Former Willowbrook State School Resident Donates Memoir to CSI Library’s Willowbrook Archive

August 1, 2019

Henry Geller (seated, center) with members of the CSI and HeartShare communities, and members of the Willowbrook Mile Project

The Willowbrook Archives at the College of Staten Island’s Library received a welcome and enlightening addition yesterday when former Willowbrook State School resident Henry Geller donated his self-published book, Henry Geller: A Memoir to the collection. The book examines his time at the notorious warehouse for the developmentally disabled, and his fascinating life after he left.

Geller was born in 1946 and was placed in Willowbrook in 1950, remaining there until 1967. After residing in group homes for many years, in 2010, he eventually moved to the Subbiondo I Residence of HeartShare, a nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in Bayside, Queens. Geller eventually worked part-time job at a Bronx newsstand and then took on a full-time job, serving as a messenger and clerk for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission until he retired in 1999.

In attendance at the event were Geller, and members of the CSI and HeartShare communities, as well as members of the WIllowbrook Mile Committee, which is developing an educational and fitness walking trail through the three distinct campuses that were created from the original 383 pastoral acres that were once the Willowbrook State School.

CSI Executive Director of Institutional Advancement and External Affairs Cheryl Adolph accepted the book on behalf of the College, and introduced CSI Vice President for Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations Ken Iwama, who noted the welcome change of attitude toward the significance of Willowbrook on behalf of the College under current President William J. Fritz, “Instead of ignoring it, now we embrace it, and we all embrace it together.”

Evelyn Alvarez, Associate Executive Director, Developmental Disabilities Services at HeartShare, discussed her 35-year history with Geller and the positive ways that others at HeartShare viewed him, as well as his exceptional expertise in navigating the city as a messenger.

Geller, who preferred to take the subway to make his deliveries, added that he is most proud of the fact that he never used a subway map to get around.

The CSI Library’s Willowbrook Archive collects material documenting the history of the Willowbrook site prior to and during its use as a state school; the experiences of the school residents and staff, and the activities of parents and caregivers who brought about the closing of the school; and secondary source materials that analyze the legal significance of the Willowbrook Consent Judgment and its role in the history of self-advocacy and the group home movement.

CSI continues its dedication to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities through its participation in AHRCNYC’s Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program, which provides the first, fully inclusive college experiences for non-matriculated students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at CSI, and Creative Exchange, which serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a non-degree program with ongoing educational offerings through the College. In addition, CSI hosts the annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, and is a partner, along with the Institute for Basic Research, the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities and Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council (SIDDC) in the Willowbrook Mile Project.