Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sylvia K. Hassenfeld, September 19, 1920, to August 15, 2014

This passage is from Chapter Nine of "Kid Number One: A story of heart, soul and business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro." Eulogist Jehuda Reinharz, former president of Brandeis University, spoke at the funeral of Sylvia, Ala Hassenfeld's mother. The funeral was at Providence’s Temple Beth-El, not far from the home where Sylvia and Merrill raised him and brother Stephen.


Reinharz said he knew about Hassenfeld before meeting her in 1994, when he assumed the presidency of “a university with a lackluster board, among a long list of other problems”—and was told that if he could convince Sylvia, by reputation “a dynamo,” to join the board, many of those problems would begin to be resolved.

So taking a deep breath, he telephoned her.

 “Come to see me next week at 4 p.m. at my apartment” in Manhattan, she said.

“I was served the customary Sylvia specialty of a small cup of coffee and two cookies,” Reinharz recalled. “And I made my case.”

He had never met any potential donor, Reinharz said, who was “as straightforward as Sylvia. She did not play coy.”

Who was on the board? she asked. Who will survive and who will be sacrificed? What would my role be? 

“She was not going to be a decoration or a symbol of gender diversity,” Reinharz said. “I told her I expected her to make financial contributions and help me build up the rest of the board. Sylvia agreed on the spot with the following brief sentence: ‘I will join the board and I will support you.’ And she was true to her word. So began a most wonderful relationship between one of the most remarkable women of our generation and a grateful new university president.”

Hassenfeld’s many philanthropic passions impressed Reinharz. “Her energy was boundless,” he said. “I was incredulous about the travelling she did.” 

Echoes of Alan.

“Yes, she also lived very well,” Reinharz said. “She loved to dress well, eat well, laugh at good jokes, and she could have fun playing bridge with the best of them. On the other hand, she disliked pretentious people who took themselves seriously.”

Sylvia and Merrill Hassenfeld, 1961.

Reinharz drew knowing laughter in his descriptions of Hassenfeld’s mannerisms and style. “Despite her endless travel schedule,” he said, “Sylvia never missed a board or committee meeting. She sat at the meetings like a queen, never wearing the same outfit twice. She had read all the materials sent to her beforehand, was well informed, and had a no-nonsense attitude.”

He related how Hassenfeld and fellow board member Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, formed a powerful duo in accomplishing his agenda. Before meetings, he said, “I would tell them exactly what I wanted, and they would literally intimidate the board into passing my agenda. Sylvia simply said, ‘Here is what I think. And here’s what needs to be done.’ And Ann Richards would chime in and say immediately afterwards, ‘I totally agree, let’s vote.’ And that was it… No one on the board wanted to cross these two women.”

Laughter filled the temple.

In closing, Reinharz put humor aside for respectful tribute.

 “Obviously, Sylvia was a woman of great wealth, who, like many of her generation, could have spent her life in leisure activities, writing the occasional large check and feeling good about it,” he said. “But Sylvia chose a different path. She did not just write checks. She did the work. She got involved in every aspect of the organizations she worked for; talked to everyone, rich and poor; prime ministers as well as the most powerless and vulnerable people in our society. She traveled tirelessly throughout the world trying to improve the lives of less fortunate individuals and communities.”

He could have been describing her son.

“She teaches us that with privilege come obligations and opportunities,” Reinharz said. “Not many people can say that they have changed the world for the better. I believe Sylvia is one of those who truly has. We will all miss her very much. May her memory be a blessing.” 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Kid Number One to be published in September!

Kid Number One: A story of heart, soul and business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro is
a compelling narrative through a culturally and socially relevant world that is rarely seen -- a world that will interest all, whether you are into history, biography, politics or the high-stakes businesses of toys, games, entertainment and Hollywood.

My 17th published book, Kid Number One is both prequel and sequel to my Toy Wars: The epic struggle between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the companies that make them, the bestselling and critically acclaimed tour-de-force of the toy and entertainment universe.

Visit the Kid Number One website to learn more, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. 


Having escaped religious persecution in Eastern Europe in 1903, Alan Hassenfeld’s grandfather and great-uncle arrived in America as penniless teenage immigrants – refugees who went from hawking rags on the streets of New York City to building what became the world’s largest toy company, Hasbro. Alan’s father, Merrill, brought Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe to consumers and his only brother, Stephen, made Hasbro a Fortune 500 company and Hollywood player. Alan was the free spirit who wanted to write novels, date beautiful women and travel the world. He never wanted to run Hasbro, and no one ever believed he would – or could.

Stephen and Alan Hassenfeld, in happy times.

And then Stephen died, tragically of AIDS. “Kid Number One,” as Alan liked to call himself, was suddenly chairman and CEO. Silencing the skeptics, he took the company to greater heights – and then almost killed it with a series of bad decisions including Hasbro’s acquisition of rights to POK√©MON. Putting ego aside, Hassenfeld gave his long-time lieutenant Al Verrecchia command and set in motion a plan whereby he would leave the corner office. Verrecchia saved the company, and after renewed success, he himself retired, leaving Hasbro in the hands of current CEO and chairman Brian Goldner, so highly regarded that he was brought onto the board of CBS.

Alan Hassenfeld and Al Verrecchia, running Hasbro.

With his fortune, Hassenfeld could have sailed into the sunset on a yacht, but instead, he went to work expanding the long family tradition of Tikkun Olam – “repairing the world” – begun by his grandfather and great-uncle, who, grateful to have survived, tirelessly helped immigrants and needy citizens of their new country. Alan Hassenfeld’s philanthropy has helped build two children’s hospitals, establish numerous educational and health programs, train young doctors and scientists, resettle refugees, promote peace in the Mideast and more. For decades, he also has been a highly visible advocate for national political and ethics reform, despite personal threats and the scorn of crooked politicians.

