A place to call home
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus and a past president of both the Valencia County Historical Society and the Historical Society of New Mexico. He is the author of 17 books on the history of New Mexico, including his newest, “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” edited with John Taylor.
Information for this column was drawn from newspaper accounts and interviews, especially with Bonnie Bashein.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Thousands of men, women and children lived or worked on the 128-acre Los Lunas Hospital and Training School in the 66 years of its existence, from 1929 to 1995.
Bonnie Bashein arrived at the hospital and training school campus one day in 1957. She was 7 years old.
Unlike most other children at the hospital and training school, Bonnie was not a patient destined to live many years, if not her entire life, at the facility. Instead, Bonnie was the youngest daughter of 60-year-old Dr. Hyman Bashein, who had been hired in November 1956 as the institution’s new superintendent and medical director.
A retired Army doctor with medical and administrative experience at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Md., Dr. Bashein seemed like an ideal person for the dual role he was to play in Los Lunas. Born in Russia in 1896, he had immigrated to the United States when he was only 12.
Graduating from high school in New York, he had earned his medical degree from Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dr. Bashein had served as a medical officer in both World War II and the Korean conflict, before working in VA hospitals until his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in October 1956. He was married and the father of four children, including his youngest, Bonnie.
Fifty-six years later, Bonnie still remembers her first impression of New Mexico. She recalls how everything looked different compared to her last home back East in New Jersey. But she immediately sensed that no matter where else she lived in the coming years, this strange new place would always be her home.
Bonnie was equally at home with the interesting new people she met in New Mexico. Enrolling at the Los Lunas Elementary School, she met pueblo Indian, Hispanic and fellow Anglo classmates. She got along well with everyone. In fact, her first boyfriend was from Isleta.
But Bonnie made her best friends at the hospital and training school. She remembers rushing home from school each afternoon to join her young playmates on the playground. While one playmate was an employee’s child, most of her friends were young patients who knew how to play games and have fun just like any other children.
Older patients worked at odd jobs in the laundry, at the farm, in the kitchen or elsewhere on the hospital and training school’s grounds.
Bonnie remembers the tantalizing smell of bread baking in the main kitchen. She and a friend would stand by the door just to enjoy the smell. Sometimes Gracie, a patient who worked in the kitchen, opened the door and invited the girls in for wonderful slices of bread topped with butter and sugar.
Bonnie made many friends at the hospital and training school, but her best friend was a patient named Roy Garcia. Born in 1912, Roy was about 45 when the Bashein family arrived. He’d been a patient since 1931 when he was 19, making him one of the first male patients to have entered the originally all-female institution.
Literate and highly functional, the only apparent reason for Roy’s hospitalization seemed to be his speech impediment, which often made him hard to understand.
Bonnie admired Roy and followed him everywhere as he worked in the garden and in other parts of the facility. Roy especially liked building things, including rabbit hutches for Bonnie and even a small basement room for himself in the field behind the Basheins’ house. As Roy’s private place, only special friends like Bonnie could visit the room. Bonnie always felt safe and trusted Roy, as did her parents.
An industrious man, Roy also liked to ride his bike to the local dump where he found metal either to sell or to use for his projects. Before leaving, he dutifully wrote notes to Dr. Bashein, asking, “May I please go to the dump” on such-and-such a day. Dr. Bashein inevitably approved.
Roy Garcia and other patients gave Bonnie the attention she often lacked at home. Bonnie’s mother was usually busy with Joyce, Bonnie’s older sister by a year, suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Like so many families, the Basheins had moved to New Mexico largely because they hoped the climate would help Joyce cope with her debilitating disease.
Bonnie’s other older siblings, Gerard and Barbara, were in high school and spent little time at home; Barbara liked to ride her horse and Gerard enjoyed driving his prized Jeep in the surrounding countryside. Dr. Bashein was of course kept busy with his administrative and medical duties.
And so Bonnie received most of her affection and attention from the patients and employees she knew on campus. She remembers these men and women as loving people, always ready to see the best rather than the worst in people.
Bonnie remembers other good people, including guests who came to visit her father and tour the campus. One of Dr. Bashein’s main goals was to open the campus to educate and entertain the patients, while enhancing public understanding and support of the institution.
The list of visiting groups and individuals was long and impressive. In February 1959, for example, a “beauty caravan” of 28 Albuquerque beauticians arrived to cut, style and set the hair of 56 grateful patients.
In September 1959, the Bernalillo County Junior Sheriff’s Posse rode in the Valencia County Fair parade and then entertained patients at the hospital and training school with a special display of their riding skills.
