Frederick L. Boyce
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Frederick L. Boyce was not a moron.

That was abundantly clear to anyone who met him as an adult. But not until four days before he died did the state of Massachusetts officially declare he was not mentally retarded 57 years after the Commonwealth clinically diagnosed him as a moron and sent him to the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham.

Beginning when he was 8, Mr. Boyce spent a dozen years at the facility, infamous for mistreating residents and subjecting them to radiation experiments.

Fernald was just a nightmare, Mr. Boyce said during a 1994 television interview. We were always praying and hoping that someone would come there and expose the place.

Mr. Boyce, who helped pull back a curtain that had shrouded an era of faulty retardation diagnoses and unethical treatment of children, died of colon cancer May 6 at Colonial Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Weymouth, Mass. He was 65.

When he wasn ' t on the road for his job as a carnival barker, Mr. Boyce lived in a house he bought in Norwell, Mass., more than 35 years ago. It was the only real home he ever had.

For all that he lost, he created a life that was incredibly rich, and the wealth in it had nothing to do with money or status or any of the things that people usually use to measure success, said Michael D ' Antonio, who wrote a book about Fernald. It had everything to do with his integrity and his heart. The guy was pretty amazing.

Given what he went through in his life, to be able to remain positive, affirming, and create more positive change will be a great legacy that he leaves to all of us, said Gerald J. Morrissey Jr., commissioner of the state Department of Retardation.

D ' Antonio ' s 2004 book, The State Boys Rebellion, chronicles what happened at Fernald, the nation ' s first state home for people deemed feebleminded. The story is told in part through the life and memories of Mr. Boyce.

His father committed suicide before he was born in 1941. His alcoholic mother left her two sons alone in a Boston apartment when Mr. Boyce was 8 months old, and the state placed the children in foster care. Mr. Boyce moved in and out of several foster homes before he was given intelligence exams that set him on the road to Fernald. Barely schooled and easily frightened, he fared poorly on tests that years later would be discredited.

Mr. Boyce ' s case record upon his admission to Fernald in 1949 listed his final diagnosis as Dull Normal and his clinical diagnosis as Familial-Moron.

Hardly a school, Fernald provided a scant education. The residents many of whom, like Mr. Boyce, were actually of normal intelligence had to perform menial labor, such as picking beans. Some school employees were bullies or insisted on sexual favors.

During his years at Fernald, researchers working with a grant from Quaker Oats Co., spiked the breakfasts of some residents with radiation as part of nutrition experiments. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Quaker Oats paid a settlement in the 1990s that worked out to $50,000 to $65,000 for each participant in a class-action lawsuit.

In 1995, President Clinton formally apologized to dozens of former residents who had been subjected to the experiments.

Paroled from Fernald in 1961, after he turned 20, Mr. Boyce became part of a world he had longed to enter. While in Fernald he learned that he had a brother; he later found out he was the second oldest of his mother ' s 13 children. Mr. Boyce worked in menial jobs and eventually joined a traveling carnival.

For a few years, he was married to Abra Figueroa, and the two kept a close relationship after they divorced.

With siblings scattered in foster homes and adoptive homes, Mr. Boyce was zealously loyal to his friends and was caring and watchful over relatives he could find, such as his youngest sibling, Denise Murphy of Beverly, Mass.

Although we had a good relationship, it would only get so deep in the early days, she said. But in his final months and weeks, we connected on a level that we had never connected on before. All walls were down. It was completely open and honest. At the end he was so affectionate and loving I got to see the boy I had never seen before.

Figueroa, who asked Mr. Boyce to be the godfather of her five children after their divorce, said he was and will forever be one of the most generous people I have ever met.

Though unschooled as a child, Mr. Boyce ' s thirst for the education he had been denied at Fernald was never slaked. He honed his language skills, hiring a tutor and reading extensively.

He ' d read things like Stephen Hawking, Figueroa said. He loved to talk about the cosmos with anybody who would listen.

And he knew how to put his self-education to use when news broke about the radiation experiments.

There ' s some kind of moral authority that comes with having lived through something like that, D ' Antonio said. He didn ' t abuse it or squander it, but he definitely used it. And I think that was a testament to his intelligence.

All his life Mr. Boyce wanted the state to apologize for misdiagnosing and confining him as a child. Nonetheless he forgave the workers at Fernald, including those who mistreated him.

He didn ' t blame individuals, even the bad ones, Figueroa said. He felt they were victims of ignorance and of impossible working conditions. He had a lot of forgiveness for everyone. He was never bitter. If he blamed anyone it was the generic ' government. '

Though the apology from the state never came, Morrissey visited several days before Mr. Boyce died to say he planned to send a letter.

As you know, many people were sent to facilities like Fernald and labeled with archaic and frankly insulting language common to that era, including terms such as ' moron, ' ' imbecile, ' or ' idiot. ' Although appalling to us now, they were standard medical terminology of the day, said the commissioner ' s May 2 letter, which Murphy read to her brother when he rallied from a coma.

Under the current standards, the department has determined that you are not a person with mental retardation, Morrissey wrote, adding that the letter would be placed in Mr. Boyce ' s permanent record, displayed as the first page of the file and in a prominent fashion.

Among his survivors, Mr. Boyce leaves two brothers, Stephen Berte of North Attleborough, Mass., and George of Boston, and a sister, June Cowen of Bradford, Mass.

To Plant Memorial Trees in memory, please visit our Sympathy Store.
Published in San Diego Union-Tribune on May 31, 2006.