The state of Minnesota promised to take care of a little boy named Eugene.

It let him down. First in life, and then again in death.

Eugene Joseph Gaffke died of heat prostration on a hot summer day in 1941, three-and-a-half years after he was taken from his family and incarcerated at what was then known as the State School for the Feeble-Minded in Faribault.

The only memorial to Eugene’s short life was a concrete plug in a Faribault cemetery, stamped with his number — 551. On his death certificate, the child’s occupation is listed as “inmate.”

Now Minnesota is doing what it can to make amends.

Between 1866 and 1997, more than 13,000 Minnesotans died in the state’s 11 mental hospitals and were buried in graves marked only with a number — if they were marked at all. As the institutions closed, the cemeteries with their sad rows of numbered graves remained in Faribault, Hastings, Rochester, St. Peter, Moose Lake, Willmar, Brainerd, Sauk Centre, Fergus Falls, Cambridge and Ah-Gwah-Ching.

“It wasn’t right. They should have been remembering us as people, not by the numbers,” said Larry Lubbers of Inver Grove Heights, who lived at Faribault from the time he was 10 until age 25.

Lubbers’ years at Faribault were deeply unhappy, filled with abuse and neglect. He was not allowed to go to school. On some days, his arms would be held down and he would not be allowed to feed himself.

“I didn’t get treated nice,” he said. “It was not a very good place.”

Not once does Lubbers remember anyone explaining why a 10-year-old had to be locked away.

Names behind the numbers

People could be institutionalized for almost any reason. Some struggled with mental illness, or a physical disability or substance abuse. Some had epilepsy, or were children with Down syndrome, or women suffering from postpartum depression. Orphaned children or pregnant mothers could be dropped off and remain there for the rest of their lives.

Today Lubbers works with the nonprofit group Remembering With Dignity, which is halfway through the long process of replacing all those numbered graves with proper headstones.

To date, Remembering With Dignity has placed 7,139 new headstones and is in the process of installing 750 more at old institutional cemeteries in Rochester, Faribault and Fergus Falls. Another 5,111 graves have yet to be restored.

Finding a name for those graves, and learning the stories behind those names, is Halle O’Falvey, who runs the Remembering with Dignity program.

Taped to her computer is a photo of Mary Grabarkewitz Kovar, who died at the Rochester State Hospital in 1896 — not long after her ex-husband had her declared insane and committed so he could take 180 acres of farmland she had inherited. The first time O’Falvey saw the photo, and heard the story, she cried. In her files is a letter from Kovar’s great-granddaughter, who calls her “the angel who found Mary’s grave.” Great-grandma Kovar is now buried under her own name.

“It’s really sad, sad stuff,” said O’Falvey, who is researching the histories of two sisters who lived and died together in a state institution. She has found many similar cases of siblings institutionalized because their parents died or fell into poverty or could not control their children’s behavior. “They were failed by society,” O’Falvey said.

She leavens the sorrowful nature of her research by working closely with volunteers like Lubbers and Manny Steinman of Minneapolis. Steinman was institutionalized at Faribault from the time he was 2 until age 10.

“We’d rather have names, instead of numbers,” Steinman said. “That’s a decent way of recognizing someone. Replace those numbers. That’s dignity.”

Every few years, O’Falvey goes back to the Minnesota Legislature to ask for more money to pay for more grave markers. Since 1996, no matter which party was in charge, bipartisan majorities of the Legislature have allocated between $125,000 and $300,000 every biennium to continue the work. Lawmakers also issued a formal apology in 2010 for the state’s past treatment of people with mental and developmental disabilities.

In the coming legislative session, Remembering with Dignity will request another $1 million to pay for thousands more headstones. By 2018, they estimate, only a thousand or so of the numbered graves will remain at the old institutional cemeteries.

One of the new granite headstones bears the name of Eugene Gaffke, who came into the world on Christmas Eve 1929 and left it on July 29, 1941.

Eugene was a sweet, smiling child, born with severe developmental disabilities. By the time he was 8, he was almost as tall as his diminutive mother but was unable to talk or walk. His overwhelmed parents, who had five other children at home at the time, allowed the state to step in and take Eugene to Faribault.

Seventy years later, one of his sisters still cried describing the day her big brother was taken to that “terrible place.” The day Eugene died, his mother was in labor with her seventh child.

“I know it would have meant a lot to my grandmother,” Karena Morris, Eugene’s great-grandniece, said of the new headstone. The Gaffke family moved out of Minnesota not long after his death. Surviving siblings were horrified to learn their brother had been buried under a number.

Eugene’s story haunts Morris, whose own daughter has serious disabilities.

‘His life … had meaning’

“When I think about Eugene’s short life, filled with so much suffering, I am even more grateful to be her caregiver. She is a blessing and a joy to me,” Morris wrote in a letter to Remembering With Dignity a few years ago, when she was trying to secure a proper headstone for Eugene’s grave. “She is also right now exactly the same age Eugene was when he died, probably scared, confused, suffering and alone. I want to make sure his grave gets a headstone so that it will be known that he was never forgotten and that his life was important and had meaning.”

Around the state, there are annual ceremonies in the graveyards of the old hospitals. Each one echoes that message: You are not forgotten, your life had value and we are so terribly sorry.

State Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, visited the grounds of the old state hospital cemetery in Willmar last month and read the Legislature’s apology aloud. Willmar started out in 1907 as the state’s first substance abuse treatment center and eventually became known as the Asylum for the Insane.

Over the years, more than 700 people died at Willmar and were buried at nearby Oak Knoll cemetery. Their graves were marked with a metal spike and stamped with a number. Now, the spikes have been pulled. Every identifiable grave has a proper granite marker, inscribed with names and dates.

Sawatzky’s apology was part of the annual remembrance ceremony, one of many similar events that take place around the state every year.

“The state apologizes to all persons with mental illness and developmental and other disabilities who have been wrongfully committed to state institutions,” Sawatzky read. “It regrets this history of institutionalization of persons with those disabilities, [and] it commits itself in their memory to move steadfastly to help Minnesotans with those disabilities, who in the future turn to the state for services, receive them in the least restrictive manner.”

An apology, delivered years after the injury, may not seem like much. But to those who survived state institutions, and the families of those who didn’t, it means a great deal. “It makes me feel good inside,” Lubber said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”