WALLS OF RED
by Brad Zellar
December 3, 2003
The remarkable 114-year story of Minnesota's last juvenile detention home
One summer day in 1896, the Riverside, a steam-powered yacht owned by a man named J.W. Brown, embarked from Red Wing towing a barge loaded with camping supplies. The ship was headed downriver on the Mississippi, to a spot called Point au Sable, and was accompanied by another boat, the Irene, which was also hauling supplies for Brown's expedition. The boats spent several days shuttling provisions to Point au Sable, where there was erected a huge dormitory--complete with more than 300 hammocks--a dining hall, and separate sleeping quarters for the impromptu, if ridiculously elaborate, camp's staff.
Finally, Brown's preparations complete, a ferry was dispatched from Lake City to Red Wing, where 340 boys and a full complement of staff were waiting to be transported to the camp downriver. There, at Point au Sable, the boys spent eight days swimming, fishing, and exploring the river in 20 freshly painted rowboats while Brown made several trips a day back and forth to Red Wing for additional supplies. Contemporary accounts also report that "several hundred guests...visited the camp during the eight-day stay."
Brown was at the time the superintendent of the Minnesota State Reform School in Red Wing, and the boys who made the trip to Point au Sable were residents of that institution--inmates, as they could then still be called. Many of those same boys had also built Brown's yacht in the school's shop.
The superintendent's charges were a wildly diverse group of kids--juvenile delinquents, hardened criminals, truants, incorrigibles, and the merely neglected--from all over the state of Minnesota. Many of them were immigrants' children, most had limited education, and Brown's job (in keeping with his institution's motto, "It is better to build boys than to mend men") was to make proper boys and solid citizens of them.
For 114 years the Red Wing reformatory has been a daunting specter for generations of incorrigible Minnesota youth and has served as a particularly powerful disciplinary hammer for parents and local authorities. Much of its sway, of course, is a product of the classic and generally lurid reform school myths that have been propagated by literature and American pop culture. Such places have been breeding grounds for all sorts of now universal ideas and images. From the work of Dickens to the pulp novels and B movies of the 1950s and '60s, we've been treated to a steady diet of cautionary tales of reform school brutality and squalor.
Perhaps those stereotypes are what make the tale of J.W. Brown's seemingly idyllic camping trip on the river so jarring. This was, after all, the 19th century, a period that calls up images of particularly harsh and squalid correctional institutions. And this was the Red Wing reform school, a place that made its own storied, if inadvertent, contribution to those myths and stereotypes through Bob Dylan's 1963 song "The Walls of Red Wing."
Contrary to legend, Dylan never actually spent any time at Red Wing, yet his song presents a harrowing, if entirely imagined, portrait of the institution:
Oh, the age of the inmates
Anyone who's ever seen Mayor of Hell, Jimmy Cagney's 1933 reform school potboiler, or even Wendy O. Williams's irresistible 1986 trash classic Reform School Girls, could certainly forgive Dylan his assumptions. And there's no doubt that such imaginative source material, however fantastic, has always been something of a useful propaganda tool for local authority, shaping as it does young people's early notions of crime and punishment. I can certainly testify that as a Minnesota adolescent with certain delinquent proclivities, I understood from an early age that I did not want to stray so far that I would find myself behind the walls of Red Wing, however nonexistent they might then have been.
That is perhaps truer now for Minnesota's precocious criminals than at any time in the institution's history. Because the reform school--now called the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing--has changed as attitudes and policies regarding juvenile incarceration and rehabilitation have evolved over the years. Its admissions criteria are now tougher than West Point's. Beginning in 1998, the requirements for placement at Red Wing were retooled so that only offenders who were classified as "serious and chronic" (repeat felons, or kids who had committed crimes that would warrant prison time for adults) could be admitted. Which means there's fat chance any of the boys currently residing at the institution will be going on an eight-day boating expedition on the Mississippi any time soon--at least not accompanied by staff.
In these unprecedented boom times for the construction and expansion of adult prisons, juvenile correctional facilities in Minnesota have been contracting and closing at an alarming rate. There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when the state ran a handful of juvenile institutions, and even during those years it was not uncommon for upward of 500 kids to be housed at Red Wing. Today Red Wing is the sole remaining state juvenile facility, and its population has now declined to 112 boys. For the sake of contrast, consider that in 2002 Texas had 4,156 juvenile inmates--up from 1,744 in 1995--spread out over 12 state facilities.
