|Chapter 22: Growing Up at the Athens State Hospital
by Paul Theodore Omelsky
and John Stephen "Steve" Caul
Stories of Medicine in Athens County, Ohio
a multi-authored anthology compiled and edited by
Gary E. Cordingley, M.D., Ph.D.
Editor’s note: For many years the doctors working at the Athens State Hospital lived with their
families in cottages on its grounds. As a result, some children had the unusual experience of
growing up on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital. Two such former children, Paul Omelsky,
M.D., and Steve Caul, recorded their remembrances. Paul was the son of Eugene Omelsky,
M.D., and Louisa Lorber Omelsky, M.D., staff physicians from 1955 to 1971. His narrative:
My family moved to one of the two doctors’ cottages on the grounds of the Athens State
Hospital just before Christmas 1955. I was twelve years old. Before that, we had lived in New
York City, so the change to such a spacious rural setting was stunning. That winter was
snowy, and I was especially impressed by the marvelous sledding hill in front of the main
building at the base of which were stately old trees and a series of ponds. For Christmas that
year I got a new sled, which I used many times on the steep incline along with kids and college
students from “town.” The ponds were frozen solid that winter and I recall being amazed at
seeing a fish about a foot long frozen in place. I also remember watching a daredevil drive his
car right over a pond and making it to the other side! I had never been ice-skating on
anything but an artificial rink in Central Park, so it took some courage on my part to join the
skaters. I quickly learned to heed the cracking sound when the ice was getting a little too thin.
When the warm weather arrived in the spring of 1956, I made a startling discovery one day as
I walked past the circular fountain and pool directly in front of the main building. There was a
large alligator in it! I remember that the concrete sides were only two feet or so high, with only
a single horizontal metal bar for a railing, so that it would have been easy to stumble into this
fountain. I heard that the alligator spent the colder months of each year beneath the main
building. But after that first summer, the alligator was never put out again. The rumor was that
it had snatched one of the many institutional cats and that some concern had arisen about the
potential of its snatching a toddler.
Our doctor’s cottage came completely furnished by the state, and we enjoyed some special
amenities, too. One such amenity was the delivery to our door, once a week, of a freshly cut
bouquet of flowers from the greenhouse that was run by the patients. This was a year-round
service and it cost us only ten cents a week. Another amenity was a laundry service. Once a
week Harry, a long-time patient-worker at the laundry, delivered a large wicker basket of clean
sheets and towels right to our doorstep. He rang the doorbell and if we didn’t answer promptly,
he left the basket on our doorstep. I remember how occasionally there was a round, yellow
stain on the white sheet covering the basket, all the way to the bottom, and we attributed this
to those annoying institutional alley cats. One day, however, I answered the doorbell more
promptly than usual and discovered Harry urinating on the side of our house. My parents
informed me matter-of-factly that Harry suffered from syphilis of the brain. From then on, we
made sure to answer our doorbell more promptly.
Every weekday, a patient whom we had hired came to our house to do housekeeping work.
Doris told us about her husband and children, who lived in a small town along the Ohio River.
She was always hoping for the day when her husband would come and take her out of the
hospital for good, but that day never arrived. She was usually pleasant and an excellent
worker, but once in a while, when she was in a bad mood, I heard her slamming cupboard
doors in the kitchen. Those were the days when I knew not to make conversation with her.
For lunch I often joined my parents at the hospital cafeteria, which was operated by the
patients and had excellent meals with vegetables and fruits grown on the grounds. I remember
especially the mouthwatering homemade rhubarb, cherry, apple and pumpkin pies. Not only
were the meals tasty, they were also much less expensive than in any area restaurants.
Around the corner from the cafeteria entrance was the Little Store, manned by patients, where
one could buy candy bars, magazines and sundry other small items at bargain prices.
On Saturday afternoons, I often went to the free movies at the chapel auditorium. These were
not first-run movies, but they were excellent older movies such as Oklahoma and Ben Hur.
For my haircuts, my parents had me go to one of the cottages, where a long-time patient, B.J.,
provided expert haircuts for just 50 cents. While he was cutting my hair (and he did use a
straight edge from time to time), he talked nonstop about how frustrated he was over how the
governor was running the state hospital system, and how B.J. himself had just returned from
Columbus, where he had chewed out both the governor and the commissioner of mental
health for their incompetent work. He, B.J., intended to clean up the mess they had created. I
learned quickly to listen and not question or contradict his views of the mental health system
in Ohio, which he appeared to be running from this cottage at the Athens State Hospital.
