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A Willowbrook Story, Part 2, with Geraldo Rivera


This month Chrstopher Batton turns 50 years of age, old enough to qualify for AARP membership. Our house staff plan to throw him a party. Christopher is a Willowbrook alumni. He would (I believe) like to invite Geraldo Rivera to his party.

Initiative Inc owes a lot to Geraldo, perhaps its very existence. Is not Geraldo, through his investigative reporting, grandfather to the entire group home movement in New York? Moreover, news reports assure us that New York State is in a budgetary crisis. Surely there will be pressure on all social agencies, including those that care for the disabled, to do more with less. A Geraldo visit might be a good thing. He could highlight the good that has been done in the last few decades as regards our vulnerable population.

A good itinerary might be to invite him to Christopher’s party, which would be informal, unannounced, and mostly, perhaps totally, house only. Next day he might be able to meet with Initiative execs and public relations people and say some things; maybe make public statements on the importance of our work, etc.

As for Geraldo, he is no doubt a busy guy, and probably can’t come. But he might….especially if we leave the timing up to him. Surely he must look upon the “liberation” of the disabled as a crowning achievement of his career. He might relish revisiting that time.

It seems like a good idea to me, but there will likely be corporate concerns with regards to family, privacy, publicity, and so forth. Yet by keeping Christopher’s party and all subsequent Initiative activities entirely separate, perhaps those concerns can be allayed. No one here would proceed without corporate approval. Should corporate agree to it, we’ll track him down.




Tom Whitepebble [a colleague of mine....Sheepandgoats]


Usually a guy’s crowning achievement comes at the end of his career. But with Geraldo Rivera, one might argue it came at its beginning. To thousands of developmentally disabled children….now adults….Geraldo looms as the singular most influential person for good in their lives. Alas, mentally disabled as they are, they’re not aware of it. But those who advocate for them are, and owe Mr. Rivera a debt of gratitude. In fact, most of those advocates only exist because of Mr. Rivera.

From film reviewer Dave Kehr:

'IN THE '50S, YOU DIDN'T KEEP them at home. You sent them away. Your family told you to. The priest told you to."

They were the developmentally disabled, and as one woman interviewed in Jack Fisher's documentary "Unforgotten: Twenty-five Years After Willowbrook" recalls, they weren't allowed to be seen or heard.

Instead, they were shipped off to institutions such as the one operated by the State of New York on Staten Island.

As if that policy weren't destructive enough, funding was drained from these institutions in the '60s, leading to severe reductions of staff and appalling conditions.

Robert Kennedy is seen describing Willowbrook as "a situation that borders on a snake pit" following a 1965 tour. Things had not improved six years later, when Geraldo Rivera entered Willowbrook with a stolen key and filmed residents writhing on the floor, starving, covered with filth and howling in pain.

Geraldo’s reporting provoked nationwide soul-searching. Consciences prodded. Laws passed. Policy redefined. The current policy of integrating the developmentally disabled into general society to the extent possible and placing them in small residential group homes is largely traceable to Mr. Rivera’s work. The movement began in New York, but has long since spread to other states and even countries.

Most people know Geraldo as a flamboyant news and showperson….alas, even having somewhat seedy overtones…..after all, one of his raucous talk show guests broke his nose with a thrown chair…..but I like to think of him as a Janis Joplin type: a talented & charismatic character launched by the big business people into the stratosphere, for which he was initially ill-equipped and so he careened all over the place both professionally and personally. But he’s repented of the really outlandish stuff, no longer hosting shows with themes like "Wanted: Elvis! Dead or Alive," "Drag Queens on Parade," "Exploring Satan's Black Market," "Sexual Secrets … To Tell or Not to Tell," and "Teen Lesbians and Their Moms."

From Atlantic magazine(June, 2005):

"I was sick of it," Rivera said recently of his decision in 1997 to leave the daytime talk-show format. "Maury Povich was my neighbor [in New Jersey], and he and his wife, Connie Chung, are two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. I saw his show just a couple of days ago, and it was all paternity tests and lie-detector tests, all stuff that I pioneered, and I look at that stuff now, and I know how smart Maury is, how sensitive he is, and for him to still be doing that—humiliating all those poor trailer-trash and mostly black people, Hispanic people—I don't know how you do that, how you bear that. I could not do that no matter how much you pay me.

[They paid him a lot]

He’s signed on with Fox Network these days, a liberal balancing their prevailing conservatives. And he’s a war correspondent whenever he gets the chance, a sort of “hell for leather” one:

"That's why I said [the CNN anchor] Aaron Brown would

[ahem] shit in his pants if he had been in some of the places I was. That's true. That's absolutely true. It's the same way about all of them—every one of those Geraldo detractors. How many times have you been shot? How many times has your car been blown up? How many times have you ever been winged? How many times have you gone into it, taken a gulp, and stepped out of the airport?"

That almost reminds you of Paul, doesn’t it? Note how Paul responds to the pompous pansies of his day who wanted his title but not his work:

Are they ministers of Christ? I reply like a madman, I am more outstandingly one: in labors more plentifully, in prisons more plentifully, in blows to an excess, in near-deaths often. By Jews I five times received forty strokes less one, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I experienced shipwreck, a night and a day I have spent in the deep;

and so forth. 2 Cor 11:23-25

The showmanship remains: When Fox took him aboard, he pledged to personally kill Osama bin Laden and bring his head back to the United States to be bronzed. Sheesh!

"That's the story,”

he tells Atlantic. “I can't tell you how many caves we crawled into looking for that sucker."

Um….there is that cartoon showing Jehovah’s Witnesses having located bin Laden through their door to door ministry. Ought there to be some teamwork?

Actually, that Atlantic magazine offers a good synopsis of his career. I admit he is much more larger than life than I had thought….I don’t really keep up. Would it really be a good idea to invite him to Christopher’s party? Dunno. Frankly, I can’t quite picture him sharing ranch dressing and milk cocktails with Carolyn, or flipping through all the channels roulette fashion with Doug, but perhaps I am selling him short. At any rate, we’re all grateful to him. Few persons have positively impacted a population as Geraldo has benefited the country’s developmentally disabled. He sparked a culture shift toward compassionate treatment. Were it not for him, perhaps they would yet be in dungeons like Willowbrook.


Read about life in a group home 35 years later here.

And perhaps even here.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'



So what was the reponse, I am curious to know.

I've seen Rivera from time to time and always thought of him as sincere (more so than many in News Media), so thanks for the info on other works he has done.

Tom Sheepandgoats Harley

Unfortunately, they wimped out at corporate & the letter was never sent. It takes a lot of energy to run with something like this, and there is always possibility of backfire. Easier to pass.

Perhaps he'll one day read this post and invite himself.

Bill in Detroit

"Um….there is that cartoon showing Jehovah’s Witnesses having located bin Laden through their door to door ministry. Ought there to be some teamwork?"

BTW ... how's Obama's study coming along?

Tom Sheepandgoats Harley

Alas, the local brothers report that he may be a goat.

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