A 30-Year-Old Secret that Shocked the Nation: The Boys of Atalissa
In 1974 two businessmen decided to hire mentally disabled young men to work in their turkey processing plant. “The boys” were hired in Texas and shipped to Atalissa, Iowa, where their new home awaited—a 100-year-old turquoise schoolhouse. 30 years later, social workers, police officers, and investigators went inside and discovered a shocking secret. A media frenzy ensued, a documentary was made, and the 30-year-old secret came to light and shocked the nation. The story you’re about to read will break your heart, but will also renew your appreciation for the bravery and durability of the human spirit.
1. A 30-Year-Old Secret
It was perched on a hill, immaculate from the outside. However, the old school-house, located six miles from the turkey plant in the small town of Atalissa, Iowa, held a very dark secret of a vicious industry that had been enslaving men for over 30 years.
In 2009, in a last-minute rescue, a horde of government officials, investigators, and social workers overran the school-house. The 21 mentally disabled men who called it home stood there in a state of deep confusion. They were well into their 60s and in a very terrible state. What could have possibly brought them to live like this?
2. A House of Horrors
Social worker Denise Gonzales would soon find out what had happened. With a long career in social work behind her, she didn’t think she was capable of being shocked. But what she saw in that house was just too much.
There were cockroaches everywhere, hissing. The childish interior, broken toys, and once brightly-colored walls conveyed an uncanny feeling of a horror house. Even the air seemed to convey to her the magnitude of the neglect and agony that occurred in the former school-house near Atalissa.
3. Disconnected From Reality
The men were in desperate need of medical attention, unkempt, and dressed in dirty clothes. They were in such a state of disconnect, that when they saw Gonzalez they couldn’t understand what was going on and asked her: was she their new boss?
While they didn’t understand it at the time, Gonzalez was there to finally liberate them. Their torture finally came to an end, and the industry that had deprived them of any shred of dignity, happiness, or love was about to be brought down and exposed to the world in a media frenzy. It was over 30 years ago that their tragic story began…
4. An Ominous Partnership
It started back in the 1960s with a partnership between T.H Johnson, a shrewd businessman and ranch owner, and Kenneth Henry, a turkey insemination expert. The two established Henry’s Turkey Service and began recruiting employees with help from the government.
They mainly tapped state mental institutions for their workers. Pursuing Johnson’s philosophy of “the magic of simplicity,” they hired mentally disabled workers to carry out the gruesome tasks of the business, all under the pretense of mentoring them in agricultural life.
5. Completely Vulnerable
During the ’60s and ’70s, there weren’t a lot of laws and work regulations protecting the rights of the mentally disabled. State institutions, such as the Abilene State School in Texas, from which many Henry’s Turkey Service employees were recruited, were unpleasant and sometimes downright neglectful.
The way Johnson saw it, he was helping young men with disabilities to make something of themselves and not waste away in the harsh mental institutions. In his plant, these men would be a real part of society: working, earning, contributing.
6. Humble Backgrounds
Clayton Berg (Gene) and Willie Levy were among the 1,500 men that throughout the years were sent by Johnson to such plants and work camps across the country. They came from humble Texan backgrounds and most had no other place to go.
When Johnson contacted them, they were young and able-bodied, but did not have any real occupation to dedicate themselves to. When he first brought them to work on his home ranch in Texas, they had no idea what the future had in store for them.
7. Clayton (Gene) Berg
Gene came from a small town in Texas just outside Dallas. He was a courteous and polite kid, but his learning disabilities meant he could not integrate well in a normal setting, and his parents, regretfully, had to find him a suitable alternative.
When they found the Abilene State School, little Gene was sent away. The separation, as his mother described, was tragic to the family. Gene was scared and utterly crushed by the prospect of being far from home, and the parents as well were torn. But they couldn’t have possibly imagined the tragic future that lay ahead for their little kid.
8. Willie Levi
Also sent away from his family was Willie Levi. His family was much more problematic, and could not accommodate his learning disabilities. His father was an alcoholic and his mother worked hard, long hours as a hotel maid.
Willie was a fine athlete though and made quite a name for himself at the Mexia State Institution. In 1970, he came in first in the special school state championship 880-yard race. Even 40 years later, after a lifetime of suffering, he still remembers fondly the moment they awarded him the shiny gold medal.