Alan Hassenfeld at the Rhode Island State House.

Kid Number One: A story of heart, soul and business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro, weaves these stories into a seamless, dramatic narrative that begins with the slaughter of Jews in 1903 Poland and continues to today -- when in an era of unchecked narcissism and greed, Hassenfeld, like Bill Gates, serves as a model for what people of great wealth can do when they put self aside. Kid Number One also chronicles the history of American toys -- and not just such Hasbro classics as Monopoly, Transformers and Star Wars, but also Mattel’s timeless brands including Barbie and many lesser-known toys by companies large and small, many no longer in existence.

Hassenfeld in his family foundation headquarters.

Both prequel and sequel to Toy Wars: The epic struggle between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the companies that make them, the bestselling and critically acclaimed book, Kid Number One is a compelling narrative that will interest all.

Thanks to fellow author Raina C. Smith for the great web design!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Fr. Jared Costanza's homily at Jim Taricani's funeral, June 27, 2019

Fr. Jared Costanza celebrated Jim's funeral Mass at Christ the King Church in Kingston and delivered an extraordinary homily that was part of an extraordinary farewell to the wonderful person and journalist, Jim Taricani. The Mass was rich with remembrance, praise, music (the Beatles, no less!) and humor that Jim would so have appreciated in Father Costanza's words and remarks by federal judge William Smith.

Here is the text of Father Costanza's homily:

Late Friday night, a knock was heard at heaven's door.
St. Peter called out, "Who is it?"
The answer came: “It’s Jim Taricani."
Just then, every cardinal, priests and bishop up there yelled: “Everybody run! Hide! Don’t open that door!”

Of course, we know the Lord well enough to realize that his door is never locked –
it always opens when we knock.
Our God is a Father who sits and waits by that door, watching for us, keeping vigil,
until we all make it home safely –
especially after a journey like the one Jim took: long. Winding. Rocky. Steep. Tough.
But tough roads and tough journeys make for tough people, and that’s why so many people admired Jim:
he stayed the course in the face of adversity – he was tough; he was a fighter.
And for that reason, you always wanted him on your side …
and that’s exactly where Rhode Islanders found him: on their side... in their corner,
giving meaning to the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Jim had no fear.
He wasn’t afraid of the mob, he wasn’t afraid of the feds, he wasn’t afraid of judges or prisons;
he wasn’t afraid of the sacrifices – he wasn’t even afraid of dying.
He carried his crosses with courage – always with courage.
Professionally, fear would have cost Jim his reputation; personally, it would’ve cost him his life.
So for Jim, fear wasn’t even an option –
there was too much at stake; too many precious things would be lost, especially the trust that he built up.

Father Costanza
More than telling stories and breaking news, Jim used his passion to build trust –
his work and dedication allowed him to build relationships with the community, and it was a SACRED trust –
what a privilege that was for Jim – such an incredible opportunity ...
but such a great responsibility – a responsibility that Jim took so professionally, so seriously.
He knew his audience, and he trusted his audience.
We can think back to Jesus, who used parables to teach –
Jesus trusted his audience to look deeper, beyond the surface meaning of those stories, right?
Journalists inspire their audiences to look deeper into social issues and to grow; change; reform;
to become better, greater – more aware, more unified, and thus better equipped to work out our problems
and respond to the opportunities we get to make a difference,
contribute to the community, and advance the common good.

Jim’s many gifts, blessings, and talents, for which we give thanks at this Mass, were not used selfishly;
Jim used them in service to others –
so many others, who looked up to him as a guide, a teacher, a mentor, a big brother, an advocate –
because he challenged people to become more;
he inspired them to discover their own blessings and strengths,
and to engage them in order to reach their potential to be great.
Jim believed that journalism is a service industry: it’s a service to the community; it’s a service to the truth,
And, when it’s considered a privilege and used responsibly,
it has the power to bring about change for the better –
change to help common folks and the common good,
by uncovering the truth, which is so often beneath the surface, beyond the boundaries, and behind barriers,
but wherever it was, Jim wouldn’t quit until he found it, and his passion helped to form public opinion.

Of course, Jim had some opinions of his own, and he wasn’t afraid to let you know about them.
Scan his Twitter page, and you will come across gems like these:
(*) “The way many Rhode Islanders rush to get milk and bread at mention of a snowstorm
is THE most ridiculous thing I've seen in my 44 years in RI.”
              (*) “Why ANYONE would believe ANYTHING in ANY campaign ad is beyond me.”
              (*) Commenting on a story about how Rhode Island is ranked #1 in structurally deficient bridges,
Jim said: "At least we're #1 in something!"
              (*) And my favorite of Jim’s observations:
“The state should have let mob bookies run the [sports] gambling... they know how to make it
Surely, the many crosses that Jim carried through this world were made lighter by his sense of humor!

Then, on a more serious note, on August 22, last year, the 22nd anniversary of Jim's heart transplant, Jim said:
"Thank God for my organ donor."
Jim was very humbled and thankful that his life was saved and very much extended –
far beyond the time that he was told that he would have – and that overwhelmed him; it humbled him.
It began with a young man named Alvaro (AL-vah-ro) Leveron,
whose parents allowed his heart to be harvested and given to Jim.
Because of that spirit of thoughtfulness, selflessness, and generosity,
the tragedy that took Alvaro’s life was not the end of him – it wasn’t the end of his story.
Instead, his spirit would live on, his story could be told and retold in the new lease on life that Jim received.
And Jim wanted to honor Alvaro by being honorable and living honorably because he felt so greatly blessed.

