Chapter 2: Exposing Pennhurst
Lisa: (01:00:42:10-01:02:21:27) Can you describe the first day you actually visited Pennhurst even without your camera? Can you describe that moment?
Bill: Yes. I was with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, Main Line Junior Chamber of Commerce, and we were going through these buildings, and what you can't show on T.V. is the smell. The smell was unbelievable. I mean you had 80 people in a room and no one is taking care of them and the smell was just incredible. They're not bathed; their bathroom habits are non-existent. There was no one to help them out. And just to see them in that way and just watch them rock and being ignored and- I have to say it wasn't the attendants' fault. You had two attendants for 80 people! I couldn't have done any better. Nor anybody I know could've done any better. But this was the condition and I was- my eyes were just wide open and I was thinking why doesn't anybody care about this? And that's when I start talking to the attendant's. I started talking to some of the administrators. And some of the administrators were elated that I was there. Because this is the first time they can get their word out without getting fired. So they would help me out all the time. I'd get notes, phone calls - it was great. So that was my first reaction and this is what people don't know; my cameraman and my soundman had a very difficult time. They wanted to leave. Like I can't stand this anymore I have to get out of here. I used to have to give them breaks. You know kinda calm them down. We gotta do this. And try to explain that this is really worthwhile doing. Which they did. They hung in. For five days. Five straight days.
Lisa: (01:02:22:08-01:03:01:20) what was their reaction based on? Was it based on just the physical smell or just an emotional reaction?
Bill: It was an emotional reaction. You know we- they had the same reaction I did. How could we do this to these people? And it was we. And you know to see it everyday and the people there were starved for any kind of attention. And we'd walk into a ward you know and all they wanted to do was touch you. And if you hugged them, they'd cry. It was so unbelievable and it got to all of us. And you know it was hard to stay there all day.
Lisa: (01:03:02:03-01:03:19:22) Bill do you remember the first resident at Pennhurst that you encountered?
Bill: No. I just remember going into this giant room with people rocking, banging their heads, you know just sitting around doing nothing. This absolute despair kind of got to me.
Lisa: (01:03:22:00-01:04:41:11) The people, the staff at Pennhurst, particularly the administrative staff seemed very frank in their interviews with you. Why do you think it is that they weren't more guarded, given the conditions at Pennhurst?
Bill: I think some of the reasons the people at Pennhurst, the administrators, were open to me was because they wanted to confess. They worked in this atmosphere all the time and no one was listening to them. So now, I was their vehicle to get the word out to their bosses. I think that had a lot to do with it. I think some people that had been there a long time became a little callous to the situation, really didn't see the forest through the trees. The attendants and some of the administrators were just ecstatic. Like god I've been trying to get somebody to listen to me all these years and no one was listening and I- you know gave them a vehicle so they could be heard. And I had to protect them because I didn't want them to get fired, but they helped me enormously. They were really great - I couldn't have done it without them.
Lisa: (01:00:00:00-01:01:27:26) You've said that a lot of the staff were really sort of angels trying to do good against, you know, really-
Bill: Incredible odds
Lisa: Unbeatable odds. But did you come across some Pennhurst staff that you thought maybe, as you said, were more callous or just were indifferent.
Bill: Oh sure. Yeah, I saw some staff members who were callous. Most of them were not, most of them were really dedicated people making 75 dollars a week to go in and take care of 80 people a day. That's incredible. But there's some people, there were some people there who became callous at the situation and shouldn't have been working there. But they were few and far between. Most of them were absolutely dedicated but overwhelmed. Let me give you the best example: I went into a ward and there were eighty cribs. Eighty. Cages. Metal cribs. And some of the people in the cribs, I mean they ranged in age from 6 months to 5 years. They're lets were this thick [using hands] that's their thigh. So I asked how come these people are in these cages, how come they can't walk? And the attendant said because- they opened the closet and they had like eighty mattresses- and he said, "Because we don't have enough people to put these mattresses on the floor so they can learn how to crawl", because you had to learn how to crawl before you can walk. So they stayed in a cage 24/7 for years. I was like you're kidding me. "No, that is the reason. We just can't." And then I thought about it; I mean you're changing diapers. Eighty people! Two [raises hand signaling 2] attendants. There's just no way. And that's the way it was.
