Gordy C. Parkhurst was denied many of the things in early life that come to define us as adults: an education, a family, a normal adolescence, the ability to communicate.
As an adult, Parkhurst worked hard to overcome the profound gaps in his life, friends say. He did have setbacks and peccadillos, but those who knew Parkhurst say his life in a group home in Uptown was filled with things and people that brought him joy. His couch was proudly Vikings purple. His body was decorated with life-affirming tattoos. His neighbors were members of the deaf community, just like him.
It’s impossible to say how Parkhurst’s life would have turned out if he’d been identified as deaf when he was a child, but that did not happen. Instead he was forced to spend nearly all of his first four decades of life in state institutions, until changes in the 1970s and ’80s in society’s attitudes about institutionalization allowed his release.
Parkhurst died from pneumonia Nov. 9 at the age of 73, having essentially lived two lives. Neither one was easy.
He was committed to his first state institution in 1948, at the age of 2½. No one at the time realized he had gone deaf from an illness. Instead, doctors fixated on his lack of responsiveness and his tendency to crawl backward, which became the basis for his civil commitment for what was then called mental retardation, said attorney Elizabeth Carlson, who worked to get Parkhurst released.
“There was a lot of pressure from the county on committing him,” said Carlson, who was still a law student when she met Parkhurst. “Other families got that kind of pressure and did not commit their children. But a lot did. In the 1950s, a lot of children were committed to the state hospitals.”
The first time Carlson met Parkhurst at Cambridge State Hospital in 1985, his arms, legs and head were strapped down in restraints because, she was told, he had stolen a box of cereal for breakfast.
“When I met Gordy, there was nothing hard core or dangerous about him. I could see the intelligence shining in his eyes,” she said. Testing with a psychologist eventually confirmed that Parkhurst had normal intelligence, though it took a bevy of attorneys to overcome the institutional resistance to freeing him, in 1988.
Once freed, Parkhurst had a lifetime’s worth of catching up to do — not just learning to use devices like computers and text-based telephones, but learning to read. He was taught American Sign Language for the first time, and found acceptance among the deaf community. He discovered he had Oneida American Indian heritage, and found support from that community as well.
He never learned society’s norms while institutionalized, leading to inappropriate expressions of sexual interest, like exposing himself. He also emerged from the institutions with racism. In both situations, he quickly changed once educated, said Dawn Rootness, his court-appointed advocate since 2007.
“He learned to trust people,” Rootness said. “I don’t think any of the caretakers in his life ever let him down. He brought out the best part of you — no way in hell were you going to let this guy down.”
He learned that he loved Vikings football and professional wrestling — photos displayed at his Nov. 16 memorial show him meeting Hulk Hogan, and attending Vikings training camp in Mankato. Parkhurst loved kittens and coffee made just his way. Kent Rizner, a longtime caregiver, said Parkhurst could be stubborn about things he had no control over while institutionalized.
Said Rizner, “He would not eat lunch at 12 — he didn’t want to follow that. ‘I’m going to eat lunch at 2. And I’m not going to go to bed at 10, I’m going to go to bed at 3 a.m. And then I’m going to wake up at 7, early.’ And he’d take little naps. He wanted to control what he wanted to do.”
Services for Parkhurst have been held.