It reminds me of the story of a boy who was swimming at the beach,
got caught up in the riptide and began to drown.
After his friends hadn’t seen him surface, they became to scream and shout for the lifeguard.
The lifeguard jumped from his chair, ran across the beach, and swam as fast as he could to reach the child.
He found him, carried him back to shore, and performed CPR until the boy was revived.
After the child came to, he caught his breath, and wiped his tears away, and finally looked up at the lifeguard and said, “Mister, how can I repay you, you saved my life!”
The lifeguard said, “It’s okay kid. Just make sure your life was worth saving.”
Jim made sure his life was worthy of being saved – worthy of another’s sacrifice and goodness.
What honor Jim brought to his donor by living an honorable life.
Today, we give thanks to the God who has given us a heart to live and to love; to forgive and let live.
We remember that our heavenly Father is the divine donor who gives us a mind to think; a body to act…
passions to inspire us; He gave us a mouth to speak and pass on blessings and encouragement to others;
He gave us eyes to see, to notice the needs of others; ears to hear the cry of the poor and marginalized;
He gave us a conscience to follow.
What honor we bring to our Creator when we use those gifts He has given to us for the benefit of others.

Jim’s priorities often centered around others.
And Jim was always able to recognize the goodness in people – he could spot a con artist, for sure –
he once referred to his “con artist antennas,”
like radar I guess for con artists… and… artists of a… similar kind, we might say.
But more importantly, he could also spot the goodness in people; in the community; in you.
Even when, sometimes, you couldn’t see it in yourself, Jim could see it and bring out the best in you.
And all that goodness he saw inspired him to hold out hope –
even in the darkness, brokenness, and confusion of our world, there’s always light.
There needs to be more, and Jim did his part to shine the sunlight where it needed to go,
in more ways than one.
Ask him how he was feeling, even on his most difficult days, and he’d say: “Good!” “Great!”
That’s how grateful he was to be living:
his experience gave him a fierce determination to live and to make the best out of life, and to enjoy life.
And when life is good, you have no room or time to complain about your struggles, and he didn’t.
There’s no use cursing the darkness when you can light a lamp and be light for others in the darkness.

As a light himself, Jim was certainly very grateful for the many honors, award, and recognitions he received for his work,
but he was more interested in honoring the work of others:
congratulating you for your accomplishments, stories, awards, and hard work in those news rooms –
“Great scoop!” he’d say… “Great insight!” “Great instincts!” –
And if you were a journalist? And you heard that from Jim?
That meant everything to you; it inspired you, because you knew Jim was legit –
you don’t become a legend like Jim without having experienced what it takes –
the risks, the hours, the sacrifices, the commitment, the patience …
staying the course even when others doubt you or discourage you.
Jim acknowledged and appreciated this when he saw it in others; he was so quick and generous to offer praise
to those whose work was truly solid and inspiring and changed things for the better:
especially teachers, veterans, nurses, firefighters and EMTs…
He praised organ donors, ALL of you… journalists, MOST of you... politicians, SOME of you…
and clergy … okay, NONE of us! But he was fair, he was honest…
Nothing was personal, but no one was above the fray or beyond reproach,
and this is why he’s being remembered the way he is, and why we respected him:
he had a job to do, people to serve, and a truth to uncover,
and he would stop at nothing to serve that truth –
he would have given his life for free speech and a free press,
and if he had, he would have joined some 34 journalists who were murdered throughout the world in 2018.
Another 60 were killed on the job, having put their lives in danger covering violence, corruption, and war.
More than 250 are sitting in jails today, just for doing their duty.
People have the right to the truth; and it’s a journalist’s obligation to find and report it.
We take that for granted – even here at home,
where we see them belittled, demeaned, dismissed and targeted
by those whose power is threatened by honesty and transparency.
“Keep digging!” Jim would say, “Keep digging!” and the legal protections will come, freedom will prevail,
truth will prevail, and your work will continue to bear fruit for the world; it will speak for itself.

We’ll be amazed by what we find when we “keep digging” through life, as Jim did.
We will find the strength to overcome obstacles.
We will find a deep appreciation for the people in our lives and the freedoms we enjoy.
We will discover and rediscover our meaning and purpose in this world,
and learn to be satisfied and at peace with who we are, what we have, and where we’re going.
We will experience the support of so many good people in the community we share.
We will learn to appreciate the value of life and the time we have left in this world.
We don’t know how long we’ll have, so we’ve gotta make it count,
and embrace every day, every opportunity, with Jim’s attitude and courageous spirit –
a spirit too powerful, too pure to be bound inside of a box or a grave.

Open the door, Lord God, and let the spirit of your servant Jim abide with you, and rest in you,
for you are the way, the truth, and the life.

Afterward, some of Jim's friends, Providence Journal staffers past and present, members of a many-media honor guard, gathered to chat. If I may (with a single, over-used word) describe everyone's reaction to the service it would be: Wow. Thanks, Jim, for all you did for so many.

Friday, June 21, 2019

History Starts Here award from the Newport Historical Society

On June 20, 2019, Story in the Public Square co-host and co-producer Jim Lude and I were honored to receive the inaugural History Starts Here award in historic Colony House in Newport, R.I. The award from the Newport Historical Society "will be offered annually to an individual or organization who is making history now or making opportunities for thinking about how history is important to today," according to the society.

