might be the seventh, but I always put myself lucky seven, anyways.

I went to school in Athol until I was, like, 9 years old.

When kids get in trouble back in those days, in the ‘60s, back in 1962, they take the kids away from their parents. I used to hang around with troublemakers, and that’s what got me into trouble — that’s how I ended up in the State School.

The judge had me sent there. That’s what I heard.

But if I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have learned about what was going on in the place. Know what I’m saying? I wouldn’t have learned about it.

The first day

I was 9 years old. Went in July, 10, 1962, with my mother and father. My parents didn’t want to say I was going there to live there. They said I was going there for, like, my IQ test, to see how smart I am. I found out from people that used to mess with the files years ago that the guy said I had an IQ of a 5-year-old when I was 9 years old.

What happened — I didn’t go back home. My parents didn’t say too much to me. They put me in a separate room ‘cause they didn’t want to let me know that I was staying there. My mother says, “I’ll see you in a little while. We’re going to go somewhere.” And I said, “Why are you going? Why don’t you take me?”

People said, “Rick, you’re not going home anymore. You’re going to be here for a long time.” I was going to stay here forever. I was really heartbroken over the whole thing, you know? Heartbroken.

The first night

I went into the bathroom, and I noticed there weren’t any toilet seats on the toilets — just plain toilet bowls.

I came out, and I went to the bed. I was going to lay down. I got in there, and the guy said, “Everybody, cover your head.” So I covered my head. I was kind of, like, whispering to myself where you couldn’t hear me: “What’s this guy up to?”

I didn’t say anything ‘til after he left the room. You can hear those doors shut ‘cause they make weird noises, metal doors. When they shut, you can hear them go krrrich — click. I said, “Is anybody awake in the room?” And a kid said, “Yeah, I’m awake.” I said, “Why is this guy making you cover your head with a sheet?”

Well, it was a thing. He liked to take abuse of the clients. You ever seen those plastic baseball bats, the little skinny ones, that little kids’ll play with? Well, that’s what he had in his hand. He was going to hit people if they uncovered their face with the sheet. They were having clients to help control, with the staff. It was the bigger guys, the older ones that can do a lot of abuse. They’re the ones they let have control of the little ones.

When I got old enough, I spoke up about it, you know, and I told the employees about it.

Life at the State School

This picture that I’m showing you? This first door, right here in the middle, they call that a “doghouse.” They put you in there when you’re bad or you got out of hand. They put you in there bare-naked, no clothes on. A rubber mattress, a pillow with no pillowcase on it. No sheets. You have a bedpan with toilet paper. And you know what they gave you for eatin’? Bread and water. At nighttime, it would get cold, and I tell you, you could feel it from the chills. And in the daytime, it would get hot in there, you see — it’s hard to breathe because it’s so hot.

I had several jobs when I lived there. I worked on the rubbish truck, garbage truck, laundry truck. I was in the back taking care of all the garbage ‘cause some of the guys couldn’t take the smell. It really didn’t bother me ‘cause I got used to cleaning up all kinds of junk in my life when I lived there.

When I got old enough, I ended up being a boss in the kitchen to teach people how to clean. Us clients did the cleaning — not the employees. The ones that were bright, like me, knew how to do things. I never got paid, no. I taught ‘em all that ‘cause I learned from other people that taught me how to do it. I kind of passed it on. And it was really a lot of fun to do.

I used to work with the employees, but I never abused the clients, you know. I believe in being a nice person. Because if you abuse a child in a place like that, that kid can be angry the rest of his life.

I had a guy who would pull me by my ears a lot. I told him, “Your day is coming, buddy. Abusing a child. Your day will come.”

I have stood up for a lot of kids who lived there. A lot of times, I took punishment for other kids that couldn’t take it. One of the clients got into trouble. He couldn’t take the abuse. This is when I was probably, like, 14. Every year I got older, I got more tougher and wiser. One time, I just hit one, knocked them right on their ass. Excuse my language, but I did. I had to defend myself as a kid. There was a lot of sick people that lived there. I’ve been abused, neglected. I’ve been through a lot. And my family members are lucky I didn’t go insane.

When you see things happening in a place like that, you don’t forget it up here [taps head].

People figure they can get away with anything they do ‘cause we live there, we’re clients there, we don’t know nothing, we’re stupid, we’re retarded and all that. That’s how they treated us.

They used to make you put your hands up against the wall and you spread yourself out. If you move from that spot, you stay there longer. Every time you make a little move, they’re watching you. Plus, they had a straw broom and a baseball bat. They’d hit you across the butt. Why do people do stuff like this? The straw broom — that stings, it’s worse than a whip. It leaves marks on you.

When I got older, like, 15-16 years old, I didn’t go home with my parents a lot. I stayed (at the school) ‘cause I liked it. You know, after being there for a couple years, it becomes the third year … then the fourth year, and you’re so used to it, you say, “Eh.” [Throws hands up]. I just didn’t want nothing to do with my family. I stayed there and worked with the clients that lived there, like me. I did a lot of good things. I liked working with the disability kids, the ones in wheelchairs and stuff.

It was like a home to me because I’d grown up with a lot of those kids. And I figure, I might as well just stay here, live my life the way it is, and help fight for the ones being hurt by the big bullies, you know.

The last day

I got out October 13th of ‘71. I was 19. It was a nice, beautiful day on the grounds. I was old enough to walk on my own — no one had to watch me. I was old enough to take care of my own problems.

Helping ‘the special people’

At home, I watch some good movies. I like to watch a lot of westerns. I like to watch the good guys catch the bad guys. I was 20 years old when I practiced how to twirl a gun — I used to use key chains. [Tries it.] Still got the touch!

A lot of people say, “Rick, what do you do to keep this up?” Well, don’t forget, I like music, I like to dance and stuff like that. I’m not afraid to get up and move around — I don’t do too bad for my age!

You can’t let bitterness get to you because bitterness — I don’t care if it’s bitterness, selfishness, meanness, hateness or bad thoughts or anything like that — it’s gonna really mess you up. It will do that to you.

So I let God take care of my problems, you know? I thank the good Lord for what I do now. It’s all about the special people.

Living history

When I went back (to the State School) the last time, in 1979, when I got my driver’s license, I went in some of the buildings. I knew the place like the back of my hand.

They closed (the school) down in ‘92, but there’s a lot of stuff that I want to still talk about. I still got a lot up here in my brain. You know, if I was a multimillionaire, I’d like to own my own little place to do a talk show, where I could talk to people about what it was like.

Have you ever noticed some people don’t like you talking about that stuff? But people don’t understand, because I’m the history of Belchertown State School. I’m one history of it.

Kevin Gutting can be reached at kgutting@gazettenet.com


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