The Athens State Hospital was my full-time home from the middle of seventh grade through
senior high school as well as through three years of college at Ohio University. During those
years, I frequently roamed over the extensive grounds on my bike and on foot. The grounds
were enormous and varied—from the dairy to the piggery, and from the vineyards to the apple
orchards high on the hill. There was even an old cemetery. I remember particularly the
beautiful parklike atmosphere surrounding the four ponds. I was told that one of the gigantic
trees, a ginkgo, was the largest in the world outside of China. I remember watching as groups
of twenty or thirty patients were taken on walks past our cottage. I also remember the Fourth
of July picnic in which patients spent all day on the grassy areas next to the first pond with
relay races and prizes, baseball games and a big picnic lunch.
After I left Athens in 1964, I visited frequently until my parents retired in 1971. During those
years, changes were occurring and the hospital was selling more and more of its extensive
lands to the university. The cornfield along Richland Avenue that I had always passed while
walking to town became the site of the O.U. Convocation Center. The patient population
decreased steadily and drastically as de-institutionalization took place. Patients like our
housekeeper, Doris, who had lived at the hospital for decades—mostly because their families
were unable or unwilling to take them back—were finally allowed to return to their
communities. Others, for whom the Athens State Hospital had become their only home and a
way of life, also had to leave. Some returned to their families, but less fortunate patients were
transferred to nursing homes. Our next-door neighbor’s long-time housekeeper, Natalie, was
one of those with a family, but she did not want to leave what she had known as home for
many years. We knew that she was supposed to be transferred to a nursing home one day
soon, but shortly before that day arrived, her body was found in the Hocking River.
Although deinstitutionalization was best for many of the patients, the old state hospital had
been a humane home for many others. I remember, with fondness, the self-contained world of
the Athens State Hospital, which no longer exists.
Steve Caul was the son of David Caul, M.D., staff physician, superintendent and medical
director from 1965 to 1983. His narrative:
My family moved to the Athens State Hospital grounds in June 1965 and we lived there until
December 1971. I turned 10 years old in that month of June 1965. I can’t think of a better
place a kid could grow up. We had our own little town away from town. It was like growing up in
a state park instead of a state hospital because everything was so beautiful with the ponds,
the trees and all the outdoor stuff we could do.
We kids used to play a lot with the patients. The hospital patients had their own softball team
and other state hospitals came to play them in softball games. Of course, we didn’t get to play
in the games, but we got to take batting practice with the patients and shag fly balls with them,
and we really got to know many of them very well. They were not really patients to me; they
were my friends. I had my friends at Morrison Elementary School, but I also had my friends
who were patients at the state hospital, and they were just as important to me. We also
attended Ohio University activities with them. The Activity Therapy Department took big
groups of them to O.U. football games and other O.U. events, and we’d get right in the middle
with the patients and sit with them during the games. We had a great time.
We also played basketball with the patients. We played pickup games and shot baskets with
them. When the Activity Therapy Department had games, we got to be a part of those as well.
Those were held in the multipurpose building that O.U. has redone and is now their theater-
type facility. They used to show movies in there on Saturday afternoons and again on
Saturday nights; we’d go watch those with the patients. As a 10-year-old I considered them my
playmates, even though they were adults.
There was a two-lane bowling alley in the basement of the laundry. We went down there and
bowled several nights a week and the patients were the pin-setters. We’d roll the ball down
and bust up the pins, and they would pick up the ball, put it back on the ramp and roll it back
to us. Then they would set up the pins and sit back up behind them again until we bowled
another one. We had hours of fun doing that.
We also had fun with the group of patients who worked at the dairy. We had a clubhouse in
one of the big dairy barns. Hidden in a hayloft up there, Charlie Gall’s boys—Dave and
Dana—and Dr. Scott’s son Jimmy and I held meetings. Of course, we had secret rules and
passwords and things you had to do to belong. So I grew up with the Scott and Gall families.
(James Scott, D.D.S.,(1) was the hospital’s dentist and Charlie Gall(2) ran the dairy.) They
were my good friends and they still are to this day. Thirty-five years later we former childhood
playmates are in our late forties or early fifties and I still have close contact with them. Dr.