We were selected on a vote of the center staff! Folks, it does not get any better than this.

These were my remarks on accepting from society executive director Ruth S. Taylor and Paul McGreevy, president of the board of directors. Jim also spoke.

Paul, Jim, Ruth and me.

Thank you, Ruth. Thank you, Paul. And thank you Newport Historical Society for this amazing honor. Jim Ludes and I were surprised – maybe “shocked” is a better word – when we learned we would be receiving it. And so, with humility, we accept.

My first connection to the Historical Society was in 1983, when I was assigned to The Providence Journal’s old Newport bureau, over there on Thames Street. We were writing stories about the 20th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and your archives were an invaluable resource to me. That time was but the first of many hours I have since passed researching stories and books at NHS. What a treasure you are.

This being a celebration of history, let me relate a bit of Story in the Public Square’s own.
Seven years ago this February, in a shop that was literally just around the corner here, I joined Jim for a conversation over coffee. We had met the previous October, when the Pell Center hosted the launch party for my biography of Claiborne Pell, “An Uncommon Man.”

On that winter day – February 23, 2012, to be precise -- Jim discussed his ideas for making the Pell Center the robust place it has become. I, in turn, discussed my desire to extend my storytelling into the academic world. 

And so, Story in the Public Square was born. How strange – or maybe not – that our own history began a stone’s throw from Colony House and the Newport Historical Society.

Within a few months, Jim and I had formed a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. I was named a visiting fellow and director of Story in the Public Square, and with Teresa Haas, Mia Lupo, and some Salve students, we got to work.

A year later, we staged our first major event: a day-long conference during which we awarded Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest the inaugural Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. The next year, 2014, we staged our second Story conference, with Emmy-winning actor, screenwriter, producer and hit show Empire creator Danny Strong, recipient of the second annual Pell Prize.

And in June 2015, Lisa Genova, best-selling author of “Still Alice” and other novels, received the third annual Prize. Jim and I had the bright idea that interviewing her would make for a good TV show, and so we built a set at the Pell Center and rolled the cameras.

The production qualities were, in a word, terrible.

Mercifully, the world will never see that tape.

But sometime later, Jim had another idea – and this one actually was bright. Why not record at a real TV studio – namely, Rhode Island PBS? So we did, producing eight monthly episodes broadcast in 2016 as part of the show White House Chronicle. Llewellyn and Linda are here today and thank you.
And then, one more idea: Why not our own weekly program?

Rhode Island PBS was enthusiastic, so we had a set designed and built, and in January 2017 we taped our first two shows: Naval War College professor and author Tom Nichols, and Loren Spears, director of the Tomaquag Museum, Rhode Island’s Native American history and culture center, and Christian Hopkins, a Standing Rock activist.

 It was game on. Jim and I sometimes say we did not have a clue what we were doing – and to an extent still don’t! -- but the awesome crew at RI PBS does. Thanks to them and an incredible roster of guests – more than 120 storytellers to date, from the worlds of books, film, academia, journalism, still photography, politics, art and more – we were able to go national in September 2018. Today, the program is carried in 43 of the top 50 markets in America, with more than 450 total broadcasts weekly – plus weekly audio on SiriusXM Radio.

With Salve Regina University Sr. Jane Gerety, a supporter from day one!
Over the last few weeks, we have been busy recording our National Season Three, which kicks off July 8 with Lisa Genova, who, despite the debacle of 2015, graciously agreed to return. Following Lisa will be Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis, the brilliant poet Maggie Smith, and Danny Strong. And many more through the end of the year.

In closing, let me again thank the Newport Historical Society – and the Rhode Island PBS crew, our many great guests, Salve Regina University, and The Providence Journal.
And finally, of course, my partner Jim. Who knew where that conversation seven years ago would lead?

We didn’t... but history sure can be funny that way, I think you’ll agree.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

This is an actual transcript of a live chat I had recently with a firm that is supposed to reimburse me for out-of-pocket payments for acupuncture, which is covered by this firm. 

I present this as a public service. 

[Customer Service Representative]: Thank you for contacting [firm's] Customer Service. My name is [CSR]: How may I help you today?

 G Miller: Why was only $23.09 paid to me directly for the 4/30/19 acupuncture? Total of service was $85, which has always been paid directly to me, now I see $61.91 was "paid back to account." I don't know what that means or why

[CSR]: Good day, I can definitely check that for you. One moment while I access your account.

 [CSR]: Your Pay Me Back claim was applied towards your unverified card transactions. Unverified card transactions were cleared by applying your valid claim against the unverified balance. You can still be reimbursed for your original card transactions by filing those transactions as a Pay Me Back claim.

 [CSR]: If you click that claim for $85.00 we can be able to see what transaction we need to submit and once it's approved you will get that amount as a reimbrusement.

 G Miller: I have no idea what you just wrote and i have been a professional journalist for 41 years. Can you please try again?

 G Miller: I have that claim up now and there is no indication of what "we need to submit"

 G Miller: Can you please put a supervisor on?

 [CSR]: Okay, so you have this unverified transaction that is asking for us to submit an itemized receipt that was way back on 1/10/19. If we did not submit a receipt for 90 days and once we submit a pay me back, automatically the payment for that will be applied on your unverified card transactions.

 [CSR]: For you to be reimbrused by the full amount, we need to submit the itemized receipt of that specific transaction.

 [CSR]: Kindly go to claims and activity and click the claims for the status that was paid back to acocunt.

 [CSR]: And on the lower part, under Claim Line Item Payment Accounting. Please click the Card ID number:


 G Miller: There is no way to click that Card ID number. It's just a number, with no link

 G Miller: I have the itemized receipt, how can I get it to you?

