“My Pennhurst” Special Historical Retrospective

When one hears the name or perhaps the word, “Pennhurst” cultivates powerful opinions, and deep-rooted feelings immediately fuel debates. Ostracized by today’s culture, and used as a tool to sell television shows, “Ghost Hunts,” and haunted attraction tickets, many fail to consider any narrative that perhaps contradicts the conjured stories of so-called “paranormal” experts, so-called psychics, and media personalities. Usually, those who hear of the word associate the name with the famous “haunted attraction” and a variety of television shows such as Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. In today’s era of quick mass media, it is challenging to uncover the layers of history that have, in some cases, have been forever lost to the abyss of time.


It is our goal with this unique piece “My Pennhurst” to unveil a perhaps different side that differentiates the “sensational Pennhurst” from the historical entity, the infamous “Pennhurst State School.” We implore you as we embark on this very personal journey to remove any preconceived notions, remove the context of what has been ingrained in your psyche by mass media and accept the society in which Pennhurst State School functioned as vastly different as the world we live in today. It is difficult often to separate time periods based on societal norms, as we always side with the notion that all of our decisions, our knowledge, etc. is “correct” and that “mistakes” are simply the misguided work of a few “bad people.” The whole story of “Pennhurst” will always be defined by those who lived the experience, as well as those who on the outside bore witness to what was always presented to the public as “fact,” which in fact at times was poisoned by “fiction.”

Society and Culture View

Society and culture are defined by the evolution and context of how mankind identifies, addresses, and, in the end, learns from its decisions, and it is up to future generations to build off historical foundations regardless if they are damaged. The story of “Pennhurst” will forever be defined by who see it, from their perspective, knowledge, and expertise garnered on “Wikipedia,” or from “haunted artifacts” sold on eBay. Our goal, in this case, is to remove the barriers that interject between fact/fiction and allow a voice to tell their first-hand story of what “Pennhurst” was and is to them. We first met Ruth Himes several years ago on a visit to the “haunted attraction” and found her historical account from an academic, cultural, and societal standpoint to be fascinating. Stripping away the myths, the legends, the impassioned voices from those whose opinions are formed by the ideals of others, Ruth told her story, was courageous in how she confronted others who promoted misconceptions and allowed us to understand that her “piece of history” needed to be added to the perplexing puzzle that is “Pennhurst.”

What we are presenting to you is not a matter of debate; it is, at times, a reflection on society, and certainly is not related to anything “haunted.” What does haunt Ruth, however, are the stories that violate the “Pennhurst” she knew, the facility that provided for those who could not live in a period in which culture would not accept any otherwise? We can sit now and believe we are high and mighty society, but if we take a moment and ask ourselves if we would support such institutions in this time period, based on cultural context, maybe we would be less judgmental. As it stands, this is Ruth’s story, her life’s work, and an insight into the “real” Pennhurst from her first-hand vantage point. We are proud to present this look back into history and be allowed to present to you My Pennhurst. 

Ruth Himes began her journey at “Pennhurst State School and Hospital” in 1980, taking the PA State Civil Service test for the position of “Aide Trainee.” Ruth’s official start date was January 12th, 1981, and she was assigned to a rigorous training program. As “Aide Trainee,” Ruth received six months of classroom training followed by a probationary period before she was promoted to the position of “Mental Retardation Aide 1.”  A sign of the times and culture, the term for this position is obviously not politically correct or acceptable but was the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania’s Civil Service position at the time (the position today is titled “Residential Services Aide, M.R.”). Ruth worked at “Pennhurst” during the lengthy closure process, and as the population declined, so did the staff. Ruth would work in various departments until her furlough to another State institution in April 1983.

A Lasting Impact

Ruth expresses to this day that “Pennhurst” has played a central role in her life- “Pennhurst was and always will be extremely important to me. “Pennhurst” was and always will be extremely important to me.  It is hard to explain, but “Pennhurst” wasn’t “just a job,” it was my life.  My co-workers and the individuals on D-1 were family to one another. The work environment was one I’ve never experienced again. Working together as a team, seeing smiles, hearing laughter, helping someone that was unable to help themselves. The best memories from my career will always be from Pennhurst. Pennhurst also is where I met my husband, Ken. I met Ken in 1981 when he worked at Pennhurst, and we were married in 1983.” Ruth would later return to Pennhurst many years later to help manage the “historical” tour presented as an addition to the popular haunted attraction.

Looking back in the context of the time, we asked Ruth to describe what “impact” Pennhurst had on its residents during her period working at the institution. According to Ruth, “Pennhurst had a lot of positive. For many, it was the only home they ever knew or could remember.  We had two ladies on D-1 that were born with Cerebral Palsy. They were given a language board for trays on their wheelchairs.  That was the first they were able to communicate by pointing to the photo of what they wanted/needed.”

