LEND Trainee Adviser, Guy Caruso, PhD, Reflects on His Relationship with Wolf Wolfensberger

From 1971 to 1973, I was an assistant special education teacher in a Long Island, New York (US) self-contained junior high school classroom for children labeled emotionally disturbed. My job was to teach the students in a segregated classroom on the same floor as non-disabled students, follow them (called “bird dogging”) as they went to different parts of the school for segregated activities (e.g., gym, lunch, school events–where they sat with one another), and participate in non-academic endeavors like playing table games and ping-pong. As I remember, these students started their day later and ended earlier than the non-disabled students. I was married with one very young child and another on the way. To make ends meet, I coached junior high gymnastics, helped with evening recreational programs at the school, and started a house painting business.

This all changed when my fraternity brother, Mark Sanderson, called from Syracuse, New York, to tell me about an opportunity at Syracuse University, where he had started a graduate program in Rehabilitation Counseling that paid for your courses and provided a modest stipend as well. He went on to say that he was taking courses from and working for a new professor, Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger. Mark said that Wolfensberger was just amazing with what he had to say and that it would be a great opportunity for me to do graduate school at Syracuse, as well as study with Wolfensberger.

My wife and I drove to Syracuse from Long Island in the winter of 1973 for an interview with the head of the Rehabilitation Counseling Department at Syracuse University. We left the baby at home with my wife’s parents (the first time we were away from the baby) and drove the six plus hours in our Datsun to Syracuse in ever increasing snow. Just before getting to Syracuse we slid off the road, hitting a road marker pole and denting our car, jarring us to the reality of western New York in the winter, but we continued to drive.

We met Mark, caught up and talked about Wolfensberger. I had my interview, and against Mark’s serious advice, began the journey back to Long Island. By this time the snow had increased, and our six hour drive home became 12 hours of white-knuckled driving in blinding snow, past large snowplows turned over on the side of the road. All rest stops were full, and no hotel rooms were available as we soldiered on to get home to our baby.

A few weeks later we heard that I was accepted to the graduate program. Now it was decision time. Could we afford to make this move away from family, on a small stipend, with a second baby on the way? Although I could not land a full-time teaching position in my area of study, social studies, we were making ends meet (barely), and my house painting business was really taking off with some high-end jobs. Stay or go, stay or go, comfort and predictability versus discomfort and unpredictability. My father, who only had an eighth grade education, had always said education is the ticket to ride, and that became my mantra–further your education. So off we went to Syracuse on a hope and a prayer. We moved into student housing and started this new episode of our lives.

When I signed up for my rehabilitation courses, I made sure to take Wolfensberger’s Normalization course (which was not in the Rehabilitation program), as Mark had suggested. Meeting Wolf for the first time in class I was taken by his German accent, how serious and passionate he was about the topic of Normalization, and the rigor he expected from his students. This was no easy course. Wolf had us read his Normalization book, as well as choose other books to read. For each reading, we had to put pertinent information and a summary on index cards. We had papers to write and there was much discussion in class. Often Wolf was not in class as he was off training on Normalization in New York and elsewhere around the nation. He would have doctoral students (often Bernie Graney) teach for him, which really annoyed me as I had signed up for the course to hear and to learn from Wolf. When he was in class what he presented challenged all my beliefs about disability. I was not going to be easily convinced of his message and different way of looking at the world of disability and services to people with disabilities.

The class ended and I received a C. I scheduled an appointment with Wolf to advocate for a B and to share my concern with his grading. I went to his office, and remember he almost always used one’s last name when referring to them. Here is where it all began–“Well Caruso, why don’t you attend a few of my workshops and we will see about your grade”–said the spider to the hapless fly. What could I do other than ask, “when are the next workshops?”

So, I signed up for a Normalization and PASS workshop, I believe in Rochester, New York. This workshop was above and beyond my Rehabilitation Counseling courses, took me away from my family, was exhausting … and life changing. I loved the Normalization event and all that I learned from Wolf and the other presenters. Then straight off to the PASS event, applying what we learned at the Normalization event to two service settings. PASS was exhilarating in that you saw real life and made judgements about the quality of service, as well as came up with ideas and practices that might improve the lives of the people being served. I had never been to a more demanding, exhausting, challenging event in my life, with long hours and little sleep. The expectations were clear: to be a professional and to stand by the side of people with disabilities, one must be up to the challenge to bring about change in any service approaches that were counter to the well-being of the people served. I was hooked. Not only did I attend other Normalization/PASS workshops, I was asked to be an assistant team leader, a report writer (numerous times), and then a team leader. Eventually, I became a Normalization presenter, PASS workshop coordinator, and a PASS floater (overseeing the work of a few teams at a PASS event). Of course I attended all of the varied workshops Wolf offered in-state and sometimes out, often in a presenter role, learning the material verbatim as Wolf intended it to be presented, with little room for creativity or ownership of the material until you had mastered it to Wolf’s satisfaction. One would practice presenting before workshops, using Wolf’s materials, often with him or other associates in attendance; listen to tapes of previous events; be interrupted by Wolf for corrections; and afterwards be debriefed as to how you did. An extremely rigorous and effective learning process. 

