Thursday, August 12, 2010

Recollections about AMI NYS in the 1980s and 1990s--Part 1

Mid-1980s-forward--Some bruises along the way as AMI NYS asserts itself in Albany

September 21, 1985—I went to annual conference of AMI-NYS at Holiday Inn in midtown Manhattan (I think it was just renamed Days Inn at the time). I stood outside the main meeting room with a psychiatrist, Dr. Bill Turner, from Long Island, who told me his theory that a marker for schizophrenia was baldness in the father. So when we finished I looked through the porthole window into the meeting room and looked over the sea of men, mostly older, white haired, paying attention to the speaker--and almost none was bald. I meant to tell the doctor afterwards. You never know.

About 1986--AMI Action and the fire in the trash box--this was a subgroup, not a regular affiliate in Albany, that met at this time and was partly subversive of the AMI NYS board of directors. Led by Gerry Comfort, they planned advocacy with less restraint than the AMI board. They wanted to attack every evil imaginable—the mail system, unemployment, several agencies of state gov't not closely related to mental illness, the health dept., insurance, drug abuse agency, etc. They called for direct action and came in conflict with AMI board policies. Once when we on the board were in a meeting with Cmr. Surles, Gerry lit up the annual report of the NYS Office of Mental Health, set it afire and put it in an outside trash box near the building. That took the cake. Cmr. Surles asked me if I needed an escort out of the OMH building because of our “disobedient, raucous” colleagues with AMI Action

October 5, 1987--Prayer walk comes to grief in the snow--Harriet Comfort organized the prayer walks (marches) in the 1980s and into the '90s that AMI members paraded in. Mame Lyttle remembers them: Bishop Hubbard and Episcopal Bishop Ball proudly marching by the Capitol at the head of followers paying respect to those suffering from mental illness. Sudden snowstorm the day of the march, Oct. 5, forced its cancellation. Nobody imagined a deep snow that early. Chris Carabateas, an activist who lived out in Nassau, had no electric power for a week or more, as the lines were down that long.

Court suit over High Tea 1987—Harriet lost a bid to be president of AMI NYS in 1987 and so quit the board. This falling out led the board to sue over her refusal to grant AMI a share of High Tea funds that year. Both sides got lawyers who did little but wrangle for a year. At one point William Snavely, AMI national president, a former Navy admiral, I think, came to Albany to solve the dispute. He went home with no luck at all for a reconciliation. Our suit ended in stalemate, with no satisfaction to either party. And it led to disaffection against AMI by several local affiliate members that lasted over 10 years.

In Feb. 1988 at a rally in Albany we were to release dozens of green balloons together high over the Capitol as a sign of unity, at the end of speeches that day. Every now and then someone would lose grip on the balloon and they began sailing one by one up in the sky while speeches went on and we all admired the show.

1988--An early foray into the legislative chambers to make our case. Went to see Joe Lentol, a Brooklyn assemblyman,who had his staffer, Joe Giamo, meet us. We got through 15 minutes telling this fellow all about us and what we do and the staffer asked: What army did you say you were from?

March 2, 1989 I was called in by Carol Obloy, AMI's first OMH contract officer, and signed a three year deal for AMI to set up business in Albany. I had taken over the presidency last fall from Phyllis Gerber, the long time leader with Muriel Shepherd who got AMI going in the early 1980s .That was our big move to respectability in Albany, to have a home after previous board meetings around the dining room table in the Gerbers' home and in a conference room at RSS headquarters.

Our job was to bring all the local AMI support groups together, do outreach and education to our members and the public and raise public awareness about mental illness around the state. It was a magnificent moment. We rented office space from the Mental Health Association in Albany County, then headed by Brian Klim, who actually designed our rooms on the second floor of the former car dealership at 260 Northern Blvd, off downtown Albany. NAMI is still there. We could walk to and from the Capitol and state Legislative Building from there and had allies in the building from the start—the mental health association, ACCLAIM (now ACL), headed by Steve Greenfield, and Potpourri consumer social club downstairs run by Harvey Rosenthal, which is still there.

We were to hire a director and secretary and equip their offices with a desk and soft chair; buy two IBM typewriters, some plain tables and side chairs for meetings and to fill the rooms up. On April 7 John Rosebrook and I bought tables and chairs at BJs Wholesale Club, carted them in the back of his van and lugged them upstairs to the office. We leased an early design copy machine that broke down repeatedly. We hired a secretary who couldn't type and was soon fired. We interviewed Carol S for executive director and she started work March 27. We soon hashed out strategies for political action with our new-found allies.

September 16, 1989—The famous jazz concert that flopped—At the same time that we're getting going in Albany we signed on to sponsor a jazz concert at the Palace Theatre in Albany as a fund raiser. This was led by Jean Shaw who had helped Capital District Psych Center the year before and presented herself as a grand impresario. She gathered a team and with our support signed up major bands like the Duke Ellington quartet, (and was it Count Basie?), plus a leading female jazz vocalist whose name escapes me, and the Shaws, a local piano duo. She had us solicit AMI members statewide to buy tickets at $25 or more apiece, estimated to bring in over $50,000. This was coupled with a black tie dinner at the Hilton Hotel downtown Albany on Sunday night with the commissioner and other luminaries there. The week of the concert there were fewer than 100 tickets sold and we cancelled at once, despite having paid the big name band and woman singer thousands of dollars up front. We did hold the black tie dinner and came out about $20,000 short, as I remember. Just got burned, that's all.

The characters we met—Jesse Nixon, director at CDPC. Really a nice man. But one wonders. Once he punched out a pizza delivery man outside the front door of the hospital. Pizza man had him arrested. I think he pleaded guilty, and walked. Jesse had a few more run-ins later on in his long tenure there.

And our own staff at AMI were mostly good souls, some young and untested, none of whom was paid a lot. A young man and woman worked together for us and soon were married. He had exceptional computer skills and left to work his way up at state OMH to become head of their research. Another, Ruth Foster, has become a top lieutenant for Families Together, working for childrens mental health in Albany. John N lost his wife to illness suddenly and had to leave us. Then again, a fellow we hired as secretary was caught walking off with some of our office equipment and we had to fire him. (by Roy Neville)

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