Lisa: (01:01:30:08-01:02:44:03) You know you've described the smell of Pennhurst when you first walked in and how overwhelming that was. I imagine Pennhurst as being also a cacophony of sound given all the people. And yet, when I look at Suffer the Little Children, there's little to no ambient sound in your broadcast and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about why that is?
Bill: There's two things at Pennhurst that you notice right away was: the smell, and the sound. The sounds were people moaning, all day long. Moaning, groaning, you know pleading for help. It was terrible. The reason we did not have a lot of natural sound, you gotta remember when we did this in 1968, it wasn't a big deal. Sound you only used for interviews. You know now everything's natural sound - you want it to be. But, there was even an area in the documentary where I remember we didn't have sound I just showed pictures but it was silence. You know if I had to do it now I'd make a big deal of the sound but- so be it. You know that's a long time ago. But that's why we did not have a lot of natural sound. It just wasn't that important. You didn't think that way.
Lisa: (01:02:45:06-01:03:32:00) And what kinds of sounds did you hear when you were walking through Pennhurst?
Bill: Well the people, you know, like I said the sounds of Pennhurst were sounds of pain. Neglect. They would just moan they would just cry. They would just be banging their heads. I mean some people did it out of frustration. You know, I want a feeling so I'll bang my head. They had to wear helmets all day long. It was incredible and what's even more incredible when you met people who were slightly retarded [and people] who were not retarded at all. It was a dumping ground for anybody. And you wondered why they were there. And how they, in their own minds, went downhill instead of uphill. It- that was horrible. That was horrible to see.
Lisa: (01:03:34:01-01:00:34:01) What did your producers think- you know your crew had such a visceral reaction to this terrible place. What did your producers, who didn't think there was a story to begin with, think when you started bringing back this very, very troubling footage?
Bill: That's an interesting question because I do remember distinctly when I first came back. We worked all day and I mean we were mentally and physically wiped out. And when I brought the film- it was film you had to process it, and then you had to edit it. I called the news director down and then he watched it and he was almost in tears- he just couldn't believe it. He says, "Bill, I thought you were exaggerating." I said, "Barry, I understand but this is it." He said- and at the time we ran stories and they were a minute forty-five. I was getting like six and seven minutes. The last one I think was twenty-three minutes. But, the bottom line was- the bad news was when we put it on the air the first day we got such an unbelievable reaction from the public we didn't know what to do. It was like the biggest reaction we ever got from anything. So they told me, "You know you gotta go back tomorrow, you gotta continue this." And I had been working like sixteen hours because I had to write it, I had to produce it, I had to edit it. So you know I'm not getting very much sleep like three or four hours you know I was sleeping in the building in the ladies room. So I had to go back the next day and the reaction got even bigger and it was like well you gotta do it again and I was taking these No Doze pills. I was- by the fifth day I couldn't speak I lost my voice because I was just so tired and my body just gave way. So I wrote it- I wrote the last day and I couldn't read it. So John Facenda read it and maybe that is the best thing that every happened but- I just passed out I just couldn't do it anymore. It was like 24/7 - after the fourth day, I was done.
Lisa: (01:00:34:05-01:00:59:15) Why was it the best thing that happened that John read?
Bill: Because John was so good. John's the Voice of God, you know. He's the NFL guy. He's great. I never thought about it at the time but you know afterwards I said jeez that was really great he read that thing perfectly. Here's a guy that's been in the business for twenty years at the time and I've been in there twenty days. There's no comparison. But, it worked out.
Lisa: (01:01:00:14-01:02:29:15) You know when you did your report I think- I think rightly so you put so much of the responsibility for the conditions at Pennhurst on the community and the indifference of the community. You've described an overwhelming response to the piece as it aired. In fact we know that from our parent advocates. They were so incredibly thrilled to see that finally conditions at Pennhurst were being exposed. I can imagine there were also parents whose children were in Pennhurst who were heartbroken. I wonder if you can describe a little bit about the types of comments that were coming to you with this huge overwhelming public response.
