He Lived Alone

Occasionally a jewel fell off right after he glued it on. Otto would go into a rage, his face and fists quivering, then let out a roar. If I asked him what the problem was, he’d respond in a loud voice, “I—don’t—want—to—talk about it!”
Author Name

Otto was a curious man.

The only time he was on my crew was in the Spanish/Florentine room. Prior to that, he had spent a year assembling glasses for Ellen. At the end of our first day together, he said to me, “What is your name—Glenn what?” His speech was loud and forceful and clear, but choppy: he spoke one word at a time, as though he were from the old country.

“Glenn Gladfelder,” I answered.

“Whud you say?” he asked, sticking his head forward and squinting at me.

I wrote it on a piece of paper, then repeated it.

He looked at the paper and said, “Glenn Glad-fel-der.”

“That’s right.”

“Yuh.” He was the only client who ever asked me my last name.

Because of his poor hearing, he found reading easier than listening. He was an incorrigible newspaper browser. Every morning, the other clients would already have begun working while Otto was still perusing the papers. Slowly crossing the workfloor, poking along from table to table, he’d scan the newspaper sheets that covered them before belatedly arriving at his seat. He was especially interested in grocery coupons, often tearing them out and taking them home.

One afternoon Charles was sitting at his work station, doing what he often did—scribbling furious messages and biting his hand. The other clients steered clear of Charles when he was agitated, but Otto was more inquisitive. He walked across the room and, leaning over Charles’s shoulder, started reading the notes. He bristled when I chased him away, and on his way back to his seat, he barked at me, “Ne-ver mind!”

Anything out of the ordinary attracted his attention. One time when I was the grouting supervisor and Otto was on Ellen’s assembly crew, I came downstairs and found our five-gallon can of black dye leaking on the floor, directly beneath the rack with the coveralls. Rather than have each grouter stretch out over the puddle, I edged close to the rack and passed out the coveralls myself. Apparently there was something unacceptable about the ones I gave Doug, because he immediately leaned past me and exchanged them for a pair of his own choosing. Earl, meanwhile, had stepped in the dye and was leaving a trail of footprints behind. So there was ample confusion and congestion without Otto leaving the assembly area to see what was going on. He weaved past some of the grouters, then peered over the rest so he could get a good look at the mess on the floor. Ellen told him to go back to his seat.

“Ne-ver mind!”

“I do mind,” she said. “Now get back to work.”

Reluctantly he complied, but in the next few minutes he stood up repeatedly, wanting to go take another look, but each time Ellen made him sit right back down.

Otto was born in 1941, suffering brain damage at birth. When he was six, his mother tried to enroll him at the School for the Deaf. He was turned down, however, partly because he had a mild form of cerebral palsy, but also because school officials felt he was destructive, even ineducable. His parents thought that putting him in an institution would make him, in effect, an orphan; instead they decided to teach him on their own.

His mother taught him to read and write, and increased his vocabulary by having him match objects to printed slips of paper. He learned how to count, how to work with numbers, and how to operate an adding machine. In the evenings this chubby little kid would sit on the living room rug with the change from his father’s pockets. He’d count the coins and arrange them in stacks, then calculate the age of each coin using the adding machine.

His mother once said they could never have raised him had they not had a large house with separate bedrooms for Otto, his older sister, and his two older brothers. Even so, Otto would sneak into their rooms, empty their drawers, and break things. They began locking their doors, but Otto would get hold of the keys and hide them; or he’d lock someone in their room, or lock himself in one of their rooms. The oldest brother, tired of being locked in and out of his room, removed his doorknob; but Otto took that a step further, removing doorknobs all over the house.

As he grew older, Otto began striking his mother and other people without warning. Finally, when he was fourteen, his parents felt they had no choice but to send him to the state mental institution in Warm Springs. He didn’t cause trouble there; he just cried a lot and said he wanted to go home. Three months later he did. He never returned to Warm Springs, and he never went to Boulder at all.

