In Memoriam

A Tribute to my dad on this Memorial Day

Many people don't know...  my dad was drafted during the Vietnam War – he opposed war due to his religious standpoint, taking a stance as a conscientious objector.  A conscientious objector, or CO, is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion.   Other options to serve the State are available if that claim is upheld, and he chose the option of a different form of service. 

He and Mom lived in Illinois at the time, since that is where they had both attended Bible College and he took on a service role to the state to become a worker at the Dixon State School in Dixon, IL.  This choice had its own difficulties – Dixon State School (previously Dixon State Hospital) was created to be used for those that were epileptic, but through the years its use expanded and came to be used to also house the “feeble-minded.”

In 1899, the Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities were instructed to prepare plans for the establishment of the Illinois State Colony for Epileptics, appropriating funds for the construction – which did not happen until 1913.  The colony opened on May 1, 1918. 

The purpose of the facility soon expanded to include care for the “feeble-minded”, being renamed Dixon State Hospital in 1922 and changed again, in 1952, to Dixon State School, and Dixon Developmental Center in 1975.  This facility site is now the Dixon Correctional Center, which has become one of the largest prisons in Illinois. 

The population at Dixon State School was a mix of those with mild to severe mental retardation, standard mental capacity with varying degrees of physical ailments (such as hydrocephalus and spina bifida) to those that were psychotic & dangerous.  It was a mentally and physically challenging job, working with the range of those living at the facility, and also being physically threatened at times by being thrown against the wall by those too large to easily manage. 

The conditions were nothing that any of us would want to visit, let alone live in.  Many would have required a one-on-one nursing ratio, but that was not available.  There were many problems with keeping up with the cleanliness in regard to feces and vomit because of the limited number of staff vs residents.  Some residents were not mobile and others immediately removed their clothing after being dressed. 

The plight of these institutions was beginning to gain exposure through media sources, such as the Chicago Sun-Times, drawing the conditions of facilities like these to the attention of the public.


1971 Pulitzer Prize, Feature Photography, Jack Dykinga, Chicago Sun-Times

“Jack Dykinga’s photographic portfolio, based upon the particular manner in which he experienced being face with the overwhelming images of utterly discarded human beings, the mentally-ill who were warehouse in the back wards of state mental hospitals, represented a step toward an understanding of co-constructed meaning, a sense of which is embedded in ‘Because He is, I am.’”

The book, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States by James W Trent, Jr. shows and contrasts the images shown by Dykinga with other happenings in the institution.  He discusses the social problem with the way in which these individuals have been treated through the years, on up through the ranks to the administrators. 

Food served in the cottage lobby instead of the dining room, during flu epidemic at Dixon State School for Mentally Retarded.  Photo credit Time Life photo archive.

Other interior and exterior photos credit .

This was an era when people were sent to facilities such as this when doctors didn’t always know what to do with a diagnosis and often the thing to do was send the patient away to an institution.  Sometimes, this was due to a lack of community resources, and also to deal with subjects that at that time were taboo. 

An archived article in People, dated October 8, 1979, outlines an article in which a girl named Karen Boldt sues her parents and doctor for an incorrect diagnosis.  She was written off at the age of 3 months and committed to Dixon State School thereafter.  A nurse remembered her admission charts reading “imbecile” while today, she has a higher-than-average IQ.  Read more here.   

While strides have been taken in this field, there is much to learn about the mind and the causes of various issues.  Care facilities are increasingly more capable of caring for those with mild cases, all of the way to severe.  But there is still a social stigma associated with any type of affliction that causes mental issues, and even more strides that must happen so those who need care get the best possible. 

On a day such as today, I remember and feel proud that Dad always was stood up for his convictions, even if it was not an easy thing to do! 

Thank you for stopping by!


Hi, my name is Chondra Rankin!  My passion is teaching and inspiring YOU how to become prepared to grasp the luxury of designing your life well - so you can live your life... your way!

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