 [CSR]: Kindly submit that as a pay me back.

 G Miller: where do I find a "pay me back"?

 [CSR]: That card ID turns into color blue if we click it.

 [CSR]: Just submit that receipt under dashboard there's an option for submit receipt or claim.

 [CSR]: Same as with what you did for the $85.00

 [CSR]: This unverified transaction is from "YYY” for $61.91.

 [CSR]: Are you still with me? I'd be happy to assist you further.

 [CSR]: I am entering the info now

 [CSR]: Okay. Thank you. Once it's submitted. 2-3 business days for the processing of approval
 [CSR]: Is there anything else for me?

 G Miller: no and thank you.

 [CSR]: I'm so pleased to have assisted you today.

 [CSR]: Thank you for using WageWorks Chat Support. Have a wonderful day.

 [CSR]: has disconnected.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The long view on mental-health journalism

Pursuant to "State of Health: Red-Tape Blues. A shift to managed care for mental-health and addiction treatment is fraying the safety net for R.I.’s poor and vulnerable, critics say," published April 21, 2019, in The Providence Journal.

I have been covering mental health for The Journal since the 1980s, when Rhode Island, like other regions of the country, was emerging from a period when people living with illnesses of the mind were warehoused at the old Institute of Mental Health, or IMH, in Cranston.

And “warehouse” does not adequately describe the treatment of untold thousands of vulnerable people, who during much of the 20th century were subjected to shackling, isolation, corporal punishment and barbaric treatments including insulin-shock therapy, lobotomy and hemispherectomy, in which one side of a person’s brain is surgically removed.

Lives disappeared inside the IMH’s many stone and brick buildings, their existence at death marked only by concrete tombstones bearing sequential numbers but no names in potter’s fields. Similar abuses occurred at the Ladd Center, Rhode Island’s institution for people living with developmental and intellectual disabilities, which closed 25 years ago last month.

Public advocacy and newspaper exposes of the horrors of institutionalization fueled a growing movement to improve conditions at psychiatric institutions and move as many patients as possible back into the community. In Rhode Island, The Journal had been a leader in the cause and by the time I arrived, the IMH was more humane. With the support of politicians and taxpayers, who approved state bonds for programs, a community system was being built

I wrote regularly about the IMH as the population was reduced and the final units absorbed into what is now Eleanor Slater Hospital. I chronicled the good work of two directors of what was then called the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals: Danna Mauch, now president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health; and A. Kathryn Power, now director of the federal Center for Mental Health Services.

To see first-hand how conditions had improved, in 1985 I was allowed to live for a week on a locked IMH ward for a story. I closed it with words from Mauch: “The IMH is a place where people now come as a last resort. Ultimately, we should be judged by the extent to which we appreciate the profound pain and suffering experienced by people with mental disabilities.”

Two years later, I wrote the story of Hope Lincoln, who in 1931 had been sent by a judge’s order to the IMH, never to leave. Her “crime”? She and her aging mother had gone into debt, and when the bank foreclosed on the mortgage and several checks had bounced, the police had brought her to court. She was 97 years old when I met her, and her memory was sharp.

“I wasn't crazy,” she told me of the day she was snatched and sent away. “I had a nervous breakdown. But that's the way they did things in the old days, see?”

Somehow, Hope had retained her sense of humor, and she was gifted with wisdom. Blind and arthritic when I spent time with her, she joked: “Every day we live, we deteriorate. The old machine wears out. And you can't get spare parts, you know.”

After my story, then Governor Edward DiPrete made her a public symbol of deinstitutionalization, of why community, not locked ward, was best for most.

Rhode Island was becoming a national model for treatment of people living with mental illnesses, and by the 1990s, its practices and programs were being copied elsewhere.

Then the decline began, as governors and legislators paid less attention and insufficient money was invested. The IMH was gone, but the Adult Correctional Institutions had evolved into a sort of shadow psychiatric facility. Homeless shelters witnessed an increase in the numbers of individuals living with mental illness. The opioid-death and addiction crises intensified the situation, and now the strain on many behavioral health centers is crushing.

Since I first began writing about mental health (and also people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities), I have directed and written a movie, "The War on Terror: Coming Home"; scripted and shot numerous videos; produced podcasts; brought many guests with expertise onto the national show I co-produce and co-host, "Story in the Public Square"; and written hundreds of stories, including, most recently, the aforementioned April 21, 2019, "State of Health: Red-Tape Blues. A shift to managed care for mental-health and addiction treatment is fraying the safety net for R.I.’s poor and vulnerable, critics say" and my January 2019 "Redemption: The Fall and Rise of Mark Gonsalves," about a man who attempted suicide and survived a 220-foot jump off the Newport Bridge and lived, to become an awesome inspiration.

And with the first one in 1985, I have been honored many times for doing this right thing, which when I started was not so very "fashionable," shall we say. The awards are wonderful, thanks to all who have bestowed them, but my only I hope is I have made a difference.

So I have the long view on this healthcare story, and am privileged to work for The Providence Journal, which has given me the thousands of hours it has taken. This is true public service, and no other media outlet in our market can touch it.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

New closer for Story in the Public Square!

Courtesy of our ace Rhode Island PBS editor, Nick Moraites, and Salve Regina University which sure can fly a drone with a steady hand.

Thursday, March 28, 2019


On Wednesday evening, March 27, 2019, I presented at the 10th anniversary PechaKucha Night Providence, held at the majestic Columbus Theater on Broadway. This was no. 119 for the fabled event that began in Tokyo and is now worldwide, and my sixth time presenting (one of my earlier ones, on Feb. 27, 2013, marked the 10th anniversary of The Station nightclub fire that killed 100).