Despite the problems, the tutoring at home paid off. Few clients did as well as Otto on tests. He had the spelling skills of a fourth grader and the vocabulary of a sixth grader. He could tell time to the minute, knew the value of different coins, and was familiar with the calendar. But it was more than just academic results; there were intangible benefits as well. A psychologist once noted that Otto wrote “laboriously, but with a flair, as though he were engaged in a trying task that had to be done to perfection.” When education is successful, it leaves as a residue a willingness to work and a determination to do well—and such was the case with Otto.

The experience of growing up in a family had an effect upon Otto that was visible—just as the absence of family life made an equally indelible imprint upon Leroy, Grant, Dave, Charles, George, and Barry. These six lived in Boulder much longer than any other clients whose portraits have been presented so far. All of them were there from childhood through adolescence to young adulthood, spending roughly fifteen or twenty years in institutions—mostly Boulder, though Leroy and Charles also spent several years in Warm Springs. Upon leaving Boulder, none of them returned to their families; five went straight to group homes, while Charles was placed in a foster home. In terms of the number of years spent in Boulder, Leon would come right after this group. Though he was there only six years, this was from ages twelve to eighteen, which obviously are among the most critical years in a person’s development. And upon leaving Boulder, he too went straight to a group home. If we add Leon, then what these seven clients had in common was not only their institutional backgrounds. As a group, they also included the most violent and the most disruptive clients at the Center.

By contrast, consider a different group of seven clients: Lisa, Ken, Neal, Henry, Becky, Ramona, and Gus. Henry spent one month in Boulder, while the others, to my knowledge, were never in Boulder or any other institution at all. All of them grew up at home, with their families, and as adults all of them continued to live with one or both parents. And as with the previous group, what they had in common was not only where they grew up but also how they behaved as adults. All seven of these clients were hardworking, cooperative, good-hearted people.

The diversity of the clients was so great that no categories can be absolute, but with respect to adhering to social norms, the differences between the “Boulder group” and the “family group” were huge. There’s no question that some clients in the Boulder group were hard to control and prone to outbursts even before they went to Boulder. Indeed, these behavioral problems were the reason some parents felt that placing their child in an institution was their only option. But even if it would be an overstatement to say that Boulder caused these residents to become violent or disruptive, it did provide a crowded, often turbulent environment in which these traits could flourish and intensify. Certainly deinstitutionalization, by making it possible for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities to live with their families while attending school, was an immeasurable improvement.

Where a client was raised made a world of difference. The clients who grew up at home did not necessarily have higher IQs, but their thinking was less erratic and more orderly (compare Henry with Dave); they were more stable emotionally and their actions were less impulsive (compare Ken with Charles); they worked harder and took more pride in their work (compare Ramona with Leroy, or Lisa with Leon); and they were more helpful and more considerate of others (compare Henry with Grant, or Neal with Charles). Had Otto spent twenty years of his life in an institution, instead of with his family, the opinion of school officials that he was destructive and ineducable might well have been confirmed.

Otto was forty years old and about 5’10”. He had a thick chest, which was particularly prominent because his narrow, bony shoulders were thrown way back. The slacks that he wore were washed regularly, but it was obvious he had gotten his money’s worth from them: the thighs were absolutely covered with dried glue.

He had a large, expressive face. His dark plastic glasses often slid down his nose, and because of his hearing he was constantly leaning forward and squinting at you. He had a mustache but was otherwise clean-shaven, and his black hair was slicked straight back.

He had come to the Center at age thirty-three, having never before attended either a school or a vocational training program. Being self-willed by nature, and with no experience in a large, collaborative social environment, it took some time for Otto to accommodate himself to its norms and expectations. Several times during his first year at the Center he hit other clients and threatened staff, but gradually he settled down. At various times over the years, he cut rocking horse pieces on the band saw, operated sewing machines, built picture frames, and worked in the Glass Department.