Being associated with Wolf did not always sit well with the Rehabilitation Counseling faculty as they seemed challenged by his message and different paradigm than they were working from. Wolf’s teaching fired me up.

Wolf not only became my mentor, he watched out for me in other ways as well, especially as I now had two babies and a wife to care for. He learned that I had been a house painter and paid me to paint the inside and outside of his home during the school year and summer months. Also, he had me do yard and gardening work.

During the school year, Wolf often had holiday gatherings or special guest visits at his and his wife Nancy’s home where they entertained lavishly with wonderful food and drink, allowing doctoral and graduate students to mingle, relax, laugh, sing songs, and put on skits, etc. Hospitality was central to what Wolf practiced and shared with us.

One summer he was able to get me a paid internship at Wassaic State School (an institution for people with intellectual disabilities) near Poughkeepsie, New York, where I worked for the summer in the educational training department teaching Normalization to the institution administration and staff. This institutional experience again was life changing, as it was easy to read about the horrors of institutions, and so much more difficult to see, smell and feel the horrors first-hand as I did at Wassaic. Wolf ignited my social justice fire, as one could hardly work in an institution armed with Normalization and PASS information, and not be incited to riot and become a change agent. I am forever grateful to Wolf for providing me this opportunity.

The life of a graduate student is not always easy, especially as I was doing additional non-credit course work with all my Wolf activities in presenting, leadership and related activities. It is not easy for one’s spouse either, especially with an absentee husband and two babies to raise. We separated at the end of my graduate program. I took a job at an ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) program a few hours away, where I was able to practice and implement all that I had learned from Wolf in vocational and residential services, as well as teach Normalization at a community college. My wife and I reunited, and a year later Wolf hired me for the Pennsylvania Evaluation Project (PEP), a Pennsylvania Office of Mental Retardation funded program overseen by Mel Knowlton, a former employee of Wolf. Mel was now in charge of residential services for people with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania. For PEP, we conducted official PASS evaluations of programs (mostly residential) and even entire human service systems to assess the quality of services. PEP involved leaders from around the United States and Canada as team members for these assessments. PASS reports were written on each program or service visited. There was so much work to be done that Wolf suggested we wear headlamps so we could start writing our reports in the car, driving home from evaluations in Pennsylvania to Syracuse.

While working for PEP, my two young sons sometimes come to the office to visit and they always asked, “Can we visit the Candy Man?” I was not quite sure what they meant until I saw Wolf open his desk drawer and give the boys some candy. To this day, years after Wolf’s death, my eldest sons still fondly refer to Wolf as the Candy Man.

Wolf introduced me to L’Arche Syracuse, and I became board president for many years. Wolf was one of the founders of L’Arche Syracuse and was very influenced by the recently deceased Jean Vanier. Also, Wolf introduced me to the concept of Citizen Advocacy, and I have been in a life-long relationship with a man I met through the ARC and Citizen Advocacy. Wolf believed in personalism, and because of what he taught and practiced I am still friends/family with a man I met during my internship at Wassaic State School back in 1975.

One aspect of Wolf that many people do not know about is his love for Christmas. He would sneak up to your house, ring the doorbell and then run. When one opened the door, there was a package filled with candy and pastry goodies which I am sure Wolf’s wife Nancy, an excellent cook, had prepared for us.

One of the activities I enjoyed doing in the summer in upstate New York was to organize whitewater rafting trips for a group of friends. We would spend a great day on the water, experience some class three and maybe four whitewater, and then end the day with beers and a steak cookout prepared by the rafting company. On a whim I asked Wolf if he’d like to join us and to my complete surprise he said yes, and even invited his grown daughters to join us. I never imagined Wolf in for a strenuous day on the water, paddling, getting out for a cold swim, splashing other rafts, possibly falling out of a raft in fast and often dangerous whitewater, but he was more than up for it. He would have the six people in the raft, including a guide, singing German river songs, and performing Busby Berkeley water routines when we got out of the raft for a swim. Wolf loved the excitement and rigorous paddling when we had to stay upright and afloat in dangerous whitewater. Best of all was Wolf’s ability to talk with the guides and to make the day entirely fun. He loved the end of the trip when he could drink a cold beer and scoff down a great steak dinner with all the fixings. He came on at least three such trips and thoroughly enjoyed the day as we enjoyed his fine company.

Many people do not know Wolf was very much into saving items that students and others threw out at the end of the college year. Way before environmental and now sustainability concerns were fashionable, Wolf was as usual ahead of the curve. He would salvage whatever items were deemed useable and donate them to places in need of such items. Wolf particularly loved salvaging chairs, even if they needed repair, which he would store on the third floor of the Training Institute in Syracuse. I was honored with the title Chairman of the Training Institute … meaning I fixed chairs that needed repair.

Sometimes Wolf’s saving of things might have gone overboard, as candies and other food items that seemed clean would be saved. At one meeting he had everyone take a hard candy out of a questionable tin and eat it. I adamantly refused to partake of such candies. After some good humor and joking Wolf said to me–“If you love me Caruso, you will eat a candy.”

Thank you Wolf for all the hard and good times, for lighting a fire under me for justice, and for all the wonderful memories.