Cleburne’s untold “mentally retarded” tale bit freakish Measuring progress by how far we've chased our "fear of freaks"

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Mar 26, 2016 No Comments ›› Dan Bodine
Neighbors expressing fear of having "freaks at the windows, staring into our bedrooms" weren't the only fears involved in the historic City of Cleburne vs. Cleburne Living Center case decided July 1, 1985. Corporate owners of the local newspaper also feared linking it with any publicity to the "freaks" would severely hurt advertising revenue, too. And thus weeks before the Supreme Court came down ordered all publicity on a major news award employees of the paper had won to be gagged. Forever. (Image by Maiya Kareli Bodine, using elements from

“Freaks staring into our bedroom windows” wasn’t the only fear in historic ‘City of Cleburne vs. Cleburne Living Center.’ Corporate execs of a local daily newspaper, too, feared publicity on the mentally retarded — e.g., the “freaks” — might cut advertising revenues. Weeks before the ruling, i.e., they ordered a major public service award local employees had won for their coverage of the landmark case be snuffed. And not reported locally. Cleburne’s recalcitrant general manager managed to leak it later to a journalist, though. Story below.   (Image by Maiya Kareli Bodine, using elements from



By Dan Bodine


U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — in legislation some call the “Wanderers Bill” — seeks devices to help monitor whereabouts of special children once all lumped together as mentally retarded. News stirred ghosts in me. My hometown, Cleburne, Tx, was ground zero once in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court clash involving these citizens, which greatly expanded their civil rights and benefits. They’re intellectually disabled now, for example.

But progress, if we’re calling this modernizing era a transition period, has seen the 4th Estate’s traditional informing watchdog role (to better influence representative Democracy in Washington) mostly taken over by corporate autocrats now, legislatively mindful of civil rights solely as it affects a company’s bottom line. Are most citizens aware of this change’s significance in reshaping our ever-changing, new humanity?

City of Cleburne vs. Cleburne Living Center July 1, 1985, advanced our recognition of civil rights, i.e. But newsrooms — more so now — are collared by expanded advertising market concerns of the fiscal body to which they’re attached. Radical capitalism — starting with Sunbelt opportunism, this time — rearranged our deck chairs! Still somewhat dazed in the change, citizens go with trendy populism now and don’t research conflicting political issues. It’s how fascism starts, history shows.

Since large news corporations took over most of the media, this old raising hell role (e.g., reporting actual “news”), has been reduced on so many occasions to whether it protects or enhances corporate profits — irrelevant to any ongoing, governmental function or over-riding society objective.

The corporate-owned Cleburne paper, i.e., won a major national public service award for coverage of this landmark 1985 case — announced at Donrey Media’s annual Las Vegas convention. Surprised, regional corporate executives — caught unaware newsroom competition even had been entered for Cleburne — snuffed it.

They saw ghosts — e.g., feared publicity (on freaks, especially) might hurt advertising revenue! And ordered news releases gagged. I’ve never once doubted this was uncommon to Cleburne.

Earlier, fear of  “window freaks” (as described by neighbors at municipal hearings), caused a Cleburne City Council to deny a permit for the group home for 13 mildly retarded residents.

Old Cleburne High School, seen being used as a county law enforcement center now.

Old Cleburne High School, seen in recent years as a county law enforcement center, sat directly across from the home–which is now closed. (Courtesy photo)

Shut them out of a neighborhood directly across from the town’s old, storied high school temporarily. Cleburne’s about 30 miles south of Fort Worth in the D-FW Metroplex.

But U. S. Supreme Court in “City of Cleburne vs. Cleburne Living Center Inc.” overturned it — because of “irrational fear” in it. The Court thus chased away Cleburne’s ghosts!

Today “mentally retarded” is an outlawed term.  They’re citizens “intellectually disabled.” President Obama signed Rosa’s Law in 2010, fixing federal benefits more like physically disabled.

And they’re further differentiated into distinct sub-groups — individuals with varying disabilities medical science has since discovered. But why has it taken so long? Ghosts!?

Huge Moment in History

The case was huge not only because it routed fear of mentally retarded in general but it also opened up more civil rights legislation.

They’d lived mostly unknown, either in institutional care or in private families. The Court put them amongst us! And we adjusted. And assimilated! Indeed, this was a moment to celebrate.

But this secondary fear — related to newspaper’s “freaks publicity” — has drawn scant attention. Why bring it up now? Is there anyone around who even cares!?

Maybe it says something about the 2016 Election. Are immigrants our new ghosts?

I was managing editor of the 10k-circulation Cleburne Times-Review, Johnson County’s sole daily, during this fight. We covered it closely. Integration, Act II, I sensed. And by doing our job, we also were a tiny microcosm of old journalism. Rare now.

Community conscious was heightened. Fairness and kindness eventually ruled. Employees of the paper were honored for keeping the community informed (although never informed themselves, ironically). And thus Fourth Estate worked! Democracy won!

