the residents


Gerald wheaton, 61, Pennhurst resident 1948-1971

roland johnson, Pennhurst resident 1958-1971

Rob Gorman and Bill Pennypacker, Pennhurst residents

mike koval, 80, Pennhurst resident 1942-1970

Gerald Wheaton was three years old when he and his sister Theresa were court-ordered to Pennhurst because their parents were fighting. He would spend the next twenty-four years keeping his head low and working at a series of unpaid institutional jobs. Today Gerald has his own apartment in Spring City and an active life in his church.

Mike Koval is an upbeat guy who doesn’t let his past life in an institution keep him down. He and his twin brother were sent to Pennhurst after their father married a second time and their stepmother did not want them living with her. The boys were thirteen years old.

Today Mike has an active life and lives in his own apartment in Phoenixville.

“I was court-committed to Pennhurst because my sister couldn’t take care of me.

We were both in D1 [Devon building, first floor].

On the ward, we had some people who fed us too fast because they had a lot of people at the time. There was always a lot of people that needed care.

We just watched TV.  No one ever talked to us too much. I did not like it there at all. I’m not too keen on talking about it because it upsets me sometimes.”

                                                     Rob Gorman, 51

Bill Pennypacker at Pennhurst

“After that long ride up there, it was just horrible. That was very scary. Very, very frightening. I was crying that I would never see them again, my family or sisters. We went out into this great big institution that I didn’t know anything about.

I saw Pennhurst for the first time. I thought that, ‘Here I am. I’m here and there’s nothing that nobody can do. Nobody can do anything about it. I put myself there; I got myself into all this mischief and trouble and that’s why I was here, to try to better myself.’”

                                                         Roland Johnson

Quotations and photos from “Lost in a Desert World: The Autobiography of Roland Johnson (as told to Karl Williams)” © 1999

Roland Johnson was twelve when he and his mother were taken to Pennhurst for the first time. Despite the many brutalities he suffered during his stay there he managed to keep his dignity and went on to become one of the most outspoken advocates for people with disabilities. Roland died in 1994 but his legacy lives on in his autobiography and the self-advocacy groups he helped to found.

“Equal rights, that went out the window if you were in an institution. They didn’t care, to them, if it was fair or wrong. They figured they had a right to do whatever they wanted to you.

I figured when I was up there, I prayed out my heart; I stood out on the ball field and said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they have not known what they have done.’”

                                             Gerald Wheaton

Bill Pennypacker, left, and Rob Gorman both came to Pennhurst as children with cerebral palsy. The two became fast friends and spent much of their time together on the ward. In 1980 they moved together to a group home in Collegeville.