We had a nearly full house last night!

I was awed by every presentation -- honestly these evenings are always fabulous, whether it's first-timers presenting or people who have before. I encourage you to attend a PKN Providence, held at rotating venues  around the capitol city.

My presentation was "Story in the Public Square," a 20-slide chronicle of how my co-host and co-producer Jim Ludes and I went from a conversation to a national Telly-winning PBS and SiriusXM Radio show (more on that in an earlier blog). And before and after, I had the chance to catch up with old friends John Taraborelli and Michael Gazdacko, who kindly introduced me. And I had the fine opportunity to meet, in person, the host, Christopher Donovan.

Not sure if the organizers taped the evening and will be posting, but here are my 20 slides tracing the history of Story in the Public Square. Many people in the audience later told me they are fans, and that is the kind of feedback that means so much to me and Jim -- and to our great crew at Rhode Island PBS, our flagship station.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Building New Lives

Building new lives A revolution in care How Rhode Island became a leader in moving mentally ill, retarded out of state hospitals and back into the real world
Publication date:  11/25/1984 Page:  A-01 Section:  NEWSEdition:  ALL

First in a series

Just now, Elaine Cunningham, 49, is on top of the world. Her smile is big, her eyes wide, her voice crackling. "This is it," she's saying. "My big day."

Indeed, it is. After 36 years at the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center, Rhode Island's only public institution for mentally retarded people - a place that, until quite recently, could charitably have been called a human warehouse - Cunningham is moving out.

Outside Kingstown Cottage, her dormitory, a van is waiting in the morning sun. Inside, the 25 other female residents are getting their days under way. One walks half-naked toward the door. Another is yelling. A third is trying to steal a blueberry muffin from somebody's breakfast plate. A fourth is squabbling with an attendant over her medicine.

Cunningham heads down the hall for a last look at her room, which she shares with her longtime friend, Mary Tavares.

It is a small, drab room with two steel beds, two night tables, two desks, a rocking chair and a plastic-web lawn chair. The outer wall, made of cinderblock, is painted green. Sprinkler pipes run through the ceiling. The floor is cold, gray tile. The windows open out, like those in office buildings.

Cunningham won't miss that room, she says. Neither will Tavares, who also is moving out today. Margaret D'Agostino, a third Ladd resident who's saying goodby this morning, too, says she feels the same way.

By tonight, the three women will be settled into their new home, a single-family ranch house located in a tree-lined, all-American neighborhood in Westerly. For weeks, as part of a process to smooth their transition into the community, they have been visiting the group home and meeting its 24-hour staff.

They like what they've seen: wooden furniture, carpeted floors, wallpapered walls, a fireplace, two bathrooms, a well-stocked kitchen with all the modern appliances, windows that open up, a big backyard, a well-trimmed front lawn, a porch with a gas grille and a chaise longue. All of this for them, and a fourth woman from Ladd who'll be moving in later.

"I'll miss you," Cunningham tells Melody Mattscheck, an attendant.

"I'll miss you, too," Mattscheck answers. "Come give me a hug."

"I'm gonna have my own washer," Tavares says excitedly.

"A nice spray thing, too," Cunningham explains. "And we have two faucets in the sink. Cupboards."

"You guys are going to have it made," Mattscheck says.

"It's about time we're moving," Cunningham says. "About time."

The van's driver waves. Time to go. The women embrace the attendants.

"We'll miss you," Mattscheck says, "but don't you come back, hear?"

OVER THE LAST two decades, there has been a revolution in how Rhode Island cares for its mentally disabled people - a revolution that goes by the cumbersome title of deinstitutionalizati¬on.

For Cunningham and D'Agostino and Tavares and hundreds like them, it has meant leaving institutions for new lives in the community - liveswhere they can find the self-worth, happiness and dignity that was lost to them behind brick walls and barred windows.

For hundreds of others - a new generation of disabled people - it has meant never having to enter institutions at all.

Rhode Island has two public institutions exclusively for the mentally disabled: Ladd, which specializes in the mentally retarded, many of whom also have physical handicaps, and the Institute of Mental Health, in Cranston, for the mentally ill - schizophrenics, psychotics, depressed people. A third institution, Zambarano Memorial Hospital in Burrillville, has a single ward for the retarded.

A revolution?

Since 1964, its peak year, the population of Ladd has dropped from 1,017 to 390. The IMH population, which peaked at 3,459 in 1954, now stands at about 360, the lowest census in 99 years. Zambarano's ward, which housed 102 retarded people (mostly infants and children) in 1961, now has 38.

Of course, not every one of those approximately 3,750 people went to group homes. Some died. Some drifted out of state. Some wound up in flophouses or on the streets. A handful landed in prison. Several hundred - primarily the aged - went to nursing homes, Zambarano, or the state-run General Hospital in Cranston.

BUT MOST, like Cunningham and D'Agostino and Tavares, have come back to the community to live in dignity. Hundreds were moved to group homes and group apartments. Some went back to their families. A few hundred spent time in supervised programs, then advanced to livescompletely on their own.

Almost all had spent years at the IMH, Ladd, or both. Many had been confined for decades on locked wards. Some had been beaten, shabbily clothed, poorly fed, taken advantage of in countless other ways. For the most part, they had been forgotten by their families, their friends, their legislators, abused and neglected by their caretakers.

Today, they are our neighbors. They live in ranch houses on shady suburban streets, in inner-city apartments, in working-class neighborhoods and moneyed districts, on main drags and out-of-the-way culs-de-sacs.