Part of that is a matter of priorities, and it's also a reflection of the proliferation of local nonprofit and for-profit residential programs for less serious juvenile offenders. There's a purely financial reason for Red Wing's declining population, as well. For years, the state bore the sole burden for the operating costs of the school, but beginning in the 1980s counties were required to pay 65 percent of the per diem costs for each boy they sent to Red Wing, which provided a powerful incentive to deal with the kids at the local level, where state funds could still be utilized for treatment. As a result of these and other factors--including the increasing number of juveniles being certified to adult court--Red Wing now represents the end of the road for serious and chronic minor offenders, or at least the last stop before prison.
Milt Olson, who was a superintendent at Red Wing in the 1960s and '70s, sees all these developments as unfortunate. "There was a time when we could count on the legislature to give us pretty much everything we needed," he said. "More correctional money was traditionally spent on youth than adults. For some reason this whole state seems to have turned around. Now they're spending the money on adults and the kids can go to hell. These days the attitude is that there's nothing wrong with sending kids to adult institutions. Can you imagine what happens to a kid in an adult prison? You don't even like to think about it."
Among correctional institutions Red Wing is particularly picturesque and iconic. Nestled between two bluffs overlooking the Mississippi just east of town off Highway 61, the original administration building is a towering and ornate structure that manages to appear both elegant and forbidding. Designed by Minneapolis architect W.B. Dunnell and modeled on castles along the Rhine River in Germany, the main building was constructed in 1890 and continues to be regarded as a prime example of the neo-Romanesque style that was pioneered by Henry Hobson Richardson in the late 19th century. Built of brick and rough stone from local quarries and featuring a huge central tower, turrets, arched entrances, and ornate detailing around the doors and windows, the administration building survives as a mammoth and inescapable local landmark. Marooned as it is on a huge plot of land on the city's outskirts, it looks more like an East Coast private college or academy than a correctional institution, and that was apparently the architect's intention.
John Handy is the program director at Red Wing these days, and he's worked at the school since 1972, when he came on board as a caseworker. At the front desk where Handy meets me one morning, there is a sign that reads "Never Grow a Wishbone Where Your Backbone Ought to Be." Handy's a jovial and remarkably unflappable guy. To Handy and to the other staff members at Red Wing, the residents of the institution are still regarded foremost as kids and students. Terminology is a touchy business at Red Wing; staffers are very careful to avoid referring to their charges as inmates or prisoners, and the facility itself is seldom called anything but a school.
As I strolled around in the company of several of the kids, the place felt like an average private high school, and a remarkably serene one at that. Restrictive, certainly--it's impossible not to notice the prison fencing added in the 1990s, for instance, and it would likely be hard for most high school kids to imagine a world without hip hop and internet access--but surprisingly relaxed given the demographics and criminal histories of the population.
My three guides were obviously carefully chosen to reflect those demographics: they were products of suburbia, the inner city, and a reservation in northern Minnesota. White. Black. Indian. Drug dealer. Car thief. Sex offender. All of them had spent much of their adolescence moving through the juvenile justice system, and they were each in the home stretch of their time at Red Wing.
Throughout the afternoon I spent with them, these boys displayed almost disarming maturity and openness, and talked about the school and their experience there with obvious pride. And despite the fact that they all talked candidly about the crimes that had led to their commitment in Red Wing, it was in fact difficult to see them, with their clean, casual clothes and naked curiosity, as anything other than normal kids.
One of them had artistic aspirations and was hoping to eventually go to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. "I also have a lot of interest in underwater vehicles," he told me. Another liked music, poetry, and basketball, and hoped to go to college to study engineering. Or perhaps, he said, he'd get a job at Rapid Oil Change. Those guys, he'd heard, made pretty good money. The other thought he'd like to be a plumber or a carpenter. "I have a baby," he said. "I just want to get out and do whatever I can to try to be a good father."
They all maintained that they'd learned important lessons and skills at Red Wing that would enable them to realize at least some modest version of their dreams.
"A lot of guys come in here so close-minded that they're not even willing to look at their issues," one of them said. "They just think they can fake it, and it's all about doing whatever they have to do to get out of here and go right back to their old lives. But I think if you really sit down and look at this program, and analyze it with an open mind, it can really change you up and show you some other options."
