Calvin Price stood at a teller’s cage cashing a check.
"Identification!" The bank employee demanded. Price reached into a pocket for his billfold. "I work at the Children’s Colony," he offered.
"Oh, the Children’s Colony. What a special place!"
That notable institution, a truly "special place" where lives are changed every day — now the Conway Human Development Center — will commemorate its 50th year of service from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 28.
By every yardstick, the venerable facility has acquitted itself admirably giving many afflicted people hope and relief. Its service to the mentally challenged population in Arkansas continues unabated and professionally compelling. The significance of the work being accomplished at CHDC has found favor with Arkansans since the days it was known as the Arkansas Children’s Colony.
The belief that the work going on incessantly at the center is elemental and vital is paramount by any standard.
From Calvin Price, who rose though the ranks to win the position of superintendent, to employees at every level of advocacy comes this assertion: "I love this job because every day I see lives changed."
From Price’s lofty post he has been able to make this assessment of the huge number of employees at work at CHDC. "I can honestly say that our employees have touched and continue to touch the lives of many, many people, and provide the kind of services that meet the demands of those suffering intellectual disabilities.
"You can‘t work with these people and not be affected by them as they struggle with the problems of daily living.
The genesis of the sprawling state supported institution, located along Siebenmorgen Road adjacent to Interstate 40, sprang from a populous movement that involved people distraught by Arkansas’ lack of treatment facilities for the mentally retarded.
The state at that time, 50 years ago, was one of two in the nation that failed to offer assistance to the retarded. Young people who were mildly retarded attended special classes in public schools.
But when a Little Rock businessman named A. Nils Florenz became the catalyst for a campaign to bring succor to these people, attitudes began to reform. Florenz waged a relentless campaign for these literally forgotten people.
He camped in newspaper newsrooms and in the Arkansas legislature when it was in session to seek audiences for his campaign, begging for help from the governor and medical sources and traveling throughout the country at his own expense making speeches in behalf of the retarded, especially his young retarded daughter Eleanor.
His pleas, abetted by support from civic and other organizations, bore fruit when Governor Orval Faubus began lobbying strongly for funds to build the facility that Florenz had envisioned.
And on January 25, 1955, the Arkansas General Assembly created Act 6 that engendered the state’s first facility to advocate for such children. Arkansas was the 48th state to open an institution for impaired children,
Workers launched construction in 1958. Some 3,000 people attended the facility’s dedication on October 4, 1959. The Children’s Colony, set on a little over 400 donated acres, was a handsome haven and home for developmentally disabled school age children. It was constructed at a cost of $1,200,200.
An impressive group of superintendents, beginning with David B. Ray, Jr., held the reins of the colony over time. Ray, the former head of the Arizona Society for Crippled Children and Adults, was an influential figure in the study that ultimately led to the selection of Conway as the site of the colony over the bid of the city of Sheridan and Little Rock.
The Conway Chamber of Commerce, led by Guy Murphy, state senator Guy "Mutt" Jones, Mayor Bush Satterfield and officials of the Conway Corporation and the city’s three colleges who promised the special training of teachers for handicapped children, led the thrust for Conway’s petition, besting the petition of the competing city of Sheridan.
An eight-column page 1 headline in the Log Cabin Democrat announced the selection: "Conway lands Children’s Colony."
The first child admitted to the colony was 12-year-old Judy Appleby, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Appleby of Stuttgart. Today Miss Appleby is domiciled at the Benton Services Center, a facility of the state Department of Human Services. She is expected to be on hand for the CHDC celebration.
Three other children were admitted on the colony’s opening day. At the end of September 1959, 64 children were living at the colony. By the end of December of the same year, 256 children had been admitted.
