After years of isolation, Gray thrived with integration
Newport resident Suzy Gray lived a life that was a model for community integration. Gray died in April at her home in Newport, just days before her 56th birthday.
Born in Indianapolis, Suzy Gray spent much of her life in institutions. She lived with developmental and physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and kyphoscoliosis. From age three until into adulthood, she was institutionalized.
In a 2010 Minnesota Public Radio interview about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), her sister Sherry Gray described how the sisters hardly saw each other for 40 years. Sherry Gray recalled being told to not become too close to her sister, because Suzy was not expected to live a long life.
In 2004, Sherry Gray became Suzy’s guardian and moved her to Minnesota from Indiana. Suzy was able to live in a small group home, attend a day program and swim with her sister on Thursday nights at the Courage Center pool in Stillwater. At swim nights Suzy was able to float free of her wheelchair and enjoy being in the water.
Sherry Gray said part of what the ADA helped do, was make it possible for her sister to rejoin the world outside. Her sister enjoyed a full life in Minnesota, thanks to health care at Gillette, good care from Phoenix Residence and Lifeworks, and fun at True Friends camps.
Of the original 49 Phoenix residents, only about seven remain, of Suzy Gray’s generation. Her sister noted that the group is among those who lived well beyond childhood predictions. Suzy is one of three of her generation who have died in the past year.
“They are the first generation of persons who were born with or developed disabilities as children to survive near normal lifespans as medical science and care has improved, as more people, particularly parents, began to demand the human rights of persons with disabilities, and as persons with disabilities began to advocate for themselves,” said Sherry Gray. “Research and organizations started in the Kennedy administration has led to more knowledge and better care and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continues to open doors for them. Today, someone born with Suzy’s conditions would learn to read, to communicate better, and, I hope he or she will live a long and happy life.”
Suzy Gray liked playing tricks on new friends, and eating sweets before meals. Her obituary stated her request that “you have fun with your friends and family and recommends brunch at the North Pole Café, cakes at Café Latte, (and) all cafeterias.” A celebration of life was held May 4 at Newport Lutheran Church in Newport.
Slettehaugh promoted children’s needs
Donna Dee Kenney Slettehaugh is remembered as a leader in promoting education and opportunities for children with disabilities. Slettehaugh, who was known as “DeeDee,” died in April at age 84.
Born in Bloomington, she and her family moved to Minneapolis and then to California. The Kenney family moved back to Minnesota after World War II She graduated from Shakopee High School.
Slettehaugh was born with the hereditary disease, Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT). She wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood. CMT causes nervous tremors and muscular atrophy. One of her favorite jokes was, “the doctors told me not to get one of those new self-winding watches because it might explode.”
She worked in the nursing home field for many years as a care provider before becoming involved with an organization that evolved into the Minnesota Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (MACLD). MACLD for many years worked on legislative and education issues. Many of its leaders started other disability advocacy and service organizations.
Slettehaugh served as MACLD board president from 1969 through 1972. In 1970 she received the MEA School Bell Award with KTCA-TV for Best Educational Program on Non-Commercial Television, “Children with Learning Disabilities.”
Slettehaugh enjoyed spending time at a family cabin in Merrifield, where a Mothers’ Club would meet every summer. Her interests including classical music, sightseeing, bird-watching and following politics. She especially enjoyed Bill Maher and John Oliver.
She was preceded in death by her parents, brother and former husband Keith J. Slettehaugh. She is survived by her sons Daniel and Todd, niece and nephews, and many cousins and friends. Services haven’t been set.