Another boy nodded his head, and added: "Everybody who ends up here needs to sit down and look at who they really are, and to recognize that you don't do anything in isolation. None of us was just hurting ourselves; we were hurting our families, our victims, and the families of our victims. Here they really force you to look at that sort of victim impact, and to work on developing some empathy."
Fostering that understanding, John Handy said, is a serious challenge. "The most common trait of delinquent kids is a very self-centered view of the world. They've generally grown up in a pretty unstructured environment and come to us with all sorts of learned behaviors and poor anger management and social skills. There's a lot of cognitive distortion, and we're trying to provide them with a whole new set of skills to manage a different view of the world. Our responsibility as a staff is to give every one of these kids the best opportunity we can to succeed when he leaves here. We obviously have no control over the choices he makes when he leaves here, and I learned a long time ago that you can't take failure personally in this business or you're not going to be very effective."
Failure, of course, comes with the territory. Red Wing's rate of recidivism--the percentage of kids who end up back in the system or in adult prisons--usually hovers around 50 percent. Handy refuses to be discouraged by those numbers, however they might fluctuate from year to year. "I truly believe that we're doing a more effective job today than we were doing when I started 30 years ago," he said.
As my guides showed me where they slept and showered and studied and attended classes, and walked me around, it was hard to shake the feeling that these boys--and the other kids and teachers and staff members I met along the way--were all staging an elaborate production for my benefit. I saw kids working in the print shop and zooming around in maintenance carts; I watched as others designed customized playing cards on computer screens, or crafted hammers and gear pullers in the metal shop. Didn't those heavy steel hammers pose some kind of a security risk? Where were all the menacing guards and packs of insolent smoking teens? Why did everybody seem to be in such a good mood?
In the beginning, the town of Red Wing fought a protracted and frequently contentious battle to wrestle the reform school from St. Paul, where it had originally been established in 1866 as the House of Refuge. That facility, created by the legislature in response to growing public concern about the housing of juvenile offenders at the state prison in Stillwater, was located where Concordia College now stands. By 1886 the House of Refuge was plagued by overcrowding, and the State Board of Charities and Corrections recommended the relocation of the school.
O.M. Hall, a former state senator from Red Wing, was called on to plead his city's case. "One of our strongest reasons for insisting upon the location of the reform school at our town grows out of a disposition to encourage rather than discourage our people and their efforts to make Red Wing a thriving community," Hall was quoted to say in the local paper, the Daily Republican. "They have been somewhat despondent over the ravages of the cinch bug on the wheat crop." To make matters worse, local stone quarries had gone idle in a faltering economy, throwing many area residents out of work.
The political wrangling over the location of the school went on for several years, but Red Wing eventually did prevail, and on May 20, 1890, several thousand people (including a host of state dignitaries, transported from the railroad depot in a long procession of carriages) gathered at the site of the new school for the laying of the cornerstone. The correspondent for the Daily Republican delivered a breathless account of the day's festivities: "Bright skies, at times almost cloudless, with the mercury resting in the thermometer just at that point where it is neither too warm or too cold for any one, dustless roads, a breeze just sufficient to prevent the sunshine from causing the heat to be oppressive, an immense throng, and general jubilation--those are the elements that combined to render the proper observance of the laying of the cornerstone of one of Minnesota's grandest correctional institutions--the state reform school--a success in every particular."
The Daily Republican hardly had a monopoly on pitched rhetoric that afternoon. The speeches were all characterized by unrestrained optimism and enlightened hope for the waifs and delinquents that would make their home at the new institution. Governor William R. Merriam set the tone for the afternoon when he told the assembled crowd, "There is something far more significant in this gathering than the mere placing of the stone. It means more...a higher and nobler civilization is being lifted up by education, hand in hand with public and charitable institutions. The world grows wiser and kinder as it grows older. The old idea of brutal treatment is past, and in its place has come kindly forbearance and patience. The idea of institutions like these is to lift up the unfortunate, in order that they do their part in building up the commonwealth."