While the media has focused on allegations of abuse and neglect, fueled by media representation, progressive developmental and educational programs were implemented during the last days of “Pennhurst.” Ruth recalls, “before I was furloughed, a female patient was being fitted for her own verbal communication board.  Anna was a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC); she was able to attend meetings and share her opinions with other members.  Due to her disability, she had to have two staff members with her on any outings.  She also had a job she was extremely proud of, putting little sewing kits together. It may not seem important to many, but to her, it made her very happy.” Teaching self-determination skills and helping others develop skill sets for a functional living are core tenants of modern education programs to this day. “Pennhurst’s” reforms prior to closure spearheaded the modern “special education” and “disability” initiatives that drive the instruction and education of special needs instruction today.

Despite positive advances in developmental and educational programming, dominating the perception of “Pennhurst” is generally negative. We spoke with Ruth about perception and reality. Ruth expressed,” Pennhurst will always have a bad reputation.  The funny thing, back when I worked at Pennhurst, I had no idea of the reason it was closing, nor had ever heard about Bill Baldini or his expose, “Suffer the Little Children.” My personal opinion with the mainstream media focusing on the negative of Pennhurst is that it is what sells, the negative. Maybe more viewers will tune in to hear the latest controversy on Pennhurst or will sell more papers.  People forget or maybe don’t realize that Pennhurst was not the only institution in Pennsylvania.  When it opened in 1908, there were approximately ten other State institutions in operation.”

Ruth, in her prior capacity working in a museum as well as in her efforts to express the history of Pennhurst, has met resistance in many situations. “People think they know everything about Pennhurst because they saw it on the paranormal TV shows or read all about it online. Some people that would come through the Pennhurst Museum thought the haunted attraction was based on the true history of Pennhurst Center.  Most people don’t even understand that Pennhurst was state-owned. I try to explain how things were back then.  It was a society that shunned people who were different or misunderstood.  We didn’t have a diagnosis of “autism” or “ADHD/ADD” in the early 1900s. “

Directly asked if she witnessed abuse and neglect during her time at the facility, Ruth emphatically responded with a resounding, “No!” Abuse could be in many forms, which we were taught in our training.  Pulling a blind person down the hallway or on stairs would be abuse.  One day during training, we were blindfolded and shown how to properly lead a blind person and what it felt like to be dragged down the hall or stairs and being scared. The old children’s game where you stacked your hands one on top of the other to reach higher and higher, that was eventually considered abuse.” Again, training programs such as these are similar to what is offered today and highlight the reality that perhaps Pennhurst, during its closing days, was far more progressive in-patient treatment than once thought.

It is clear that Pennhurst will always be very important to Ruth, was the beginning of her Commonwealth career; it was her life. She took care of the children, fellow staff, and a family that existed at the facility. When she was offered the chance to be in Pennhurst Museum and talk to people, it was great to be back, to remember each of her girls, co-workers. Ruth expressed, “it was really nice to see old faces coming through the museum of co-workers or even kids of co-workers, and even past individuals that once lived there.  Even being back at the haunted attraction, I felt alive.” “Being at Pennhurst really helped me to focus on the memories of happy times.” When we decided to no longer work at Pennhurst, my heart was broken again.  Our integrity was more important to us than money.”

After this initial piece, we had the chance to speak with Ruth, as much has changed regarding the infamous “Pennhurst” property, yet the stories and legends remain. Again, we asked her what favorite memories and stories she wanted to share and how she refers to Pennhurst. We asked Ruth to share some of her favorite memories and present them as recorded.

Ruth: My most favorite memory is with Jennie.  She reminded me so much of my Grandmother.  The pure white hair, small stature, and patting my hand.  She would call me “Roosie Dear”.  Jennie and her sister had been dropped off at Pennhurst when they were five and seven years old by their parents.  I don’t remember which one was older.  For whatever reason, their parents could no longer care for them. This was around the time of the depression.  I don’t know whatever happened to her sister (we weren’t given specifics).  Every night that I worked, Jennie would pat my hand and say, “Roosie Dear, will you take me bed”.  We’d walk back to her dorm room, and I’d help her get into bed.  Then she’d fold her arms across her chest, squeeze her eyes shut, and say her prayers.  “Dear God, please bless (names of people in her past) and Dear God, please bless our boys in the war. Amen”. 

For Jennie’s birthday, I took her to my house for a dinner and small party.  I can’t remember what she wanted to eat, but I know she was happy.  She would call my Mom, “Mother”, even though Jennie was at least 30 years older than my Mom.