The day he transferred from Ellen’s crew to mine, Otto happened to be midway through the assembly of a mosaic glass. This was a common occurrence when we made crew changes. Usually we had another client finish the job, with each client getting credit for half; but Otto was adamant about completing the assembly himself. Though he spent the next four months with me, he sometimes crept back into Ellen’s area to be sure she was saving his glass. One afternoon, however, there was a rush order for that style of glass, and since Otto wasn’t available, Ellen had to take his glass and finish it herself. Otto would have had a fit if he’d found out, so the next day Ellen carefully assembled a half-finished glass that was a carbon copy of his. He never detected the switch. Month after month that glass stayed on his mind, until the Spanish/Florentine room closed down in late 1981. When Otto was reassigned to Ellen, the first thing he did was to complete the assembly of the counterfeit glass.

A mosaic glass was made by gluing small pieces of plate glass—squares, rectangles, and other assorted shapes—around the outside, while a Florentine glass was made by gluing circular glass jewels around the outside. The jewels were about the diameter of a dime, but thicker, and rounded on top. Otto took pride in his assemblies and he worked painstakingly, and on the Florentine glasses his positioning of each jewel was perfect.

Occasionally, though, a jewel fell off right after he put it on. Otto would go into a rage, his face and fists quivering, then let out a roar. If I asked him what the problem was, he’d respond in a loud voice, “I—don’t—want—to—talk about it!”

One day he was pressing a jewel onto his glass when the jewel squirted away and plopped on his lap. He leaned back in his seat, startled, almost horrified. He snatched the jewel, slammed it down on the table, and shouted, “It isn’t fair!” With the butt end of his knife, he gave the jewel a good smack. He looked up, then jumped when he saw everyone in the room staring at him.

Otto’s anger would retreat the moment I asked him to quiet down. His contorted expression would melt, replaced by a timid, apologetic look. A few minutes later he’d come up to me. “I forgot to be quiet. I’m very sorry,” he’d say, shaking his head.

His outbursts were not always job related. One morning everyone was working quietly when suddenly he shouted, “Co-ver mouth!” His face was furious and his arm was shaking as he pointed across the table at Ramona. Her eyes were wide open as she looked first at Otto, then at me, then back at Otto.

“What are you yelling about?” I asked.

“Coughed! Cover her mouth!”

“She should cover her mouth when she coughs?”

“Yuh,” he said, much calmer now.

“All right, Otto, but if she doesn’t, just tell me quietly. You don’t need to be yelling at anyone.”

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “Very sorry.”

A few minutes later he reached across the table and shook hands with Ramona. They grinned at each other, then grinned at me.

An identical scene took place about a month later, but with Stan rather than Ramona. This hygienic obsession of Otto’s struck me as peculiar, especially because he had a few habits of his own that were less than elegant. For one thing, he wouldn’t swallow his saliva. He’d let it accumulate in his mouth for an hour or so, then ask to go to the bathroom, where he’d spit it into the toilet. One day he bolted from his work station to the bathroom without saying anything to me. I thought maybe he was feeling self-conscious, because earlier someone had told him he had bad breath. Anyway, when he returned, I reminded him to let me know whenever he needed to leave the workfloor. He pointed his finger at me and shouted, “Bad breath on you!”

To reduce the number of bathroom trips, he sometimes kept a paper towel at his work station, depositing saliva into it whenever he felt the need. One day he came downstairs after break and didn’t find his towel where he thought he had left it. He charged up to Ellen, his supervisor at the time, then stomped his foot on the floor and demanded, “Where is my towel?”

“I don’t know, Otto. I’m sure no one would want to take it from you.”

Nor would anyone want to take his nose towel. Every day during lunch he twisted a corner of a paper towel until it resembled a small corkscrew, then used it to ream his nose. Flossing was another task he performed in the lunchroom, though the fact that he carried his floss wrapped around the teeth of his comb seemed to me to compromise the sterility of the operation. Also during lunch he’d stand up periodically to adjust the crotch of his pants, hoisting it up or pulling it down or shifting it from one side to the other.