Merriam was followed by Archbishop John Ireland, the man who was later responsible for building the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. "Amid the youth there are weaklings that need particular nurturing care lest they fall by the wayside," Ireland said in Red Wing that afternoon. "We have advanced beyond the primary state when there was only punishment for offenses committed, and now the state takes the part of the prudent parent. It is the right and the duty of the state to come to the rescue. The money so spent is public money well spent. Prevention is cheaper than the reparation of damage done. The study of crime begets a feeling of compassion. It is not so often a malicious propensity as circumstances into which the unfortunate is thrown that causes crime."
In October of 1891 the first group of boys was dispatched from St. Paul to assist with the construction cleanup at the new school, and a week later, the Daily Republican reported, "Two special cars attached to the morning train of the Milwaukee Road Tuesday landed right in front of the reform school buildings and with them came Superintendent Brown. This makes up the full quota of inmates."
The original population of the reform school was 260, and under Brown's guidance the place hewed closely to the idyllic vision that was articulated by the speakers that afternoon in 1890. The school operated as a nearly self-sustaining village, with the boys housed in cottages and supervised by "house parents." A "family jury" made up of staff members and boys from the Cottage Council meted out discipline. This early family model of treatment involved what the school's newspaper, The Riverside, called "a systematic course of physical, mental, and moral training," and the boys received vocational training and religious instruction in equal measure. The school, The Riverside proclaimed, would "shed on the land a broad, most beneficent and far reaching influence."
There are holiday photos from the period that paint a positively quaint picture of life at Red Wing during this time: logs blazing in the huge dining-room fireplace, elaborately decorated Christmas trees, and a holiday pageant complete with a male Mary. "The founders of our juvenile care system set as their main goals to educate, teach work skills and decent morals, and to instill discipline," Milt Olson says. "In none of the early writings do you read the word 'punishment.'"
Olson has long been one of the school's unofficial historians, and Brown, he says, was "a very forward-thinking superintendent. I really think he did more for the establishment of a treatment-style institution than anybody else. The guy was remarkable."
It was during Brown's tenure that The Riverside, a publication that survived into the 1960s, began to be produced by students in the school's print shop. Produced twice monthly, The Riverside initially provided an almost halcyon portrait of life at the institution. In its pages you'll find accounts of the Riverside Literary Society, the school's athletic programs and reputedly accomplished band, and progress reports from the reformatory farm, which turned out everything from beets, beans, and corn to the meat that was processed in the on-site butcher shop.
The overcrowding that plagued the school (officially renamed the Minnesota State Training School in 1895) severely compromised Brown's noble aims, and his successor, F.A. Whittier, brought to the job sterner attitudes regarding rehabilitation. The new superintendent signaled his departure from the "kindly patience and forbearance" that had marked the school's inauguration when he told a community group in 1904, "Sentimentalists would have us believe that much crime is due to extreme poverty. Such is not borne out by the figures, as less than 5 percent of crime can be attributed to actual want." Under Whittier Red Wing instituted a military system of order; Brown's family units became companies, and the kids were outfitted in uniforms and subjected to close-order drilling, regimentation, and strict discipline.
It was this period, presumably, that Char Henn was referring to in The Training School, her 1989 centennial history of the institution, when she observes, "At times, the Training School could be a severe and quelling place to live, with food, clothing, and sanitation at substandard levels and strict administration policies in effect."
According to some of the accounts and records from this period, those "strict administration policies" included severe punishment that often strayed into brutality. One of the most notorious criminals ever to spend time at Red Wing was a serial killer and career psychopath named Carl Panzram, who left behind a graphic account of some of these punitive practices from his years at the Minnesota Reformatory. Panzram was 11 years old and from a poor northern Minnesota farm family when he was first sent to Red Wing in 1903 for breaking into a neighbor's house. His subsequent life of mayhem was so repellently distinguished that it inspired a 1970 biography, Killer: A Journal of Murder, by Thomas Gaddis and James O. Long, a book that was later adapted into a 1995 film of the same title, starring James Woods. His story is also recounted in lurid detail by a New York police detective named Mark Gado in an article entitled "Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live" that appears in the "Serial Killers from History" section of Court TV's website.
According to Panzram's possibly embellished accounts, which he left behind in a lengthy memoir, the three years he spent at Red Wing contributed mightily to his burgeoning criminal pathology. Upon admission to the institution, he recalls being strip-searched and rigorously queried about his sexual history. The guard, Panzram alleges, "examined my penis and rectum, asking me if I had ever committed fornication or sodomy or I had ever had sodomy committed on me or if I had ever masturbated."