Ruth: In 1983, I had changed to a clerical position, but still visited with Jennie.  When I was getting furloughed, I had to explain to her why I wouldn’t be able to see her.  She wanted to know why.  I tried to explain that she would be going to a new home soon, she didn’t want any parts of that as Pennhurst WAS her home.  After I moved, I’d send her cards and letters, that I know was being given to her.  Not long after I moved, I received a telephone call at work by Janice, Jennie’s social worker.  She told me she had bad news that Jennie had passed away the day before and was asking if I would like to have her ashes, as I was the closest to family she had.  Of course I cried, losing Jennie, but was honored to be asked to have her ashes.  A few days later, Janice called me back and said that the State would not allow me to have her ashes, because I was a State employee.  I was heartbroken.  When Pennhurst was moving individuals out, we as staff were not allowed to keep in touch with them.  That they were starting a new life, and they needed to forget us. 

Ruth: Vera was our “charge aide”, she was a Mental Retardation Aide II, and passed away several years ago.  She was a great lead worker, taught me so much.  Her “favorite” was Janis.  Janis always called Vera, “Beer-ya”.  On one of Vera’s days off, she got Janis and took her home to go swimming.  A few times, on break and after everyone was in bed, she’d run to the dairy and bring back an ice cream for Janis.

Ruth: Mona was another co-worker, also deceased.  On the weekends, she’d bring her guitar in and we’d have a sing along.  Even the girls that couldn’t verbally communicate, enjoyed it.  Their favorite song, Kumbaya,

Ruth: Another Anna was our “door watcher”.  She liked sitting in her wheelchair, holding her pipe (waiting for a light), watching who was coming in, especially at shift change.  She’d be excited to see all the regulators.  Anna had a daughter prior to being admitted to Pennhurst.  Her daughter was a beautiful young lady with two small children.  She would bring them to visit.  She would take Anna out on the raised walkway near the small playground, so she could watch her grandchildren play on the slide and swings.

Ruth: What is now the “lower parking lot” used to be a baseball field.  Neighboring baseball teams would come to Pennhurst to play ball.  On those evenings, we’d take our girls over to the top of the hill so they could watch the game.  On select Fridays, Devon Hall had “movie night” at Assembly Hall.  That’s how we learned to push one wheelchair and pull another one.

Ruth: We had four staff on the second shift.  If we ended up with five, one of us had to rotate out to another living area that was short their regular staff.  One of these nights, I was pulled to work on D-4, which housed hyperactive males.  That night happed to be their swim night.  We walked up to New Horizons Hall (which is now Tilghman Hall at the Veterans Center).  In the basement was a huge swimming pool; that was the only time I was ever able to be there.

Ruth: People forget that there were two campuses.  The lower campus is now privately owned as Pennhurst Asylum, and the upper campus, which is now owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Military, and Veteran Affairs.  Also, on the upper campus was Independence Unit.  I think it was eight modular houses that had one or two staff and 10 to 12 individuals that were preparing to go to CLA’s.  CLA’s were Community Living Arrangements, the beginning of “group homes.”  The “mods,” as we called it, have since been torn down, as has the iconic water tower.  I was fortunate enough to get the very top of the water tower donated to the Pennhurst Museum.

Ruth: Another very positive that you can’t find online was “Pennhurst Day” at Lakeview Amusement Park.  Before I had even taken the Civil Service test, I was living in the Pottstown area with a blind lady.  She was a teacher at Pennhurst.  They were looking for volunteers to help with Pennhurst Day. We had a training meeting to explain what we would be doing.  Lakeview would be closed that day to the public.  Only Pennhurst individuals and their families, staff, volunteers, foster grandparents would be admitted.  My “buddy” that day was Billy.  He was a burly guy, but very innocent.  I remember he went over to a trash barrel and saw a spider.  He was watching it and then very gently grabbed it and squeezed it to show me.  Needless to say, we had to get him cleaned up from squishing it.  Seeing the individuals enjoying themselves, smelling the smells, hearing the noises, seeing laughter, I’ll never forget it. The Foster Grandparent Program was very important at Pennhurst (and used at other facilities).  Senior Citizens were able to be one-on-one with individuals, reading books, coloring, etc. 

Ruth: Coloring was a huge favorite of many.  Then the State decides that coloring is not age-appropriate and took away one of their favorite activities.  How do you tell someone that they are no longer allowed to color?  When people asked what the worse thing was I ever saw while working there . . . my answer was projectile vomit.  I can still remember that so vividly.

Thank you: Ruth Himes for your incredible passion, courage and strength discussing this important period of your life and in history.