'Eerie Ambiance' Permeates Fernald's Waltham Campus

WALTHAM, Mass--The first thing a visitor notices about the Fernald State School is the quiet.

The school sits on top of a grassy hill, straddling the city line to Waverly, isolated from the neighborhood around it. Roads without street-signs run across the campus.

One visitor to the grounds Monday called it an "eerie ambiance."

Up here, in fields of dandelions next to wooden buildings with peeling paint, even the lawnmowers don't seem to make any noise. And the click of a camera shutter can attract attention.

As a Crimson reporter moved to take a picture of the school chapel, which was mysteriously locked shut, a woman stopped him. "I guess it's okay if you want to take a picture," she said. "But not of any of our clients."

Doris Manson, whose only child, Dorothy, has been at Fernald since 1947, said quiet is the school's primary attraction--both for retarded residents and their parents.

"These children are such a problem that once you brought them up here you were so relieved that someone else had to take care of them for a while," Manson said.

Fernald hasn't always been quiet; complaints about poor conditions for students led to great controversy some 20 years ago. Parents eventually filed a class action suit to force improvements.

"In those days, you had no jurisdiction over your children at all," Manson said. "We got a class action suit against the state. After that, we had many improvements."