Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"The Magic of Christmas" at Central State Hospital

The Powell Building named for third administrator of Central State Hospital, Dr. Thophilus O. Powell, commands a central position in the hospital complex. Here the stately columned building is decorated for Christmas.

Some of the mayors present on a special day in Middle Georgia may have driven through mountain mists to arrive at Central State Hospital by mid-day when the parade began forming for an annual event enjoyed not only by the clients and employees but by local citizens and visitors as well. This was my sixth year to be inspired by the event.

Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia held its annual “Mayor’s Christmas Parade” and an unbelievable musical presentation called “The Magic of Christmas” on December 1, 2009.

Called “Mayor’s Christmas Parade” because the mayors of towns and cities throughout Georgia are invited to attend and bring gifts their constituents have collected to be distributed to the patients at Christmas time. The annual event begun by First Lady of Georgia, Betty Vandiver, wife of Governor Ernest Vandiver, in 1958 has continued. Weeks in advance, social workers, music therapists, and staff gifted with preparing a program work with the patients to aid those able to participate in the musical production.

The auditorium is always well appointed with beautiful Christmas decorations. Although the day was cold for Middle Georgia and standing to see the parade was chilly, inside the large auditorium a warmth lifted the spirits and the chilled bodies.

Chief Executive Officer Marvin Bailey gave opening remarks summarizing the history of the institution. Approved in 1837 by the Georgia Legislature when the capital was Milledgeville, it took from then until 1842 for the four-story dormitory building to be open for clients. Then called the Georgia Lunatic Asylum, it at first admitted paupers with mental disabilities, but services were soon expanded to include any citizens who needed institutional care. Tomlinson Fort and William A. White were the legislators who introduced the bill to begin the institution. The first allocation was $20,000 for the four-story building which contained clients’ rooms, treatment rooms and a small area for office space. The hospital facilities grew on the 1,700 acres set aside for the institution. At one time in the 1960s, almost 13,000 clients occupied the various buildings of the massive complex. At that time, it was the largest mental hospital in the United States, and maybe even in the world. The first administrators were Dr. David M. Cooper (serving 1843-1846), followed by Dr. Thomas F. Green (1847-1879), and then Dr. Thophilus O. Powell (1879-1907), with the central building still standing that was named in his memory.

Mr. Bailey told us that current client population is slightly above 600. One reason for this low number, compared to the thousands that once occupied the dormitories, is new psychotropic and other treatment medications that can assist patients with mental disabilities. Then about two decades ago, it was deemed better to place those capable, with supervision, in group homes to live more like ordinary citizens. The group homes are not on the Central Georgia Complex. Also, the regional hospitals care for those with mental or other disabilities, thus decreasing Central State’s population.

First, we heard “Somewhere” from the movie “West Side Story” performed as a solo by Robb Weiss with Lisa Vaughn accompanying on piano.

Then the curtains opened to “The Magic of Christmas” setting, appropriate choreography and lighting to enhance the performances. Milledgeville ballet studios provided dancers, especially the children, who performed “Little St. Nick” and “Frosty the Snowman” interspersed with the musical and dance numbers by Central State clients and staff members. The costumes fitted each musical number and the backdrops were artistic, eye-catching and bright. “The Magic of Christmas” truly came to Central State December 1. Several numbers from “The Nutcracker” ballet were spectacular. In the middle of the program was a tribute to current service men and veterans with ties to any of the hospital staff. My daughter had not told me in advance, so I was surprised when a picture of her father, my husband, Rev. Grover Jones, appeared in his World War II navy uniform. There was a picture, too, of Cynthia’s husband, S/Sgt. Carlos Berenguer, retired from the Air National Guard, along with many others in the power-point and patriotic music interlude.

Tears always come to my eyes when the march of the wheel chair patients, each decked out in Christmas finery, followed by aides who roll the wheelchairs, come down the aisles and perform a wheel-chair dance in front of the stage. Even though the music was cheerful and peppy, “Mister Santa,” many in the audience smiled while wiping tears. This group appeared again in the finale when together with all the others made one great crowd of performers. We were inspired by the final number, “O Holy Night” performed by soloist Angela Ingram, a staff member with a magnificent voice.

A standing ovation and much applause filled the large auditorium. Then came brief remarks by selected mayors and Mrs. Nita Cagle, wife of Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. And what the clients will enjoy at Christmas, the gifts from towns throughout Georgia were presented, stacked in abundance before the large stage. The staff will give them to the clients and make them happy again by their gifts received on Christmas Eve.

We sometimes think of “lunatic” asylums (we don’t call them that any more) or mental hospitals being dismal places with no prospects of enjoyable times. This Christmas extravaganza is a wonderful event that brings “The Magic of Christmas” to many people—cheer enough to last the New Year through.

c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 10, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved

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