Scott and his wife are like a second pair of parents to me because they used to watch us all
when my parents were away and my parents would watch their children when they left.
We all had little Stingray bikes and we used to ride them in the tunnels underneath the
hospital. We went around corners and caught patients in the middle of things that we weren’t
accustomed to seeing. It was quite startling to us, not to mention quite startling to the patients
as well. But there were a lot of patients and they used to wear regular institutional-type
uniforms in those days—khaki pants and shirts, or gray pants with gray shirts. We rode our
bikes down through the tunnels, racing around corners, and patients would be standing there
who would frighten us terribly. They’d be equally frightened. When I think back on this today, I
find it rather comical.
The grounds themselves were absolutely gorgeous. We did much ice-skating on the ponds in
the wintertime and fishing in the summertime. The original hill that went down in front of the
place is now where State Highway 682 and the river are. At the time, it was just a huge hill with
a long, winding sidewalk. We kids called it Dead Man’s Curve. We skateboarded down that hill.
Nobody was ever able to ride a skateboard all the way down that sidewalk through Dead Man’
s Curve because we got going at too high rate of speed. But, by God, we all tried. And in the
wintertime we all went sledding down that front hill with the O.U. students. They came over,
and we’d make a big caravan of twenty or thirty inner tubes all linked together with our legs
wrapped around each others’ and sledded down that front hill. We had a blast. We thought
there was nothing better than that and we always hoped for lots of snow.
While I lived on the grounds, I became an Eagle Scout at the age of fourteen and did many of
my outdoor activities—tree and plant identification, botany, etc.—using the grounds as my
base. I also built several soil erosion dams there as projects for various merit badges. There
were so many trees up there in so many different varieties, and it was a great place if you
wanted to study nature or animals. There were critters just everywhere.
While I lived there, the hospital grounds were like a city within a city. We had our own power
plant, dairy, poultry facility and even a swine barn. The place was pretty much self-sufficient.
We even had our own phone system. In our little apartment we had four phones—two of them
were the hospital lines and the other two were connected to the outside world.
It was a very enjoyable time. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. We moved off the grounds
in 1971 and in 1978, after college, I started working at the hospital as an aide on the night
shift in the men’s locked ward. And here I am twenty-five years later. I’m now in the business
end of things—the storeroom, shipping and receiving, recycling coordination, that kind of
thing. But at age 10, if I had considered the possibility of making my career working there, I
would have said, “No way!” But things have turned out pretty well, and I have no regrets.
(1) James Forrest Scott Jr., D.D.S. (1930– ), was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, and graduated
from the Howard University College of Dentistry in 1959. He treated patients at the state
hospital from 1960 to 1990, residing on site from 1960 to 1972. He and Opal Adams Scott
raised James Forrest Scott III, M.D., who graduated from Athens High School in 1972 and
earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University in 1981 and a medical degree from the
University of Cincinnati School of Medicine in 1985. He is currently an assistant professor of
anesthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
(2) According to Robert Jay Gall, Athens attorney:
“Upon graduating from Ohio State University with an agriculture degree, my grandfather,
Homer Bernard Gall Sr. (1898–1973), became the director of the dairy farm at the state
hospital. If you’ve seen the picture of the big cow with two fellows standing behind it, you’ve
seen my grandfather. He’s the one with the overalls and cap. The patient is the one in the
necktie. The cow was the world champion, Lotta Fay Corndike. They’re standing in front of
one of the barns at the state hospital dairy, probably the one that is now The Dairy Barn.
“My grandfather met and married my grandmother, Anna Hunter, a nurse at the state hospital.
They had three sons, Roger, Homer Jr. and Charlie, all of whom were raised at the farm on
the state hospital grounds. My grandfather later became the director of all the farms at the
various state mental hospitals, serving under Governor Rhodes. When my grandfather
became director of state farms, the youngest son, Charles Hunter Gall (1929–2002), became
director of the dairy farm at Athens State Hospital.
“Then, when the dairy farm was closed down under Governor Gilligan, Charlie operated the
state’s farm in Hebbardsville, near Albany. His wife, Betty, still lives in Hebbardsville. Charlie
and Betty had two sons, David and Dana. Dana and his wife, Louie, operate the farm, feed
and and firearm store in Albany.”