As children were selected on a county quota system to attend the new facility, local newspapers proudly carried pictures and descriptions of the chosen children along with information about their families. Community-wide "going away" parties were held for those who would be moving to the Children’s Colony.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted the feeling of the state: "A Dream Come True" was a recurring headline. Civic groups around the state planned and held events to raise funds to support the new facility. There were fruitcake sales, rummage sales, bake sales, benefit bridge parties, fireworks displays, light bulb sales, sewing bees and carnivals. In addition the legislature supported the annual Arkansas State Horse Show, which benefited he Colony for many years.
Many groups "adopted" the Colony. Railroad interests raised money for a miniature train to operate on the Colony grounds. One half-mile track was installed in 1959 and train rides were an after-school treat for children. Local and national members of the Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association equipped and staffed a beauty shop at the Colony. Later ( in 1952) the United Commercial Travelers raised money to install a swimming pool on the grounds.
By December of 1959, he Colony was filled to capacity and some 1200 applicants were waiting for admission.
Arkansas had previously provided for its developmentally disabled people by opening the Arkansas State Lunatic Asylum in 1883 and admitting those considered "feeble-minded" in 1888. Then in 1917, the legislature authorized the creation of the Arkansas School for the Feebleminded. However, no funding was appropriated and the plan languished until after World War II.
At its initial stage, the Arkansas Children’s Colony was a full residential facility with numerous cottages, classrooms, a gym, a kitchen, a health clinic and a chapel. Its central location eventually allowed much of the state to benefit from the services it offered.
In its early days of the facility its cottages housed 256 residents, and by the 1970s, more cottages had been built to accommodate over 1,000 children. The waiting list at one time numbered 1,000.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes that the Kiwanis Clubs of Arkansas helped fund the building of the non-denominational chapel on the grounds in 1968. The Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs took on the colony as special project, raising some $18,000 for playground equipment and helping with fixtures for the chapel, including its stained glass windows.
Other groups came to the fore to help with time, money and necessities. These included United Commercial Travelers, the Little Rock chapter of the National Association of Railway Business Women, the Elks Clubs of Arkansas and the Civitan, Rotary and Lions Clubs.
To believe that tranquility has followed the history of the colony deviates from the truth. Even before its doors opened, its status was tenuous when Attorney General Tom Gentry ruled in 1955 that funds for the colony were misused because they were diverted from a specific purpose for which they were intended. Only the governor’s intervention saved the day.
Over the years, many special surveyors, state and national in character, have maintained a wry eye on its operations and its state of affairs. The facility often found itself in an uneasy position in the conflict between institutional and community-based notions of care. The complex also has had to grapple with problems that only appropriations from the state legislature could solve. And there were times when contentious and disgruntled employees who were fired caused, in lawsuits, anxious moments for the superintendents.
One of the most momentous events in the history of the place evolved when a killing tornado roared though Conway, uprooting homes, killing residents, upsetting the environment and ripping through the Children’s Colony. Fortunately no lives were lost in the devastation at the colony, but six Conway citizens were killed by the twister that struck the city on April 10, 1965. Life at the colony was disrupted as damage to living quarters left the displaced young people confused and frightened. Nearby Hendrix College came to the rescue offering help in various forms and housing many clients in the gymnasium until their parents arrived. College students held fund-raising events to offer aid to their neighbor.
A record of the colony reveals that children who suffered from German measles were housed between the years of 1963 and 1965 as vaccine research took place within its confines. Each cottage housed 16 patients, and with their parents’ approval, physicians tested the German measles vaccine on many. The children proved invaluable to the research since it brought forth the common use of the current rubella vaccine.
Eventually children with other illnesses were admitted when statutes gave Act 6 broader power and legislation in 1971 changed the definition of children accepted at the colony. Those suffering autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy were now to be included.
The facility was re-named the Conway Human Development Center in 1981 to better reflect its population. CHDC still offers a residential setting and provides for habilitative and medical care. The fluctuating enrollment of clients numbering between 500 and 550 are primarily adults today.
At the celebration of its half-century mark many former employees including past superintendents, state and local public officials and friends of CHDC will congregate in the facility’s gymnasium to hail its wondrous work. The public is invited.