It apparently didn't take Panzram long to run afoul of the authorities at Red Wing, and to the end of his life he retained and regularly recounted graphic details of the punishment he received in the school's paint shop, which was where the harshest discipline was supposedly administered. "They used to have a large wooden block which we were bent over and tied face downward after first being stripped naked," Panzram recounted. "Then a large towel was soaked in salt water and spread on our backs from the shoulders to the knees. Then the man who was to do the whipping took a large strap about a quarter of an inch thick by four inches and about two feet long. The strap had a lot of little round holes punched through it. Every time that whip came down on our body the skin would come up through these little holes in the strap and after 25 or 30 times of this, little blisters would form and then would burst, and right there and then hell began....I used to get this racket regularly, and when I was too ill to be given this sort of medicine, they used to take a smaller strap and beat me on the palms of my hands."
Panzram was deemed reformed and granted his release from Red Wing in 1905. "I was reformed all right," Panzram later said. "I had been taught by Christians how to be a hypocrite and I had learned more about stealing, lying, hating, burning and killing. I had learned that a boy's penis could be used for something besides to urinate with and that a rectum could be used for other purposes...."
Before leaving Red Wing, however, Panzram took his revenge upon the authorities of the place by starting a fire that destroyed the school's industrial building, laundry, tailor shop, and other facilities. The source of the fire went undiscovered until Panzram confessed to it late in his life, by which time, according to his own reckoning, he had murdered 21 people, committed thousands of burglaries, and sodomized "more than 1,000 male human beings."
Panzram was eventually hanged for his crimes at the Leavenworth Federal Prison in 1930.
Throughout much of its history, Red Wing's population was continually inflated by the intake of kids whose sole crime was that they were orphaned or neglected, but who were nonetheless tossed in with more serious and sophisticated offenders. The average stay at the turn of the century was three years, and a quarter of the population was under 12. The addition of girls to the mix further complicated things for the already challenged staff.
Girls were housed at Red Wing until 1911, when they were transferred to the Minnesota Home School at Sauk Centre. The boys and girls were always segregated; the offenses that could land a girl in Red Wing at the turn of the century included pregnancy, smoking in public, wearing makeup, and not attending church. According to Char Henn's history, the girls were generally "considered to be past reform and the girls' school was located an eighth of a mile from the boys' school to prevent intermingling." While at the school, Henn reports, "the girls were instructed in domestic sciences so that they would be able to get work as maids after they left. They would also be able to take care of their own homes when the time came to do so."
A 1904 edition of The Riverside addressed the apparent perception that the girls at Red Wing were getting the short end of the stick. "In the Girls' Department of this school there are now 41 girls, ranging in years from ten to seventeen," the article reported. "The Girls' Building is the finest structure on the grounds and is truly a model establishment, where the homeless or unfortunate girls find as nearly a perfect home as can be devised. We have heretofore given glimpses of the cozy provision made for the girls--the thorough equipment of the place for making fairly educated ladies of them, for teaching them, aside from school-room instruction, good manners, all about every branch of domestic sewing, laundry work, housework in general, including bread making, pastry work, all sorts of cooking, and in short, every branch needful for making thoroughly competent young ladies of them."
The author then addresses himself directly to the girls: "This training school is an honor to you and you can be an honor to it. We want you to beautify your minds by learning thoroughly every good and helpful thing that comes within your grasp. Keep your minds and hearts pure, tender, and loving; strive every day to open all the windows of your being, and let the pure light of heaven come in, and then rough spots and the 'blue devils,' if any have found lodgment there, will fly away never to return. The owls and bats of deceit and rancor cannot endure the light, and will flee from the sunshine of noble resolutions and loving acts--of pure, sweet lives."
The effectiveness of this lofty admonition was already apparently somewhat in doubt in 1907, when Superintendent Whittier unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature for a bill to create a separate school for the girls. "As to the segregation of the sexes," Whittier said, "I favor it more for the benefit of the boys than anything else. If anyone is to be ruined by this contact it is the boy, not the girl. The girl has gone the limit, but there are still a few things the boy does not know...." In an earlier address in Red Wing Whittier had stated, "A much larger proportion of criminals are men, yet women are more debased and desperate than men when they turn to crime."
