San Diego The first thing you notice about Bob Guthrie's appearance is his hands. They're huge -- the hands of a man who's worked hard using them. His physique is unusually hard and lean for a 59-year-old man. Guthrie doesn't spend much time resting. He seems to be making up for all of the years he lost living in institutions and facilities.
Guthrie grew up when compassion and sensitivity were more the exception than the rule in treating retardation. "I was born and raised back in Philadelphia. I was moved around from place to place. Later, my dad was stationed at a navy base in Bremerton, Washington. I was taken away from my family because my dad was abusive. I have a sister two years older than I am and a brother who's two years younger. My dad was more abusive toward me, and he was most abusive towards my mom. My brother had ways to get away from it, but I wasn't able to get away from it. I lived in a home near Bremerton, and then I came out here to San Diego when my dad was transferred in the '50s. I stayed with him for a while until the court sent me to the Porterville State Hospital in 1953. I was up there from '53 to '59. In '59 I was sent to Fairview State Hospital. It was a lot closer to San Diego."
The state hospitals Guthrie refers to were mental hospitals. "Most of those places at that time were very abusive to most of the patients. I got hit by an employee one time up at Porterville, and I never reported it 'cause I've seen a lot of patients get in trouble for it. The employees would take it out on the patients who talked about it or got them fired. They were very strict and had a lot of runaways from that place. Back in the '40s and '50s, a person who had this type of thing had to deal with that because they would just put them in the state hospital. There were several other state hospitals in California that I was in.
"[The employees] would take advantage of most of the patients. They'd steal their clothing and other belongings. Finally, they started searching some of the employees' cars. They found clothing and other things stolen from patients."
"Special education" as we know it today did not exist for Guthrie when he was a boy. "I went to school for a while when I was in Bremerton. I was close to 12 years old at the time. That's when I realized I was different from the other kids. There were a lot of them that were either makin' fun of me or callin' me 'M.R.' and stuff like that. I still see it today. People will use that word, 'M.R.' or 'retarded.' They don't understand it. They don't realize that it's another person. At the time, I was very sensitive about it. I've finally woken up and realized that I can't change it, because it's always goin' to be there. It's still there with some of the younger generation. I used to feel like I stood out in a crowd, but I learned that I can adjust. I'm learnin' not to be shy, and I come in contact with a lot of people.
"When I finally came out of that environment, the state hospitals, I had to learn to adjust and make goals for myself. I know I've made mistakes. I've learned that in these board-and-care homes they think of the person they're takin' care of as their own child.
"When I was at this board-and-care in Alpine I got involved with gambling. They took me to Laughlin. Then I thought that if I could win in Laughlin, I could do the same thing at Viejas. I lost a lot of money, but I've paid all my debts. The people at the casino saw that I had a problem and told me I should get some help. I started goin' to Gamblers Anonymous. I carry a token to remind me what gambling can do. I started makin' a goal for myself and thinking positive. It's been a year now since I've stopped gambling."
Guthrie lives in a trailer in Lakeside and bicycles to work in El Cajon five days a week, one hour each way. "I've been on my own for a year. It's something I wanted to do for a long, long time. The family I lived with before in Alpine didn't want me to do it. They said I wasn't ready. When I moved out to move into another home in El Cajon, Kelly, the house manager at the new home, helped me out. She said, 'You do it when you're ready.' I was in a lot of debt, and I had to wait until my bills were paid off.
"I don't get lonely because I'm always on the go, always doing something to stay active. I've made goals for myself. At home I'll make TV dinners and then go out and visit with somebody I know. I have a lot of friends in the trailer park. I also do work in the park to help out with the rent. I keep myself on a budget. I have a checking and savings account, and I keep them up to date. I keep up on my cable and telephone bills. I always find work to do. I do a lot of lawns and garden jobs."
Guthrie has worked for Doetsch Enterprises for 11 years. "My bosses, Candy and Rick, they're like family to me. They've really helped me out. [Rick] told me, 'You'll never have to worry about losin' your job. You'll always have a job here.' And I don't even have an education! But I've picked up on learnin' things. I work in shipping and receiving, packaging, organizin' the warehouse. I'm not good at math, but I've learned a lot just stayin' on my path.
"In the winter, I don't notice the cold weather. I got adjusted to it so I don't even use an electric blanket. I used to ride from El Cajon to Alpine. Now I'll take rides to La Mesa or National City."
Both of Guthrie's parents are dead, but he still maintains close ties with his brother and sister. "My sister lives up in Riverside, and I see her on holidays. My brother lives in North Park. I have some nieces and nephews down in Imperial Beach." When asked if they've ever offered to let him move in, Guthrie waves off the idea. "I'd much rather live on my own. That's what I've always wanted to be able to do for myself. My sister's very proud of me. They don't deny me what I want to do. Most parents [board-and-care homeowners] don't want their [disabled] children to go out in the real world or get married. They're just too protective. I've seen some parents who wouldn't let them out of their environment.
"Like the two homes before the last one I lived in. One was very strict. They didn't let us go anywhere -- we all had to be together in the group. They never let us handle our money. We never got to associate with the outside. The other one, up in Alpine, did not want me to move out. When I moved out, they held it over me. Whenever I'd go there to visit, they'd say, 'We've got to cut back. We're losing money because you moved out.' When I moved in [at Alpine], they said they would help me in my goal to move out, then later they said I didn't stick to my bargain. After I moved out, another friend of mine moved out and they told her, 'Don't call nobody, don't tell them to come to visit.' It's a hush-hush type of thing. The ones that live there won't even say anything to me when I see them on the bus. If I say 'Hi' to them, they'll say, 'We can't say anything.'
"When a person goes into a home like that, they have to realize how to take care of that person as an individual and give them support when they do want to move out.
"The worst for me was in this board-and-care home where I was judged the same as everyone else there. They said I was retarded and not capable of living on my own. It was in Lakeside -- before I moved to Alpine. They wouldn't let me or anyone who lived there do anything. They took our money from us. They were more into money than helping us. It just depends on which board-and-care you go to. There are still people out there doing whatever they can to stop people from movin' out."
Now that he's on his own, Guthrie says his next goal is to get married. "It's somethin' I'd like to do, but I have to meet the right one. I used to live in El Cajon with Sarah and Larry [two developmentally disabled people], who got married. I videotaped their wedding. [Larry's] mom was more supportive of it. Sarah's mom helped them both out too. There's still people out there who don't want people with disabilities to get married."
Guthrie has a girlfriend, but he doesn't think she's the one for him to marry. "She lives in a home, and I visit her once in a while. I'll take her to People First meetings at Balboa Park. She's 51 and in a wheelchair; she can't use her legs. When I moved out, she had a crush on me. I tried to tell her that I wasn't ready for her. I would have to pick her up and walk her and help her out. I got her out of her depression when her dad passed away. So she's kinda attached to me."
Guthrie credits ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) with helping him get his job. "They're the ones who got me in. A job developer who isn't there anymore helped me get this job. I started with ARC back in the '60s. Now I get to vote when they talk about new programs.
"I used to be a deacon in a church, but I only go once in a while now. What really turns me away is church politics. Instead of getting to what it really means to a person to believe in God and learning what God wants, they're out to outdo the other churches. Whether it's the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses, they're all out to bring in more people. But I don't think God is up there just to pick out a person from a certain religion or a certain church. He's gonna take all of us when the time comes."
A registered voter, Guthrie shows more interest for public politics. "I think Bush is going to win the election unless that thing that came up with the news reporter hurts him. I think most reporters want to help people figure out what's going on. I'm a Republican, but I'm not decided yet who I'll vote for."