“Would the unjustifiable prejudices of neighbors qualify as a rational basis for the State to segregate the mentally retarded?” an on-line law brief reviewing this historical Cleburne ordinance notes. “In this case, the answer was no.”

Actually, justices saw an “…irrational prejudice against the mentally retarded,” The Washington Post noted.

(Justice John Paul) Stevens, joined by (Chief Justice Warren E.) Burger, said the appeals court “correctly observed that through ignorance and prejudice the . . . retarded ‘have been subjected to a history of unfair and often grotesque treatment.’ “

Stevens said the Cleburne zoning permit was … a result of “the irrational fears of neighboring property owners, rather than for the protection of the mentally retarded . . . .”

That moment in history was huge personally, too. Leading up to it turned my stomach on social minimalism, the spin-off disease of radical capitalism!

Eventually, I would end up 500 miles away in a desert border town — in a new, strange job among complete strangers — in a new culture. Starting life over! With no regrets. But for not telling about this damn award.

This Court moment was huge in the life of this old laid-back Southern town also. Cleburne was struggling to keep its identity, I felt. Bedazzling economic and social changes flung thru Sunbelt transformations changed people overnight!

Indeed, 1985 was one of those “correction moments” in Time. When Justice extracted certain teeth from the community — so kinder, gentler ones could grow back. And thereby, in a small way, changed a nation.

But not without cost. Especially locally.

Background of Award

Unlike fog, which slips in “on cats’ feet,” social and political change in America comes in painful, rowdy brawls of public discourse. People yanking human psyches back and forth. Stay away from these things, wiser minds advise!

The community newspaper, however, historically has been an honorable looking glass for this. Citizens define themselves in it. Thus I took my job seriously. Too seriously, executives of Donrey Media Group that owned the paper felt!

Once during the Supreme Court hearings, i.e., when national TV crews came into town to interview neighbors complaining about strange people staring into bedroom windows (prejudiced coverage, it was), we at the Times-Review countered!

Published a 6-8 page section of “letters to the editor,” mostly castigating the city’s decision to outlaw strange people. Forty, 50 or more letters, it seems. The problem with distant, corporate ownership is it’s oblivious to personal community pain.

But that letters section was a way to keep the paper neutral. And still keep the town’s respect for decency. It was a moment inside a moment.

An idea local General Mgr. Paul I. Griffith approved. T-R advertising staff, I remember, stretched to scurry up ads to carry extra pages; on a weekday, understaffed pressmen were burdened, too. This was no easy task.

The writers themselves, though, citizens embarrassed at how their community was being portrayed, were part of a core of progressives, I’ve long realized. A minuscule part of what actually was a new, national Civil Rights Era forming — who said, Enough of this is enough! This isn’t us!

Did the Supreme Court justices, indeed, read some of those letters later? Another tidbit I’d heard. A circuitous rumor initially from one of the legal staffers of Cleburne Living Center, I think. Wow!

Also during this early Spring, 1985 — unknown to higher management, too — was my planned escape from the T-R. I’d decided to leave Donrey to help start up a small chain of competing weeklies. Enough was enough with me, too.

But I’d forgotten a deadline for mailing in entries to the ’85 Donrey Media Awards Contest. Donrey had well over 50 papers nationally then, including in Hawaii, and the flagship paper in Las Vegas.

Spent long weekend at home gathering material. I was able only to get the public service entry together. Including the letters. In an earlier year, at a state managing editors convention, I’d  helped judge another state’s UPI contests —and had learned how judges liked these entries packaged.

I even took the large, stuffed envelope I finally put together to the post office (hurrying against a deadline) that Saturday at noon. Without telling anyone else. Just another job, I figured.

May 31 was my last day at the paper.

That year’s convention was in Las Vegas, either last week of May or first week of June. It never crossed my mind. I was on another job.

My new partner and I organized in June under Southwest Times, Inc. The late Don R. McNiel — an inventor who’d patented a key part of the earliest hand-calculator and sold it to Texas Instruments Inc. — was president; my title was vice-president, publisher.

We’d bought a nearby weekly, Alvarado Bulletin — actually the oldest business in the county — and would add papers from two other counties in that southwest corner of D-FW (along with a common shopper publication) to our holdings.

Ironically, among those first stories I published in Alvarado was the huge Supreme Court decision on the mentally retarded. Again, I’d thought nothing of the Donrey Convention.

My first visit back to the T-R was in August, to get an ad. An advertiser had asked us to pick up a large ad the T-R had made for him, that ran in the Sunday edition. I went on a Tuesday, I think.

Paul was standing in the hallway, and asked for me to come to his office. Inside, he locked it. I was puzzled.

He walked to a long, floor cabinet behind his desk; knelt to reach into it. And after what seemed like a full minute, pulled out a large object wrapped snugly in pages of an out-of-town newspaper.

It was the 1985 Donrey Media Public Service Award. To employees of the Cleburne (TX) Times-Review.

“I’ll be damn!” I said.

Don’t say a word to anyone!” he said. “I’ll lose my job.”

I haven’t.

Until now.



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