9. First Time on the Farm
First, they were brought by Johnson to his turkey ranch in Texas. Their job was extremely difficult: they had to chase down and catch large male turkeys, known as toms, extract their semen and proceed to inseminate the female turkeys.
They worked tirelessly and Johnson was an eccentric boss. Henry later recounted that Johnson loved his workers, his “boys,” that he would invite them to all the Johnson family gatherings, but that he also had a rough side to him and could be quite harsh at times. It wasn’t until the company expanded that the boys’ fates became tragic.
10. The Move to Atalissa
Business was booming and Johnson and Henry decided to buy a plant in Iowa and move their workers, the boys, to a tiny town named Atalissa. They had to find a place for them to live, and luckily for the bosses, only six miles from the plant stood a 100-year-old school house ready to be purchased.
The people of Atalissa gave their approval and the building was converted into a bunkhouse for the boys. When they first entered their new home, they were young, able, and healthy. Thirty years later they would be leaving it as old men, physically destroyed, traumatized, and hopeless.
11. The Harsh Tasks
Atalissa, Iowa. Many many miles from their hometowns in Texas. No professional to accommodate them for their special needs, and completely disconnected from family and relatives—the boys started their new jobs.
Every day before the break of dawn, at 3 am, it began. Thousands of turkey were brought into the factory. The men had to grab the forty 40 pound birds and hang them face down on the conveyor belt hooks. Then, after they were slaughtered, the men had to disembowel them, de-feather them and send their carcasses for processing.
12. Emotionally Draining
The job took a physical toll on the men, but for some, it was also difficult emotionally. Willie later described how the birds would fight back, frantically flapping their wings in panic, and his heart would break for them.
“I would pat them on the belly when I get them on the shackle,” he told the NY Times, “I say ‘O.K., O.K., tom, quiet down.'”He attested to have had a capacity to calm the birds down before their last moments by talking to them. Talking turkey, as he described it. “And they’d talk right back to me,” he told a NY Times reporter.
13. No Money
The men weren’t compensated for the brutal work they endured. The bosses, Johnson and Henry would dip into the men’s salary for everything until they were left with practically nothing. They deducted for room and board, transportation, and medical costs (the men had no medical insurance).
After all this, at the end of the month, the men would be left with a mere $65. This money would be spent on the occasional beer or piece of candy, but there was never enough to put aside for savings.
14. Longing for Human Interaction
Being disconnected from “civilian” life, with only a menial repetitive task with which to pass their days was not easy. Driven every day from the bunk-house to the plant and straight back to the bunk-house left them longing for human interaction. When social workers came to the rescue, the men’s story of being completely alone in the world brought them to tears.
Occasionally, the men would get permission to go to town. A bit of dancing, a beer or two, and once a year, the annual parade celebration. They’d get extremely excited—theses rare outings gave them the sense, if only fleeting, that they were human and not assembly line zombies.
15. The Townspeople of Atalissa
The townspeople already knew and loved them, even though sometimes they found them to be a bit much. The boys loved to give hugs, and a lot of them, and they would always tell everyone who’d listen about their very specific fields of interest.
Gene loved to talk about John Deere tractors, he was fascinated by them and thought that everyone was too, and Willie’s favorite topic was his birthday. The townspeople of Atalissa were always kind to them. However, even though rumors about the schoolhouse were circulating from the get-go, no one had ever taken the initiative to investigate what was actually going on there.
Sure, when the boys were out on the town they seemed happy. But both inside the plant and at home, they were suffering harsh punishments as well as ridicule from the non-disabled men who made them the butt of every joke.
The managers exercised punishments to make the men work even harder. It started with banishing them to their rooms and forbidding them from listening to music, watching TV at home, or even going to church Sunday, and later developed into full-on physical and emotional abuse.
17. Heartwarming Comradery
The only thing the boys really had was each other. At times when they simply couldn’t take it anymore, they could count on their friendships to get them through the day. But, tragically, the next day wouldn’t be any better than the last.
As a form of punishment for not meeting the harsh work standards set by the management, Willie was ordered to put both his hands on a pole and not move a muscle. As he later proudly recounted to the NY Times, one of his buddies, Billy Penner, stood up for him: “He say: ‘you leave him alone. He say: ‘I’m going to deck you one!'”
