A Life: Neil Henderson, 1931-2022; ‘It feels as though the entire Upper Valley knows him’

  • Neil Henderson at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston on Sept. 5, 2009. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Neil Henderson with his sister Joan Coburn during a visit to Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1997. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Neil Henderson with Jasper and Milly at Old Orchard Beach in Maine in May 2000. (Family photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/25/2022 8:28:08 PM
Modified: 12/28/2022 10:50:37 AM

Three decades of isolation and neglect can leave a mark on a person, but not Neil Henderson. Born in 1931, he left his family in Lowell, Mass., when he was just 8 years old. He would spend more than 30 years in various Massachusetts facilities for the developmentally challenged before a series of class action lawsuits led to what would eventually bring about their end.

During his prolonged institutionalization, Henderson suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the faculty, an experience that would leave him emotionally scarred for the rest of his life.

And yet, Henderson’s psychological trauma rarely overshadowed his good-natured, youthful disposition. Dr. Patricia Glowa, Henderson’s doctor of 20 years, summed up his character: Neil was “just young, always.”

Henderson died at Sullivan County Health Care on August 30, 2022, his 91st birthday. By then, he was friends with everyone. “You see that bus driver?” his sister Donna Bleazard asked, chuckling, Henderson “would know his name.”

Henderson was the oldest of five siblings, two boys and three girls. Before his first birthday, a severe ear infection led to a diagnosis of mastoiditis, an infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear. By August 1933, he had endured two unsuccessful operations that may have permanently damaged the nerve tissue in the back of his brain, ultimately impairing his intellectual development.

According to Bleazard, since the adults in Henderson’s life associated mental illness with erratic and violent behavior, which he never exhibited, they never guessed something was wrong. But once school started, Henderson found reading and arithmetic difficult if not impossible.

“First grade at that time, he couldn’t be bothered,” she said. “He was maybe somewhat (…) disruptive, but not in a violent way, never.”

In 1939, administrators declared Henderson “unfit for public school,” and he was admitted to a hospital for the developmentally disabled. Growing up, he lived more than 50 miles southeast of his family.

It wasn’t until he reached middle age that he came to the Upper Valley, where he lived in a degree of freedom denied him in the first half of his life.

Shortly after Henderson turned 43, he left the hospitals, traveling between outpatient residencies and halfway houses for another decade. He began riding the bus from Taunton, Mass., to White River Junction, where he spent time with his sister and got to know the area. Bleazard, who had “always wanted to live in northern New Hampshire” as a child, moved to the area in 1977, when a job transfer finally became available.

Henderson, who loved spending time with his sister’s children and pets, would come to treasure these visits. Their time together became more and more frequent until the mid 1980s, when he accepted his sister’s invitation to move to the Upper Valley.

He began working toward independence with assistance from United Developmental Services, which merged with Developmental Services of Sullivan County in 2006 to form PathWays, taking up work as a dishwasher and finding an apartment in West Lebanon.

Bleazard credited the agencies with many of Henderson’s achievements. Every Monday, a PathWays worker took Henderson to buy his groceries. They would come over to cook meals for him and take him to meet his doctors. They even helped to facilitate his education, hiring tutors and offering assistance wherever necessary.

In his free time, he loved to walk, strolling around the area in his suit and tie. When he was on the town, Henderson would chat with waitresses, firemen, bus drivers, or anyone else who was willing to talk.

He also liked to use the phone, and Glowa often found herself on the receiving end.

“Neil used to call frequently to the office; he loved making phone calls,” Glowa said. “And, on the one hand, he was kind of childlike … on the other hand, he was sort of savvy about systems. So he would … call five minutes after 5, so that the doctor on call had to call him back, right away.”

His sister agreed. “If he had … any kind of little pain, he would call his doctor, like, six times a day,” Bleazard said. “He would call the rescue squad if his foot hurt.”

Former case manager Eric Thayer spoke about his time with Henderson for the Country Chronicle in 1995: “When I’m out in public with Neil, it feels as though the entire Upper Valley knows him,” he said. “His most admirable quality ... is his eager willingness to help everybody.”

