A Memorial Service 34 Years in the Making

Written on Dec. 2, 2018

Dear Colleagues,

With reflection on Pres. Bush’s legacy appropriately in the news, I hope that we don’t miss the opportunity here in Massachusetts also to acknowledge, honor, and reflect on the passing of U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro. There’s a good appreciation of his career in the Boston Globe, for those who are unfamiliar with his story. There are also important connections between his legacy and our community here at Gann.

Those of us who have had a stake in the fight for gay marriage over the years may remember Judge Tauro as the first federal judge to strike down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, back in 2010. But Judge Tauro’s career was made primarily through his lengthy involvement with the care of those with disabilities who resided in institutions such as Fernald. By serendipity, Judge Tauro became a critical human connection across two civil rights movements, across two generations.

Judge Tauro famously paid announced and unannounced visits to places like Fernald in order to see for himself what a lawsuit alleged about mistreatment of residents under state care. What he saw he later described as gutwrenching and indefensible. In the Globe article, Judge Tauro described a particular moment:

In 1973, Judge Tauro first toured the Belchertown facility with Benjamin Ricci, a college professor whose son was at the school. Before letting the judge leave, Ricci brought him to a remote part of the grounds “where there was a graveyard that had no gravestones, just plugs on the ground with numbers on it,” Judge Tauro recalled in a 2006 Globe interview.

“And he said, ‘I know you can only do so much, but do you think you can make them give all these people gravestones?’ I came very close to crying when he made that request. I just nodded at him, and of course I had that burned in the back of my head,” Judge Tauro added. “And we, fortunately, did a lot more than that.”

That story takes me to the present. Some of you may know that thanks to the work of both faculty and students this year, we now have biographies of all roughly 300 people buried in the MetFern Cemetery, in poorly maintained graves with only numbered headstones. It’s the start of rectification and repair. More to come.

One buried soul is that of a 16 year old who passed away at Fernald and who was buried at MetFern in 1974. When we contacted her mother to inform her of the information students had uncovered about her child, we did not know what to expect. We could not have known that this mother, exhausted and bereft of resources to care for her child with disabilities, handed her child over to the care of the state in 1959 and then carried emotional pain for the next six decades.  We could not have known that this mother, upon being contacted, wanted to know as much as possible about her child’s life, and would feel such gratitude that others had taken notice of her child and were invested in her dignity.

And so it was that five Gann faculty members and six students were gathered this past Friday with this parent, her living children and grandchildren, and a few friends for the first-ever memorial service for her child. The ceremony had a Quaker style of speaking and discernment. Under a bare oak tree, we cleared leaves and dirt to lay a wreath on the sunken, unnamed gravestone. Standing in a circle, this mother described how she overcame her own emotional defenses to embrace the child she had left behind. Her children thanked her for liberating them from the pain and secrecy associated with their sibling’s journey. Three of our students spontaneously spoke so eloquently and thoughtfully that the family was moved to tears. All expressed copious thanks for the work of Gann students and faculty that had allowed them to heal.

One story out of hundreds.

As we quietly left the cemetery, one of our students turned to me and said “You know, I have a theory. I think that we all have a limited number of times when we can make a truly profound difference in the lives of others. I think this was one of those times.”

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