18. The Penner Brothers
Billy and Robert found themselves in the Abilene State School for the simple reason that they became too much for their mother to handle, and like many others, they were put to hard labor in Henry’s Turkey Service by T.H Johnson.
They were originally from Amarillo, Texas. Their father was a truck driver and their mother was a housewife. As their older brother recalled in a New York Times article, one day he came back home and discovered that his brothers were simply gone, vanished without a trace.
19. In Sickness and in Health
During the decades of hard labor, some of the boys got sick. The managers, however, did not allow for proper sick day arrangements and made them work regardless of how severe their illnesses were. Gene recalled having to work while fighting throat cancer.
Even though he was undergoing chemotherapy and was feeling weak and nauseous, he still had to tend to the slaughtering of the turkeys. Years after he beat the disease, he told a New York Times reporter: “I threw up at my house and I threw up at work.”
Some men simply could not take it anymore and tried to make daring escapes. It was not an easy feat with no money and no one to help them once they were out. Gene tried to run away twice, but was caught and promptly brought back to his life of misery.
Another disabled worker named Alford Busby Jr., who worked unloading turkeys and had a severe limp, tried to escape during a January snowstorm in 1987. His runaway attempt ended in a tragedy that left the rest of the men terrified.
When one day Alford didn’t complete his job to his managers’ satisfaction, he was punished. He was put on lock-down in his room and not allowed TV. But Alford had enough of the abuse. “No, I’m not going to bed, I’m going to watch TV like everybody else,” he exclaimed.
Next thing everyone knew, Alford was gone. He disappeared into the blizzard. Officials searched for him everywhere, but his tracks had completely disappeared, everyone through that he made it out, that he was free. Three months later, poor Alford’s body was found in a nearby field. He froze to death while attempting to escape.
22. False Hopes
Throughout the 30 years of slave-like conditions, the men had one thing to hold on to—retirement. They were promised by Johnson and Henry that they would be taken care of and that the company was renovating one of the buildings on the Johnson Texas farm, just for them.
Of course, the renovation was done at the men’s expense with money deducted from their earnings. Nevertheless, the boys were excited and often would talk about the longed-for day, when they would finally get some rest and a little time to enjoy life.
23. Excuses and Lies
The renovation was never finished. There was no happy ending on a nice piece of land awaiting the boys of Atalissa. Henry made excuses and argued that the renovation got delayed because of his health problems and Johnsons’ death.
Some men, already too old to work, were sent to a different sort of retirement. The ones who didn’t have any place to go were put in a nursing home in Texas. Those not yet meriting retirement had to keep on working.
24. The System Failed
It is unclear how 30 years passed and no one had blown the whistle on the operation or ever did anything about the dire situation of the poor men of Atalissa. In 1974, right at the very start, the men’s misery could have been avoided.
There were suspicions regarding what was really happening at Johnson and Henry’s turkey plant from the moment it was built. An Iowa social worker made a review of the work conditions and labeled the business methods as “obscene,” but it changed nothing. There were a few similar instances throughout the three decades, but time and time again, no changes took place. Quite the contrary, things became worse…
25. New Management
As if things weren’t bad enough for the boys—they were getting old, the job was getting harder, and their physical conditions were deteriorating—management changes left them in the merciless hands of manager Randy Neubauer. He, like his predecessors, had no professional experience in dealing with the handicapped.
Neubauer really started pressing the boys hard, demanding they work faster and harder, even though they were simply unable to. When he got angry, he yelled at them abusively and sometimes even physically punched them. The company headquarters knew all about it, but still kept him in the position.
26. Help was About to Arrive
By 2008, working conditions were much worse than they were in 1974 when Henry’s Turkey Service was just getting started. The men were too old and the demands were getting too high. Management finally decided that the boys were no longer capable of delivering the amount of work necessary and planned to retire them all.
If it wasn’t for one inquisitive relative, the tragic story of the men would have never surfaced, and the managers, responsible for inflicting 30 years of misery and deprivation upon vulnerable mentally-disabled young men, would have gotten away with it.
27. The Whistle is Finally Blown
Just as the boys, now well into their 60s, were training the new employees how to slaughter turkeys, Sherri Brown, sister of an already-retired factory worker, noticed that her brother’s pension amounted to a total of $80. She was absolutely livid.