Henderson spent a lot of his time volunteering for Listen Community Services. According to his sister, “he was always right on the doorstep, rain, sleet, (or) snow.”

Glowa said his volunteer work gave him “a sense of purpose and a sense of importance, that what he did mattered to somebody.”

In return, Listen managed his finances. Bleazard was glad to leave this task to someone else — this way, they could be sister and brother, not manager and client.

Henderson also found community, and spirituality, at West Lebanon Congregational Church and the Bow Baptist Church, in Weathersfield Bow. “If there was a synagogue (nearby) (…) he would’ve been there, too,” Bleazard said.

As an adult, Henderson seldom spoke of his institutionalization, but his experiences, first in the Walter Fernald State School, in Waltham, Mass., and later the Myles Standish State School for the Mentally Retarded in Taunton, Mass., were imprinted on him.

At the Fernald School, residents were sometimes deprived of food or physically abused by the staff, as revealed by patient testimony decades later. Some were even subjected to radiation testing or experimentation during the Cold War, for which they received a formal apology from former president Bill Clinton in 1995.

And at Myles Standish, Henderson experienced near constant physical and emotional neglect; outside the infirmary, no one was willing to give him the attention he needed, fostering habits of rigid punctuality and abandonment anxiety that persisted well into adulthood. Bleazard described how he would panic whenever the light went out, because he’d learned that “bad things happened in the dark.”

While he was institutionalized, both his parents worked full-time jobs, so he didn’t see them very often. As close friends and everyday acquaintances alike invariably found out, Henderson was always very excited for his birthday. He visited home every year for the holidays, but his birthday was something really special.

“He always came home for his birthday,” Bleazard said, “and it was his day. Like, Christmas you had to share with everyone … we used to call it the national holiday … my folks would always take vacation so they could come be with him.”

After Henderson had moved to the Upper Valley, public criticism against facilities for the developmentally challenged began to increase. The 1950s and ‘60s marked the beginning of a larger backlash against institutionalization, backed by a growing body of research in favor of community inclusion, according to the research of Mark S. Salzer, doctorate in clinical/community psychology.

In 1972, a class-action suit was filed against the state of Massachussettes, creating a new lease on life for Henderson. His name was among the list of patient signatures that would eventually close those institutions forever.

In 2008, the school formerly known as Myles Standish shut its doors for good. By the mid-2010s, all but 10 of the original 45 buildings had been torn down by the city. The last patient departed the Fernald school in 2014, after it was closed and abandoned by the faculty.

That same year, Henderson moved to Claremont, and began making regular visits to the local senior center and adult day care.

“There was a great living facility down there for him where he could remain independent,” Bleazard said. “There was also what they called ‘adult day care’ ... they would make sure they were showered, give them breakfast, any meds they took care of, activities, lunch — I mean, it was a wonderful, wonderful place.”

Toward the end of his life, Henderson’s autonomy became unsustainable, and he retired into assisted living.

“Of course, the older he got, the less he was capable of independence,” Bleazard said.

In 2019, he took up residence at Sullivan County Health Care, where he remained for the rest of his life. These final years would prove a challenge for Henderson, as his declining physical ability inhibited his capacity for the interactions he craved.

“I think that, the more constrained his life circumstances, the more he needed to try to reestablish all that social contact,” Glowa said.

Even in his final years, Henderson was always full of life. According to Bleazard, you would never know his age just by looking at him. His snow white hair curled back and forth above a pair of soft, kind eyes. His face was spread open in a perpetual grin. When he spoke, his distinctive nasal voice and youthful mannerisms were hardly indicative of an octogenarian man. The best word to describe him, Glowa said, was “impish.”

There aren’t many people still alive who made it through the institutions Henderson lived in, and fewer still who despite coming from an atmosphere of neglect and abuse maintained the kind of sweetness that characterized his life, his sister said.

“And the one thing I always stress,” Bleazard said, “how he grew … people come out of things like that angry … just unhappy with life, because that’s how it was, but for him to come out of it like that … it was truly incredible.”

Oliver Yukica can be reached at yukica.vt@gmail.com.

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