Some have jobs in the private sector. Others are employed at "sheltered" workshops or attend programs where social workers teach them such basic skills as how to brush their teeth, dress, cook, wash dishes and do laundry. Still others attend public schools.

You ride with them on the bus, see them at the library, the grocery store, McDonald's, in the park, at the malls, at PawSox games.

Some, you may not recognize. Others, you surely will. They may be muttering to themselves. Maybe they forgot to tie their shoes, or button or tuck in their shirts. Maybe they're deformed, or confined to wheelchairs.

The attendants used to hit us out there. They hit me on the face with a bottle of soda when I asked for it. They threw it in my face and got me all wet down the front of me. And she told me I couldn't have no more after. Just like a prison out there to me.

- Anna Russell, who spent 32 years at Ladd, and lives now in a subsidized apartment.

THE REVOLUTION has been national, as well.

With few exceptions, the 50 states have reduced the populations of their institutions. Some states did it without proper discharge planning and provision of community services, leaving thousands of mentally disabled people to fend for themselves in a complex, changing, confusing world.

Others, such as Rhode Island - which experts consider a national leader - spent millions of dollars and took several years to do the job well.

"Where a state has moved slowly and put community supports in place, deinstitutionalizati¬on has succeeded," says Dan Caley, public relations officer for the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, the primary architect of Rhode Island's movement.

It happened for two reasons, financial and humanitarian: Ultimately, community services are cheaper than those provided in institutions, and the quality of life outside is immeasurably better than behind brick walls.

"The evidence is that community care is cost-effective and more therapeutic for the chronic patient," says former MHRH head Joseph J. Bevilacqua, now commissioner of Virginia's Department of Mental Health and Retardation.

It happened, too, because Rhode Islanders - despite frequent disagreements on where group homes should be located - have supported the movement by approving all 10 of the multimillion-dollar bond issues the state has requested to build community homes and devise programs over the past 17 years.

And it happened because the climate - a national climate of civil rights for others who were deprived, women and blacks among them - was right.

Says Robert L. Carl. Jr, head of MHRH's retardation division: "It's a measure of the values of this society. We value people. We value even significantly disabled people, to the extent that we will spend a lot of money to have them live and exercise as much humanity as they can."

The locked wards were terrible. They pushed me, threw me onto the mattress. Choked me. Didn't treat me right. I was afraid. Suppose I hit the floor? I just can't describe it. . . .

- P.G., 58, a schizophrenic, who was at the IMH a dozen times between 1960 and 1982, and now lives in public housing in East Providence.

FOR MANY REASONS, community care of mentally disabled people is cheaper in the long run than institutional care.

Because they are much smaller, community residences are able to meet fire-safety codes and regulations at significantly less cost than institutions. Salaries and benefits for workers at privately run homes also tend to be less than those for state employees, most of whom are unionized.

In addition, group homes have only a fraction of the overhead costs of large institutions - sewage treatment plants, miles of paved roads to repair and plow, acres of lawns to mow, massive heating and power plants.

MHRH cites these estimates for average daily costs for each patient: at Ladd, $167; for retarded people in community homes and programs, $60 to $150, depending on medical needs; at the IMH, $207; for mentally ill people in community homes and programs, $60.

Not surprisingly, as deinstitutionalizati¬on has proceeded, the costs of running the IMH and Ladd have begun to drop. Fiscal 1979 spending for the IMH was $24 million; this year's budget is $22 million. In 1981, $22.4 million was spent to run Ladd; this year's budget is $19 million.

I was petrified. I used to see things no one would believe. I don't even want to talk about it. I have the shivers going through me even now. . . .

- Dora, at the IMH from 1949 to 1979. She has her own apartment now in Central Falls.

HAD RHODE ISLAND not opened the doors, thousands of people would still live at Ladd and the IMH - and the populations today could well have been higher than ever, MHRH officials say.

In part, that's because medical advances since the 1960s have prolonged and improved life for birth-defective babies. In part, that's because the postwar baby boom has produced the largest generation of young chronically mentally ill people in U.S. history. Both groups are now served primarily in the community; two decades ago, they would have gone to Ladd or the IMH.

Because fire-safety regulations have become much stricter in the last two decades, most of the buildings at Ladd and the IMH would not have met the latest federal and state codes. MHRH would have been faced with a capital-improvement program that would have cost untold millions.

Some buildings could have been renovated. Others - those built in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries and now closed - have passed the point where renovation was feasible. New construction would have been necessary.

MHRH's Carl gives these cost estimates, which he describes as conservative: for renovation of buildings at the IMH and Ladd, $50,000 per bed; $100,000 per bed for new construction.

By contrast, MHRH estimates the maximum cost of buying a private house and converting it to a group home is $20,000 to $25,000 per bed. Carl estimates the cost of building new group homes at $30,000 to $40,000 per bed, at most.

The showers were all open stalls. They had no doors. Then there were the hopper rooms. Hoppers were Ladd slang for toilets. The toilets were five or six right in a row. The clients were hoppered after mealtimes. They would sit on the toilets and staff would watch. There were no toilet seats.

Janet Bullock, who worked at Ladd as an attendant in the 1960s and '70s, and who now works in a supervised apartment program in Providence.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, community care of the mentally disabled was a concept that existed only in the minds of imaginative social reformers. True, some parents kept their disabled children at home, but they were on their own in caring for them.