Bill: Alright, here's the bad news. The bad news about Pennhurst is that we've ignored those people much too long. Maybe fifty years at the time. Here's the good news. When people were exposed to it- as I said we got the biggest reaction we ever got I think to this day. And to the public's credit they jumped on it. They were infuriated. They were writing to their congressman, they were writing to their state senators, representatives. And there was a demand to change things. And they did. So when people were exposed to it they reacted in positive fashion. And that made me feel great. Like I said it's probably the greatest thing I ever did. And I was in the business for forty-three years. That was the first and probably the best.
Lisa: (01:02:30:12-01:03:29:16) When you started out what did you hope to accomplish with the piece? What did you think was possible to accomplish with the piece?
Bill: I was naïve, I have to admit. I was hoping to expose this thing to get a little reaction. Never did I dream of the reaction that I did get. But I was happy, I wanted to see things improve, one way or the other. And because of people- because of everyday people they improved greatly and I think it changed the entire system. Because what a lot of people don't know is, after we did this, the response was so great that CBS sent it out to all the ONO stations and told them, "Go find a place near you and do a story on it." That's how Geraldo Rivera got started. He found a place called Woodside or something up in New York and WCBS did the story after we did. And every other station they tried to find a place.
Lisa: (01:03:30:04-01:04:33:24) Were there any questions when you were interviewing the staff at Pennhurst that you wish you had asked but you didn't or felt like you couldn't?
Bill: No, I mean I tried my best at the time. I mean, at times I was in shock. Jesse Fear was the guy that blew me away. I would sit there and listen to this guy tell me how he tortured people. And I could not really react the way- I really wanted to start screaming at the guy, but I had to remain cool and calm. And just keep him talking and see how long he would go, and he just kept on going. And I know at times some of the administrators were really embarrassed, you know because they knew they were blowing it and they didn't do what they should have been doing and they didn't fight hard enough. But it was an interesting experience sitting on the other side and listening and trying to control my own emotions. And believe me I had them, and I just couldn't just start screaming.
Lisa: (01:04:34:03-01:01:16:29) The report that you did at the end- channel 10 made some recommendations- I think I have some written here. They wanted to, obviously, end the overcrowding. Add physicians; add gynecological care for women, teachers with special education experience, etc. And you've said that there were some improvements after your report. Can you tell me a little bit about what those improvements were?
Bill: Yeah- they got sixteen million dollars which was quite good. And things changed rapidly. They started taking people out, putting them other places. The whole idea of community living had a little traction. They did get added staff, the women got braziers, you know crazy stuff like that. There was a noticeable change almost immediately. And then it continued. It just kinda snow-balled. Because it stayed in the news. And we did like four follow-ups; four half-hour follow-ups, which I cannot find - they're lost, and I don't know where they are. I did one it was called, "No Less Precious." And I did another one, "Lest We Forget" and it was the fourth one. But we- we kept at it. It wasn't one of these jobs where we just did the story and left. No, we went back again and again and again, and every time we did another series there was another reaction from Harrisburg, which was positive. So that was good. Made us feel great and we had parties up there for the people. The entire station went out. It was good; we did kind of make a difference.
Lisa: (01:01:18:18-01:03:47:14) At one point in the report- I think- I'm probably paraphrasing, you said that people with disabilities needed a brilliant orator to trumpet their cause.
Bill: They had none. Zero. Yes, the retarded- at the time it was called retarded- the retarded had no advocates that made a difference. There was no one out there screaming about it, showing it. They were just lost. And it was dumping ground. If you were in court in Philadelphia and you were a pyromaniac, and this is a real story, they didn't know what to do with you and they sent you to Pennhurst. I met a couple guys who were pyromaniacs and they were up there and they were like wolves. You know, they were in with lamps - it was crazy. They just dumped you there because not even the judges understood it. Mental retardation and mental illness were the same in their mind, and there's an enormous difference. If they didn't know what to do with you: send them to Pennhurst. Just, get outta my way, get outta my sight and everything will be fine. And that was the real problem. That had to end. They were so backwards up there. I'll give you another example - it just used to kill me. I used to wonder why they segregated the males and females. Now I'm talking about eating breakfast or lunch. And there was a minister up there named Cal Carey. And Cal and I questioned this. Why can't they eat together? Or why can't they socialize? And the answer was, this is how backward they were, the answer was they thought there would be a mass orgy. There would be riots, there would be rapes, and this would be horrible, violent. Our whole thing was why don't you give it a try see what happens. They gave it a try. You know what happened? They ate. They ate, they talked, and that was it. But no one would even give it a try in fifty some years. [Laughing] How insane is this? It was- we just used to sit there and go I can't believe this is happening. And then what people also didn't know: the better you were, the more normal you were, the harder you worked, the less of a chance you had of ever leaving. You know why? Because you worked for nothing. You can mow the lawn; you can do the laundry. They kept you there. So if you were there at twenty-one or twenty-two and you just needed a little help: you were there for forty years. Because they wouldn't let you go because you were too important to the operation. Is that sad? Is that incredible? That's the way it was.