In her biennial report in 1908, the school's physician Dr. Grace Gardner-Smith (who is often credited with being the first licensed female doctor in the state) contributed to the rather unattractive portrait of Red Wing's female population. "Since my report of August, 1906," Gardner-Smith wrote, "106 girls have been examined, the majority being new commitments. Thirty percent had some form of venereal trouble, mostly mild cases of gonorrhea, and readily amenable to treatment. There was one case of primary syphilis and two of chancroid."
Physical abuse and corporal punishment were officially outlawed at the school in 1947, but Whittier's stern military model survived at Red Wing into the 1950s. Attitudes regarding juvenile crime and corrections didn't budge much in that time, but there was increasing evidence that the reformers were beginning to regain some of the ground they had lost to the hard-liners in the early part of the century. Perhaps the disciplinarians were simply forced to throw up their hands. Throughout the '40s and '50s there were generally between 500 and 600 boys housed at Red Wing, and residential supervisors, faced with upward of 80 kids to a cottage, had understandably limited opportunities for one-on-one interaction of any kind.
Local wrestling promoter and trainer Eddie Sharkey did two stints at the Training School in the '50s. He was 14 when he first got sent to Red Wing for stealing a car, and got sent back for street fighting a couple of years later. "In those days we weren't stabbing and shooting each other like they are today," Sharkey recalls. "I was just a dumb kid and a general screw-off, but compared with some of the other guys I guess I was a pretty rough character. They had kids from small towns who were in there for skipping school."
Sharkey sounds almost sheepish when he admits that he enjoyed his time in Red Wing. "People see that big old evil-looking place up there and get all sorts of ideas in their heads," he says. "But it was like a military school more than anything else. I mean, hell yes, it was a rough-and-tumble place, and they worked the shit out of you. You were always doing something. But it was a pretty good education, the best I ever got anywhere, and I made a lot of good friends down there, guys I still keep in touch with."
During the time that Sharkey was at Red Wing, the boys worked half a day and went to school the other half. He remembers spending time on the truck squad and says, "That was the elite. You'd get to take the garbage downtown and see real people and girls and stuff like that. If you screwed up they'd have you shoveling coal or cutting grass all day." When he got sent back the second time Sharkey was assigned to Company D, which was reserved for the repeat offenders. "You were actually sort of proud of that," he says. "That pretty much meant you'd made the big time."
A lot of the guys Sharkey spent time with at Red Wing never quite got crime out of their systems. Many died young, and many more eventually ended up in adult prisons. There were, though, plenty of other success stories, boys who grew up to be solid citizens, successful businessmen, and, in Sharkey's case, professional wrestlers. "I don't know that when I finally got out of there I was reformed or anything," he says. "But I was done with screwing up, that was for sure. I started working out while I was at Red Wing, and that was probably the best thing that happened to me. I kept going to the gym after I got back to Minneapolis, and got started on my wrestling career shortly afterwards."
Looking back at those years at the Training School, Sharkey says, "I'll remember it all my life. Other people have their high school or college reunions, but that's all I've got."
In 1960 The Riverside carried an announcement that Dr. R.J. Bealka, a psychiatrist from the University of Minnesota, had been added to the school's staff, an appointment that signaled the beginning of a period of radical change. More than ever, the corrections field was becoming politicized, and this shift was dramatically reflected in the way Red Wing did business. Administrators introduced a form of intensive therapy called Guided Group Interaction, which involved the boys living, working, and going to school in groups, and spending part of each day hashing out treatment issues through the facilitation of a residential counselor. A full school day was implemented, and there was a new commitment to assisting the students in acquiring high school degrees and General Equivalency Diplomas. The school's managers also began to devote more attention to aftercare programs that were designed to ease the transition back into the community.
By the mid-'60s, when Milt Olson assumed the reins as superintendent, the farm had ceased operation and the land had been sold to the city for a golf course. Due to waning interest, the school's choir and band programs had also been discontinued, and publication of The Riverside was scrapped as well. The boys were allowed to re-christen the cottages--most recently they had borne the names of U.S. presidents--and in a stroke of either hubris or punk genius, they were each named after an Ivy League college.
During the early years of Olson's tenure, the school's staff was still challenged by overpopulation. Kids who'd committed dubious "offenses" continued to be lumped together at Red Wing with felons and chronic offenders. "Some of the charges that would result in kids being sent down here always amazed me," Olson recalled. "There was a kid from up north somewhere who got committed for shooting a moose out of season. There were plenty of boys who ended up here for truancy or incorrigibility. That was always a big one."