She called a reporter named Cliff Kauffman, and together the two made inquiries that led to the fateful day in which social worker Gonzalez finally walked into the school-house. She then liberated the now-old men and began to direct them towards the road to recovery.
28. A Lot of Work Ahead
As Gonzalez described the experience to a New York Times reporter, “It was like I just gave birth to 21 men.” She now had their fates in her hands. She told the men to pack up their stuff; they were out of there for good. Some of the men couldn’t hold back the tears. They looked for a private corner and broke down crying.
Their physical and emotional conditions were so terrible that it would take years to rehabilitate them, but each was assigned a social worker and was to undergo thorough medical and mental examinations. The next step was to help them find living arrangements in Waterloo, Iowa.
29. The Boys Go to Trial
Once reporters got a hold of what had been happening in Atalissa for three decades, a media frenzy ensued and regional attorney Robert Canino took on the case, promising the boys that he would do everything in his power to bring Kenneth Henry, Randy Neubauer, and other abusive managers to justice.
Canino began gathering testimonies from the boys and sued for emotional damage, arguing that the boys fell into the category of “loss of enjoyment of life.” The job was taxing for Canino and his heart broke hearing their stories. But the men were very supportive of him, and he of them, and they developed a very close relationship.
30. A Big Achievement
Henry and Neubauer took the stand and denied the allegations. They blamed each other and the now-dead Johnson. Neither men took responsibility for the parts they played in the operation. However, the prosecution was able to prove the extent of the abuse the men had undergone.
The jury’s heart went out to the boys and their verdict broke records in the history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with $240 million dollars in reparation awarded for a lifetime of slavery. Canino could not hold back his tears—this was a turning point for the disabled in the U.S., but as for the boys, they did not get to receive the sum that was awarded to them that day in trial.
31. Make Do with Less
First, the judge reduced the award to $1.6 million per victim, which is the maximum amount of compensation allowed by law in this type of case. But what eventually came out of the case was that every one of the boys was to get a mere $100,000 directly from Henry’s Turkey Service.
Canino wasn’t able to promise the boys that he would even be able to get the disappointingly low sum of money from the company. He believed that Henry’s Turkey Service would surely try to get out of it. However, the men were moved by Canino’s efforts and supported him in his relentless fight, hoping that he would one day prevail and they would get some semblance of retirement.
32. Life After Atalissa
The men have since dispersed to different places around the country, but many still live in Waterloo, Iowa, and try to make the best of their newfound freedom. Gene Berg enjoys his life of freedom, the occasional cookout, the nice surroundings, and most importantly—he’s far away from turkeys.
Every once in a while he writes and receives a letter from his mother in Kansas. He takes the bus to the local sheriff’s office, where he works as a dishwasher. His John Deere obsession is no longer just a hypothetical topic of conversation: Whenever the lawn needs mowing, Gene proudly maneuvers his very own John Deere lawnmower.
33. New Loves
During the Atalissa decades, the men could not develop any romantic relationship whatsoever. But Willie Levi decided to make up for lost time and has developed a romantic relationship with Rose Short, who also has a mental disability.
Since the rescue, he has undergone surgery for a damaged kneecap and is suffering from a few other health issues. As for family, he has no contact with them. However, he has his girlfriend who also shares his fondness for discussing birthdays.
34. Re-establishing Contacts
Billy and Robert Penner currently live together and support each other’s struggles with the traumatic memories of their pasts at Atalissa. Robert, the younger of the two, works in a pizza parlor, and Billy decided not to work at all. He said he had worked for too many years already.
Their parents are already dead, as well as their sister, but their older brother had made contact and even sent them old family pictures from their childhood and their days in the Abilene State School, long before they were sent to Henry’s Turkey Service.
35. A Brighter Future for the Mentally Challenged
The suffering of the Atalissa men altered the public consciousness regarding the civil and working rights of U.S. mentally disabled men and women. Since the boys’ rescue, more regulations and accommodations have been made to assure that such a tragic incident will never repeat itself.
The men have lost a huge chunk of their lives, but they remain positive, caring, and kind to the people around them. Their recovery was not by any means easy, but the lives they managed to build after so many years of brutal slavery are truly inspirational.
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