When he first came to the Center, these habits brought complaints from the Division II clients he ate lunch with. Rather than change his ways, Otto found it easier to move. From then on, he always sat on a small footstool in the corner, his back half-turned to the rest of the room.

He never talked with clients or staff unless he had a specific reason to. If somebody spoke to him he’d respond, though he didn’t always hear things clearly. Whenever Ken said, “Morning, Otto,” Otto would smile and answer, “Pretty good.”

He was an independent man, and had a way of life that suited him. In his early thirties, he moved first into an apartment, then into a small house located a few miles from his parents’ home. A trust fund that they established made the house and utility payments, and gave him enough money each month for groceries and personal needs. Otto’s inclination, though, was to buy as little as possible, then stash the money in the bank; his mother had to encourage him or he wouldn’t spend it at all. His lunches gave some indication of his thrift: he’d bring them in a large, heavy paper bag that could be reused almost endlessly, but they’d consist of only one or two small items.

One year, however, he did splurge, using part of his savings to buy an organ. He never learned to play it, but he enjoyed it nonetheless: he loved to press the lowest key on the keyboard, then listen to the deep reverberations. A couple of years later he wanted to buy a bigger organ with an even deeper low, but his father talked him out of it.

Otto did his own shopping, cooking, and housekeeping. The only chore his mother continued to do was his laundry. Every Tuesday he went to his parents’ house for dinner, but beyond that he did little socializing. Asked once during a test to complete the sentence, “Marriage…” he wrote, “Marriage—No.”

When he was thirty-seven, a group of about a dozen teenagers started coming to his house at all hours. They convinced him that they were his friends, and eventually talked him into withdrawing money from his savings account and “lending” it to them. By the time his parents found out, he had lost several thousand dollars. After that, the neighbors began watching out for him, and Otto became more careful about locking his doors. His parents told him that any time someone tried to get something from him, he should call them immediately.

So one afternoon, as the clients were heading into the cloakroom and out to the buses, Otto asked to use the workfloor phone. I told him he could. Throughout his conversation I was standing by the cloakroom door, about fifteen feet away. I couldn’t help overhearing him because he was shouting into the mouthpiece. He made each sentence sound like a proclamation.











“Yuh…. Yuh.”



He didn’t look at me once, either during the conversation or afterwards, as he walked across the workfloor and up the ramp.

It was the first I’d heard of this problem. Leroy often sat at the lunch table that was next to the snack machines. When someone came over to buy a snack, or simply walked past the machines, Leroy would bounce in his seat and laugh, offering his recommendations, pointing at the Snickers or the Fritos or the Oreos. As far as I knew, no one had ever heeded Leroy’s advice, but Otto, wanting to be agreeable, might have felt pressured to buy something. Then, since he didn’t really want the snack, he probably would have given it to Leroy. Afterwards, Otto would have kicked himself for squandering a quarter.

About a minute after he hung up, I got a call from Otto’s mother. She was very nice, but a bit baffled as to what he’d been talking about. I explained as well as I could, and told her I’d take care of it.

Living alone as he did, Otto had to take responsibility for things that many clients never thought about, like knowing what time the bus would come each morning. Once, when he worked in the Spanish/Florentine room, there was a change in the bus schedule. It was on a Thursday that I was asked to let him know about this.

At the end of the day I said to him, “Otto, what time does your bus pick you up in the morning?”

“Whud you say?”

I began to speak loud and slow, broadcasting each word: the more I talked to Otto, the more I sounded like him.

“What TIME does your BUS pick you up in the morning?”

“Eight forty-two.”

I wrote it down. “Eight forty-two?”


I crossed it out and wrote 8:28. “TOMORROW, the bus is going to pick you up at EIGHT TWENTY-EIGHT.”

“Bus will pick me up at eight twenty-eight.”

“That’s right.”