Tom Kernan is a former assistant superintendent at Red Wing who worked at the school from 1969 to 1998. "A lot of the kids we'd get were, quote unquote, out of control," he said. "Which basically meant that they didn't watch their mouth. Some of the smaller towns around the state had very little tolerance for any sort of misbehavior, and the county judges were a reflection of their communities. One time we got two kids who got shipped down from some little town for throwing eggs at the post office."
The 1960s brought new headaches. "The drug culture probably brought about the biggest change for us," Olson said. "We started seeing a lot more stupid behavior and mental illness, and in the late '60s and early '70s they started closing up some of the state hospitals, so you had all these mentally ill kids getting dumped back into the communities. They couldn't conform to the norms of society, and we ended up inheriting a lot of those problems. We all of a sudden found ourselves getting a whole bunch of sick kids. Before the '60s I also don't ever remember getting a straight sex offender. They either weren't charged, or they were charged with something else, but during the years I was here, that changed dramatically. I think when I left, our population was made up of something like 24 percent sex offenders, and that essentially happened in 10 years."
The school began intensive screening for chemical dependency and mental illness and provided counseling in both areas. A separate cottage was established for sex offenders, with specialized programming. The biggest changes, however, came about as the result of a mass runaway in August 1968, when, as Olson recalled, "we had 100 kids take off." It was described in the press as a riot, but Olson scoffs at that characterization. "Hell," he said, "They just opened the door and went. There was a crisis in Minneapolis at the time, and the whole country was rocking. We had kids scattered all over the place. It took some time, but we did eventually get 'em all back. Most of them went up to the Cities, but nobody got injured and I don't even think there was any property damage.
"Of course," he adds dryly, "they did steal a bunch of cars."
It was not, Olson says, a fun time. "As you might imagine, it got the community uptight," he said. "The governor came down, and they ended up having a bunch of meetings."
As a result of the incident, the state finally instituted a maximum population of 250 at Red Wing, and a Community Advisory Committee was established. "The community committee was really a godsend," Kernan now says. "Before that we were always sort of the big, bad bogeyman, and people in town never really understood what goes on out here. Once the committee got involved we really saw a lot of positive and dramatic changes, from funding and staffing to community involvement at the school."
The CAC ultimately had a radically humanizing effect on the culture at Red Wing. Volunteers planted flowers, successfully lobbied to get the kids into civilian clothes rather than uniforms, and worked to make the school more a part of the community. They also organized a group of foster grandparents who made Christmas gifts, prepared baked goods, and spent time with the boys.
"You'd come to work and never know what to expect," Kernan says. "There was always something going on. The kids were so damn unpredictable, and that was really the fun part of the job. A lot of the stuff that they'd try to pull wasn't necessarily malicious, and you always had to remember that these weren't little adults; they were kids. And you'd look at where they came from and what they'd been through and think, 'How the hell did you even get this far?' So many of them had just been brutalized."
For so many of those kids, Olson says, Red Wing was a refuge: "They had some pretty amazing survival skills, and you'd try to get that turned in a positive direction. We were fortunate in that we always worked with a lot of interesting people who really did have compassion for these kids. A whole bunch of amazing characters passed through here over the years."
Kernan recalled a counselor named Harold Heglund. "Harold was just a classic gentleman," he said. "He used to read Shakespeare to the kids to put them to sleep at night. I honestly don't think I ever saw the man get ruffled."
"You talk about transmitting feelings," Olson said. "Harold had that ability to somehow transmit his goodness, and the kids just wrapped themselves in that, in particular those who had been severely neglected. We were always so lucky that we had people like that who were so anxious to come to work, and were so happy to be here." Olson spent time as a cell hall director at the adult prison in Stillwater in between his two stints as superintendent at Red Wing, and he says, "When you've been around joints for a while you get to where you can walk into a place and get an immediate feel for what's going on inside. Here it always felt good, pretty relaxed. For the most part I think it's fair to say that this was a happy place."
Kernan concurs. "During our centennial celebration we had guys come back from all over the country that had been here over the years," he says. "It was amazing how many of them said this place was the best thing that ever happened to them. They got three meals a day, an education, and there were people who cared about them. This was home. This was where they grew up."