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Paul V. Coates -- Confidential File, July 25, 1959

July 25, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Confidential File

Fear, Ignorance Hard to Defeat

Paul CoatesThis is a very unlikely story about a minister whom everybody feared.

He was a kind, friendly man -- a dedicated worker for his church. In fact, his dedication was so great that he spent 31 years as a missionary in Burma.

But that's not where his story begins. The people in Burma trusted and loved him.

It wasn't until after he came back to the United States, to the community of Glendale, in 1946, that he became a victim of man's ignorance and superstition and fear.

In one terrifying day, about a year after his return here, he was forced to get out of his home, resign his job as director of missions for his church, and head for the state line as fast as he could.

His alternative was to wait for the authorities to come knocking on his front door to lead him off and lock him up.

The reason for his flight was a small red spot which appeared days earlier on his ankle.

On the day he fled, the spot was diagnosed by a doctor as Hansen's disease -- leprosy.

And it branded him as a dangerous public menace -- a man who must immediately be isolated, removed from society.

Today, I met the minister whom everybody feared. He's 71 years old now, retired, and back in the city of Glendale. His name is Clarence Olmstead.

He filled me in on what has happened since the day he ran scared for the Arizona border.

Drove to U.S. Leprosarium

"My wife was with me," he said, "and we drove straight to the U.S. Public Health Service Leprosarium in Louisiana. It's in Carville."

There, he related, the doctors didn't share the fear which gripped the "enlightened" state of California. They immediately granted him permission to drive his car to a brother's home in Illinois, suggesting that he return in about a week.

He did return. And he spent most of the next two years undergoing treatment -- until doctors established that his case was arrested.

Then he was released into society again.

With a touch of bitterness in his voice, the Rev. Mr. Olmstead told me, "When I arrived at Carville, the doctors agreed with me that if it weren't for the public's fear and the social stigma attached to Hansen's disease, I could just as easily have been treated in my own home and continued a normal existence. I could have been a breadwinner for my family.

Just Few, Simple Precautions

"The disease," he continued, "is the least communicable of all communicable diseases. With a few simple precautions, even when the disease is active, you can protect others."

But even when his case was proven arrested, Mr. Olmstead found out that society wasn't ready to accept a leper. (The term leper still makes the minister cringe. "The connotation is bad," he says. "It's a very nasty, vile word.")

"However, he told me, "since I was at Carville, there has been much improvement in public attitudes. California is just one of several states which have liberalized their isolation laws regarding Hansen's disease victims.

"If people could only be made aware of the pointlessness of herding leprosy victims out of society, if they only understood the hardship andheartbreak these separations are causing..."

His voice faded.

At 71, he's been around long enough to understand that progress is a slow process.