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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Uncle Bill

My Uncle Bill was born September 6, 1909.  He was slow.  Family story says the neighborhood boys were playing at a construction site and Uncle Bill fell from the attic through to the basement of a home under construction.  Jan says she knows as a result of his injury he had a metal plate in his head. He wound up labeled as having the mental ability of a twelve year old.  That’s debatable—Uncle Bill was sharp as a tack, shrewd as they come. 

Uncle Bill on the left, in 1910
When his mother could no longer keep the family of five children together, Uncle Bill went to the Akron Children’s Home, together with my dad.  Family lore also says that because of his mental slowness Uncle Bill was not sent to school; his reading, writing and arithmetic was taught him by my dad and continued on his own when he and dad were separated.  Dad was always bitter that “the system” mishandled Uncle Bill, who he felt could have been as productive a person as any of his siblings.
It seems logical the children could have been wards of Summit County when they were in the Children’s Home.  Uncle Bill remained in guardianship for a long time; when my father left the Children’s Home Uncle Bill became a ward of the state and was sent to Orient State School in Orient, near Columbus.
From a description at  The Orient State Institute was established as a farm colony in 1898 and operated as a branch of the Columbus State School. The facility had 180 acres, of which 1,358 acres were under cultivation. The school had its own band, orchestra, and choir, weekly movies, religious services and recreation. On July 15, 1926, the Orient facility became an independent unit and in 1937 received patients from various counties in Ohio. This continued until May 15, 1950 when the organization was rejoined under the Columbus State School and became the central receiving area for all feeble minded persons, adult and youth. In 1984 it became the Pickaway Correctional Institution.  I’ve searched a lot of internet looking for a picture of Orient, as I remember it.  I’ve only found a picture of a farm crew at Orient.

Uncle Bill would have been around age 15 when he went to Orient in the early 1920’s.  The pamphlet shows teachers with classrooms so perhaps Uncle Bill had a little education.  More likely he was assigned to the farm fields.  We went there in summer and always met him with a field team or near his dormitory.  My parents always brought a quantity of fresh fruit to give to “the boys”.  Bananas were the especial favorite and they could be seen sticking out of the tops of coveralls as the men passed bananas around.  After I was grown and gone, Jan remembers still stopping often at Orient to visit Uncle Bill and be sure he had enough of everything, including money.

Mom and Dad spent years working on the red tape of getting custody of Uncle Bill and bringing him home to Akron.  The best they could do was “work release” each summer.  Better than nothing.  My parents bought our home in 1945 and set about renovating it.  Uncle Bill’s help was invaluable.  The front porch was closed in, a garage built, landscaping done. Dad and Uncle Bill laid a sidewalk from our house to the garage.  Several small blocks in colors made a large block.  Dad poured and colored them one night, they laid the block(s) the next.  They hand dug a fruit cellar under the front porch of our house.   And Uncle Bill spent a couple of months each year with his family, his brother, his sisters.

The garage Uncle Bill helped build
The sidewalk, 20years later. 
Back in Orient, Uncle Bill had a life.  He hired out at a handyman to a local family.  He walked or bicycled  the short distance, shoveled snow, mowed grass, made minor repairs for a couple named Dolly and her husband George.  He did handyman work for other people in town, as well.  After Uncle Bill was able to come to Akron my parents took him back to visit Dolly and George.

Most of all, Uncle Bill was an entrepreneur, the middle man in countless deals for bicycles and radios.  He apparently was a fine negotiator; everyone got what they wanted and Uncle Bill always traded his stock of goods up.  He collected and jealously guarded a complete set of the work of Zane Gray.
In the 1970’s Governor Rhodes, of Kent State shootings infamy, turned out state mental facilities. Just released people back to their point of origin.  It was a huge hit on the social services systems in the state.  Especially social workers dealing with people who had no support system at their “point of origin.”  Uncle Bill had my parents, still living at his point of origin, and especially my tenacious mother to guide him through the process of integrating into an open world.  Many, many were not so fortunate.  My uncle was in his 60’s and a wonderful man with minimal life skills.  He could make a peanut butter sandwich, cook himself a hot dog, fry bacon, but get a job?  What were they thinking.

So, mom took a crash course in the welfare system, guided him through SSI, Medicaid, Section 8 housing.  Some of his earlier apartments she considered appalling, and when an opportunity arose to house him in a Senior Citizens facility in downtown Akron, the renovated Mayflower Hotel, she snatched it.  It was a perfect fit and Uncle Bill lived there the rest of his life.

Uncle Bill in the '70's
Uncle Bill’s preferred mode of transportation in good weather was his bicycle.  He rode it to Richfield to see Aunt Laura.  He rode it to Marlboro to see Aunt Helen Rita.  And he rode it across the high level bridge to visit Sis and John, in North Hill.  My mother’s neighbor worked for the Akron Water Department, and often saw Uncle Bill on his red bike.  When he reported on Uncle Bill at the head of an endless line of traffic, going down Memorial Parkway into the valley, Mom sadly had to intervene and take his wheels away.  He could ride the bus around Akron and she would take him to Richfield and Marlboro.  She went as often as he did, he could just go on her schedule.  Uncle Bill was in his seventies by then.

Uncle Bill had a full head of beautiful white hair.  He was rather vain about it.  His secret to keeping it white, not yellow:  rinse with hydrogen peroxide, not tap water.

Uncle Bill and a girlfriend.  He was always taking care of a girlfriend.
When I was a child, card playing was a major entertainment in our house.  Mom thought card games in the summer an excellent way to keep kids up to snuff with math.  Uncle Bill was a sharp card player.  Canasta was his special favorite and be careful, he could take you down with a pair of corn hooks any day.

Uncle Bill’s other favorite social activity was attending AA meetings.  Uncle Bill only ever drank black coffee, but AA took him in anyway.  He loved the people and the comradeship. Jan asked Uncle Bill why he attended AA, knowing he never drank.  Uncle Bill said it made him realize other people had bigger problems than his.

Uncle Bill was also a member of Grace Baptist Church.   When Uncle Bill died in 1985 mom planned on a small service at the funeral home and no graveside service as there were no longer enough men in the family to be pall bearers.  On the day of the service we gathered in a small room.  Then the funeral director opened the back, to double the size of the room.  Eventually the hall was filled.  The funeral director had located Uncle Bill’s minister and asked him to do the eulogy.  The entire congregation showed up and filled the funeral home.  Many stood to talk about how Bill touched their lives.  The bus driver was going to miss him because Bill had turn by turn directions every Sunday to pick up other members.


  1. Don't forget the (probably only) one time you astounded Uncle Bill with your amazing powers of prognostication. Uncle Bill: "Joanne, I bet you can't guess how many miles are on my bicycle!" Joanne: "2,578." "What, that's exactly right! How did you do that." Joanne: didn't say nothing. She looked at the odometer on the way into the house! And Joanne, she didn't say nothing!

  2. Another amazing Uncle Bill story. He kept a weather diary. You could ask him about the weather on any day in the past and he knew what it was! I believe he was best at "what was the weather X years ago today," because he checked it every morning!

  3. Thanks for reminding me how much Uncle Bill loved life. I'd forgotten the "guess how many miles are on my bike" questioning we routinely underwent.