Today, MHRH's community system serves more than 7,000 chronically mentally disabled people, employs nearly 2,500 professionals, and has programs and group residences in every corner of Rhode Island. Some are operated directly by the state. Most are privately run under contracts with MHRH, with the majority of their financing coming from the state and federal governments. (Other sources include local municipalities, private donations and fees, workshop profits, the United Way and other charitable agencies.)

Because disabled people have a variety of medical and mental health needs, the community system that has been developed in Rhode Island is a patchwork of services and living arrangements.

Some apartments and homes - those for profoundly retarded and physically handicapped people who have trouble moving independently - feature handrails, customized bathrooms, fireproof materials. Because of their special features, the state had to build most of these group homes.

Other homes, for the more capable, are no different than houses for normal people. In fact, most of them were once private residences which the state bought and renovated, at less cost than newconstruction.

Recreational, educational and work programs are similarly diverse. For the most disabled, learning to tie one's shoes may take days and require full-time assistance. Others may need help only in sophisticated skills - negotiating the public transit system, for instance, or keeping a checking account.

Very, very boring.

- Chris Craddy, 29, who spent almost 13 years at Ladd before moving into a group home.

LATE IN THE afternoon, after spending their regular day at a workshop for the retarded, the van carrying Cunningham, Tavares and D'Agostino pulls into the driveway of 6 Mockingbird Lane, Westerly.

A slight woman with black hair and a sharp jaw, Elaine Cunningham was born March 29, 1935, in Providence. The third of seven children, she didn't walk or talk until she was almost 6. She was a problem child, frequently breaking windows, yelling, unable to sit quietly for long.

She attended grammar school, but teachers weren't happy with her. When she was 12, they suggested she be sent to Ladd. Her family agreed. Because admission criteria in the 1940s were loosely defined - the word of a priest, minister, doctor or principal was enough for a lifelong commitment - she was accepted immediately.

"Committed on 2/26/48," her record states, "with the description of being slow in school, whispering and talking to herself continuously, being a behavior problem and unable to follow directions for any period of time."

Today, she is described as "moderately retarded," which puts her IQ in the 36-to-50 range. Like her housemates, her retardation is at least partly attributed to the anaesthetizing effects of her years at Ladd.

Mary Tavares, a dark, tall woman with curly hair, was born Jan. 22, 1944, in the State Infirmary in Howard (Cranston). Three months before her birth, her mother, a 13-year-old retarded woman from Providence, was committed to Ladd when she was found to be pregnant (she eventually left Ladd for a group home and now lives in a subsidized apartment). Tavares's father has never come forward.

In December, 1944, she was placed in a foster home. She was late in talking - though when she finally did, she spoke two languages, English and Portuguese, the native tongue of her foster family. As a toddler, she had temper tantrums - pulling her hair out, ripping off her clothes, screaming when she was angry.

When she was 4, a doctor examined her and wrote that "this examination . . . suggested that Mary might be mentally defective." As her foster parents aged, they became too frail to care for her. Not yet 18, she was admitted to Ladd on Jan. 10, 1962.

Today, she is considered severely retarded, and her IQ measures between 20 and 35. She is still, however, bilingual.

Margaret D'Agostino is the least retarded of the three. Her degree of retardation is described as "mild," giving her an IQ between 51 and 70. The people who know her suspect she wouldn't be retarded at all if she hadn't lost almost 18 years to Ladd.

D'Agostino, a short, heavy woman with a pretty smile, is articulate and opinionated. The third of seven children, she was born in Central Falls on Oct. 23, 1944. Records indicate that she was a normal, healthy child, with one exception - grand mal seizures that medication didn't control.

She spent several years in a parochial school, but her seizures interfered with her work and she failed several grades. On March 14, 1966, at the age of 21, she was admitted to the IMH for treatment. She never went home.

While at the IMH, a doctor wrote: "She has become a nuisance on the ward because of inactivity. She can be noisy and disturbing." The IMH staff suggested she would do better at Ladd, and on Dec. 13, 1966, she was transferred. Today, the right medication has been found to control her seizures.

I always ask people: "How many of you have ever lived in institutions?"

- Daniel McCarthy, director of community mental health services for MHRH.

"OH, ISN'T THIS nice," Cunningham says as she walks up the front steps of her new home. Tavares doesn't say anything, but she jumps up and down, frantically clapping her hands. D'Agostino grins.

"Glad to see you came," says Tori Hulsman, a group home worker.

Under a state contract, 6 Mockingbird Lane is run by Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit agency in Peace Dale, South Kingstown, which operates several other group homes in South County. Most of the eight people who will staff the home are on hand for the women's arrival.

Unpacking their belongings - clothes, stereos, toiletries, books, posters, stuffed animals - takes most of the afternoon.

Dinner that night is spaghetti and salad. The women help prepare it and set the table - only two of the household chores they will share.

"Ladd Center - I didn't like it there," Cunningham says. "You get biffed and banged around. I wanted to get out. I'm going to stay here."

About this series

In many states, programs to move people with mental health and retardation problems out of state hospitals have been a disgrace.

To find out how deinstitutionalizati¬on is working in Rhode Island, Journal-Bulletin reporter G. Wayne Miller spent nine months visiting more than 130 group homes and other programs - better than 90 percent of those in the state. He interviewed hundreds of social-service professionals, out-of-state experts, neighbors and mentally disabled people, and spent many days observing life at the Institute of Mental Health and the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center.

Miller reports on this revolution in a six-part series, beginning today and continuing this week in the Providence Journal and The Evening Bulletin.

Miller, 30, is a 1976 graduate of Harvard College. After nearly three years at the Cape Cod Times, he joined the staff of the Journal-Bulletin in October, 1981.