In February 1960, members of the Albuquerque musicians union played songs for the patients and their visiting relatives.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans performed at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque in 1957. The famous couple had probably become supporters of the hospital and training school because their daughter, Robin, had Down syndrome and had died in 1952 before her second birthday. Dale Evans’s book, “Angel Unaware,” had helped change the public’s perception of children with developmental disabilities.
Given their personal experience, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans took time to visit patients and perform their music at the hospital and training school’s auditorium after their state fair appearance. Bonnie was impressed, although she thought Dale Evans looked much older in person than she did on TV.
Ingram B. Pickett, a well-known 7-foot-tall New Mexico politician, also visited the campus. Bonnie recalls seeing this huge man shed real tears after visiting the children’s ward.
In October 1957, Gov. Edwin L. Mechem became the first governor of New Mexico to visit the hospital and training school in Los Lunas. The governor spoke to a crowd of about 500 while dedicating a new $100,000 dorm for 44 of the school’s more advanced boys. Known as Huning Hall, it was named in honor of the late Fred Huning Sr., a major benefactor of the school.
Father Fred Stadtmueller, the parish priest at Isleta’s St. Augustine Church, sometimes visited the patients and stopped by the Basheins’ house for relaxation and good conversation. The German Catholic priest became good friends with the Russian Jewish doctor, his Polish Catholic wife, Ann, and their four bright children.
Tragedy struck the Bashein family when Dr. Bashein suddenly fell ill in December 1959, requiring two major operations in three months. His last operation, at Brooks Army Hospital in San Antonio, proved fatal on Feb. 15, 1960. The Belen News editorialized that Los Lunas was “shocked and saddened” by the death of this respected community leader. A rare Jewish service was conducted at the Romero Funeral Home in Belen. The doctor was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Devastated by her husband’s death, Ann Bashein soon moved her children to Albuquerque. Bonnie graduated from Highland High School and went to college at the University of Wisconsin. She spent much of her adult life in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she often volunteered to help patients who had suffered strokes or had chronic back problems.
Meanwhile, Roy Garcia stayed in touch with the Basheins, writing occasional letters and even visiting them a few times after asking Ann Bashein’s permission and taking the bus to Albuquerque.
As polite and kind as ever, his carefully hand-written letters always inquired about the Bashein family’s health and thanked them for their Christmas gifts, usually cash. At one point, he asked if Ann had a spare electric radio since the batteries in his transistor radio never lasted very long. In 1968, the last year the Basheins received a letter from Roy, he was still at the hospital and training school.
Bonnie remembers talking to her mother by phone one day in the early 1970s when, at the end of their conversation, Ann mentioned that Roy had died. Bonnie had a hard time fathoming the terrible news. She now wonders if her friend may have been misdiagnosed largely based on his speech defect. He died on Sept. 15, 1970, having spent 39 of his 58 years in the hospital and training school.
The Los Lunas Hospital and Training School had more than its share of troubles both before and after Hyman Bashein’s administration. Dr. Bashein was, in fact, hired in response to an investigation of the facility that found multiple problems, from poor record keeping to punishing patients with bread and water diets. Despite this situation, a waiting list of more than 500 men and women meant that many in the state were denied even minimal care.
Conditions improved while Dr. Bashein served as the facility’s supervisor and medical director. Under his leadership, the hospital and training school became more open to visitors who not only served or entertained the patients, but also learned about the campus’ programs and needs.
With legislation introduced by state Sen. Tibo J. Chavez, the 1959 state legislature appropriated $1 million to expand opportunities and introduce new initiatives by Dr. Bashein. With an ultimate goal of serving more than 1,000 patients, Dr. Bashein planned a $3.1 million building program; appropriately a new hall was named for Dr. Bashein when it was completed after his death.
In another new initiative, Dr. Bashein, the Red Cross and local leaders, including Ruth Gibson and Marvin Trembly, began the hospital and training school’s “Gray Ladies” program.
Senior volunteers were trained to work with patients in various capacities several hours a week. The first 12 Gray Ladies were “capped” at a special ceremony held on March 7, 1958. The Gray Ladies were later known as “Foster Grandparents,” another successful campus program begun in 1967.
Progress continued after Dr. Bashein’s death, but the hospital and training school also faced new problems. The entire facility was closed in the mid-1990s as the result of a 1986 lawsuit brought by representatives of an allegedly abused patient named Walter Stephen Jackson.
But progress had been made during Dr. Bashein’s limited time on campus and Bonnie Bashein sees her three years at the hospital and training school as one of the most positive periods of her life. She learned to meet and admire people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, including Native Americans, Hispanics, a German priest and, in the case of two kind hospital nurses, African-Americans.
Most importantly, Bonnie learned to understand, appreciate and love those with disabilities — disabilities that often made them more gracious and giving than many other folks she would meet in life. She learned to trust and care for others just as much as they trusted and cared for her.