“Yuh.” He thought about this for a few seconds, then said, “How come—how come the bus will pick me up at eight twenty-eight?”

“They had to change the bus route a little, so…”

“Whud you say?”

“They had to CHANGE THE BUS ROUTE, so it’s going to come to your house EARLIER. It’s going to come at EIGHT TWENTY-EIGHT.”


He started to leave the room, then came back. “On Monday morning the bus will pick me up at eight forty-two?”

The question surprised me, partly because I should have made that clearer, and partly because it showed he was thinking ahead, anticipating his morning schedule three and a half days from now—something few clients could have done.

“No. The bus will pick you up at eight twenty-eight FROM NOW ON. EVERY DAY.”

“Every day at eight twenty-eight.”

“That’s right.”


After work, we would detain the buses any time we knew there was still a client in the building, but sometimes Otto escaped our notice. Just as the buses were about to pull out, he’d appear out of nowhere, running down the hall like some demented drum major—knees pumping high, forearms held parallel to the ground, large paper bag in hand, face intense. Usually he managed to catch his bus, but once in a while, realizing it had already left, he’d stop suddenly and settle into his leisurely walk. We’d give most clients a ride if they got left behind, but Otto was different. He was capable of walking home safely, even though it was three miles away; and he understood that getting himself home, either by bus or on foot, was his responsibility.

Otto was always running late. He was often the last client to start working and the last client to stop. Whenever we got within about five minutes of lunch or break or cleanup time—just when everyone else was winding down—Otto would shift from his usual deliberate work pace to furious activity. You had to insist that he stop, or he’d continue working after everyone else had left the workfloor.

His academic skills were relatively high, so he attended only one class per week, but even this he regarded as a nuisance. It took place on Tuesdays from 2:00, when afternoon break ended, until 2:45, when the clients gathered their things and went out to the buses. At 2:00, however, instead of going directly from break to class, Otto would sneak down to the basement and get in about three minutes of work before being called back upstairs. When class was over, instead of getting his coat, he’d return to the now empty workfloor and glue a few more jewels on his glass—setting up yet another photo finish with him and his bus.

One day Otto told me that the Center would be closed the following Wednesday for Veterans Day. I wasn’t sure about that, so at the next break I checked. Later that afternoon, as the clients were leaving, I told Otto that Veterans Day was a regular workday for us.

“I do not work on hol-i-days,” he informed me.

“But Veterans Day isn’t a holiday for us. We’ll be working that day.”

“Veterans Day is a hol-i-day. I do not work on hol-i-days,” he repeated, then walked out the door. Nevertheless, he did show up that day.

But he resented being told when to work, when to eat, when to go to class, or where he belonged or didn’t belong. He chafed at the way staff tried to dictate his comings and goings; he found our rules needlessly constricting. He cherished his mobility and resisted all attempts to limit it. He never entered the lunchroom until lunch or break was half over. Partly that was due to his habit of working late; but even when he was done working, he’d linger behind, meandering down the empty hallways, poking his head into various offices or work areas or classrooms. While most clients saw break as an opportunity to be together, Otto saw it as an opportunity to be alone.

Even away from the Center, that was how he spent his free time—walking, exploring, being by himself. Evenings and weekends, he was a familiar sight around Great Falls. With a trash bag slung over his shoulder, he’d trek all over town, collecting aluminum cans and cashing them in at the recycling centers. Once I was sitting at the back of a city bus when Otto climbed aboard with his bag of cans. He walked down the aisle, but didn’t notice me until I said hello. Then his face broke out in a huge grin of recognition and he pointed at me, utterly amazed. That happened during a promotional week for the bus system, when everyone rode for free. As soon as the drivers started charging again, Otto was content to go back to walking.

And the walk epitomized the man. He held his shoulders back and his head erect, while his arms hung straight down, limp. He looked straight ahead, not at other people. His walk was unhurried, and suggested the proud independence of mind that can come only from solitude.

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