Lisa: (01:03:47:10-01:04:55:00) With your talking about this I'm thinking of a boy you interviewed- I want to say his name is Johnny- who was a child who perhaps needed a better educational situation, there was nothing really going on. Did you ever find out what happened to Johnny?
Bill: When I met Johnny at Pennhurst I immediately knew he didn't belong there. He had his problems but they weren't- he was not mentally retarded. He should have been in a place for mental illness maybe, because his IQ was almost normal. But it decreased over time because of the environment he was in. He reacted to the environment, which is normal. And you know he regressed all the time. And God only knows what happened to that poor guy. If he was put into a situation where he had some help I'm sure he would've been a productive member of society. I don't know if he ever had the chance to do that.
Lisa: (01:00:00:00-01:01:06:24) So do you think there's been someone to champion these causes or champion people like Johnny? Has there been one person that stood out in the time that you've covered this community?
Bill: Well, there were a lot of people, a lot of people who do not get credit. Some of the people who should get credit for the enormous changes at Pennhurst and mental retardation are former lieutenant Governor Ray Broderick who was also a judge. He never really got the credit he deserved. Tom Gilhool who was a lawyer. He championed the cause for years. The nameless people in the background that helped me out; they deserve an enormous amount of credit and will never get it. But without them, things would still be the same out there, I'm sure. And Broderick especially, he was really instrumental in getting things changed. No doubt about it. Because when he became a judge he got the case. Man that was great. He knew exactly what was going on.
Lisa: (01:01:08:03-01:01:51:01) So Bill, you've worked as a broadcaster for more than forty years. Where does this piece Suffer the Little Children fit for you personally into the body of your work?
Bill: Here's the ironic part. It's probably in my own mind the best thing I ever did. The most effective thing I've ever done, and the thing I'm most proud of. Let me give you can analogy. It's like being a rookie baseball player. Being put into the World Series at the bottom of the 9th inning with bases loaded and we're losing by three runs. And you hit a grand slam home run. You can play for twenty years and it will never happen again. That's it. It's downhill from then on, and it's the way Pennhurst was for me.
Lisa: (01:01:52:15-01:02:24:01) Is there a single image from Pennhurst that you'll never be able to forget?
Bill: Oh yeah. Two of them. Being in that ward with the eighty cribs. And being in that giant room with everybody just sitting around moaning, groaning, banging their heads. Crying. To this day I can still see it vividly. It's there, it'll always be there. And I'm just glad things changed.
Lisa: (01:02:25:16-01:03:06:00) Have you visited Pennhurst since its closure?
Bill: Oh yes. Yeah, I've done many interviews there. Yeah people always want to go back to do an interview, which I did. It was more accessible before the last several years. And we can always go back there and I even went through the buildings. I think it was last year, went through the buildings again. Brought back a lot of memories. And what people don't realize the buildings are in terrible shape. But they were in terrible shape fifty years ago. They couldn't have passed- not one of them coulda passed any kind of inspection. But nobody cared it didn't matter. See that was the problem. It just didn't matter. This wasn't important to anybody.
Lisa: (01:03:06:23-01:03:54:03) Do you remember how you felt when the last of the residents left Pennhurst?
Bill: When Pennhurst finally closed, it was like someone gave me this great gift. I was ecstatic. I couldn't believe it but I was happy and my next concern was what are we gonna do. And the community living arrangements worked out great. I think a lot of people are a lot better off today because of everything that happened up there. And all the court cases and- it was worthwhile. It was a worthwhile effort on everyone's part. No doubt about it.
About Bill Baldini
Born: 1943, Philadelphia, PA
Broadcast Journalist, NBC-10, Philadelphia
Currently resides in Philadelphia
Journalism, Pennhurst, Institutions