Photographer Barney Tull recently took this portrait of Francis for a veterans photo exhibition.Francis is pictured here with his eldest daughter Erica around the time he earned his master’s degree from USC.

Upstate social worker remembers late ’70s on Bull Street

William Buchheit's picture
By: 
William Buchheit

When he went for his interview at the SC State Hospital, Melton Francis made one crucial mistake. He left his pack of cigarettes visible in his shirt pocket. It wasn’t that anyone interviewing him cared that he smoked -- in 1977 you could light up just about anywhere. The problem was the patients saw the cigarettes and wanted them. Thus, Francis found himself the center of attention when he toured the female wards of the Babcock Building after his interview. “It was a little unnerving for me because there were two or three women in restraints tied to the bed and the others were walking around like zombies,” he recalls. “They just started surrounding me – grabbing at my pants and grabbing at my pockets. It took two social workers and a couple of orderlies to get them away from me.” When he returned to the administration office, Francis made one thing clear. If he was hired, he wanted to work on the male wards. They said they’d call him about the job in a week or two. Instead, they called him back at eight the next morning and told him he had it. And so began Francis’ two year stint as one of the hospital’s few Master’s level social workers. His road to Bull Street had been a long one. After graduating Spartanburg High in 1967, he enrolled at Wofford College. But poor academic performance his freshman year made him a prime target of the US draft board. Choosing to exercise what little control of his fate he still possessed, Francis enlisted in the Air Force and soon flew to Vietnam to work as an aircraft mechanic. He returned to the US in 1969 and was back on the Wofford campus two years later. This time, he excelled academically, graduating in 1973 and marrying his wife Lisa the following year. Struggling to find work, the couple decided to move to Columbia and enroll at USC, he in the graduate school and she in an undergraduate program. In May of 1977 Francis earned a master’s degree in Social Work. He took the job at the state hospital the following month. Working the Wards Francis’ office was on the same hall as the other high-level social workers, in the central administration section of the colossal Babcock Building. His usual caseload consisted of roughly 12-18 patients. “I was the intake social worker for the admission ward on the men’s side (of Babcock),” he says. “As patients would come into the facility, I would have to go back and talk to them before they were medicated and get a feel for what was going on with them. After I talked to them, I would call their family and do a complete social history on them to find out what was going on with them at home.” After that initial meeting, Francis would check in often with his patients throughout the course of their stay, which generally lasted between six weeks to six months. Typically, doctors would place patients in the admission ward 3-5 days then move them to a locked ward and finally to an open (or unlocked) ward before discharging them. “I was back on those wards every day checking on those guys,” he says. “Some of the stuff I saw there was just unbelievable. One such incident was a rare group escape from one of the hospital’s locked wards one morning. “I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow knocked the bars and windows out on the second floor (of Babcock),” recalls Francis, who’d been on Bull St. just three weeks at the time of the escape. “There were about 8-10 of them, and they all jumped out of those windows. One broke his ankle and another one got bruised up real bad so the two of them were just lying there. But the other 6-8 … they left the grounds.” Twenty minutes later, a fellow Bull St. social worker rounded up the unruly gaggle at the bus station a few blocks away. “I was told any time anybody leaves the hospital, whether they escape or walk off the grounds or whatever, they always go to the bus station trying to catch a bus to go back home,” Francis explains. Most Memorable Patients Of the many patients with whom Francis worked, two men particularly stick out. The first was a Charleston attorney that suffered from manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. Francis says each time the lawyer would sense a manic episode coming on, he’d drive to Bull St. and commit himself. “By the time we all met with him, he would be in a total manic state and you really couldn’t talk to him,” explains the retired social worker. “He would just be going a mile a minute about antiques, about how he was going to sue for the release of every patient in the hospital, about how he was going to set up a practice in the hospital...It’s funny because, every time he was there, the other patients would tell me they had a lawyer who was working to get them out.” The other patient that left such an impression on Francis was a middle-aged African American whom Francis describes as “sophisticated” and “very outgoing.” A dozen years earlier, the man had killed his landlady but been declared “incompetent to stand trial.” He was sent to the state hospital under the condition that he go before a judge every three months for a competency hearing. Like clockwork, the patient would start behaving strangely the week before the proceeding, talking to himself and reporting visual and auditory hallucinations. “The court would always rule him unfit for trial and then he would get back to the hospital and be fine,” Francis remembers. “He told me, ‘It’s a lot easier being here in the hospital than in jail. When I’m here I can go outside, I can walk on the grounds when I want. I can go to the commissary. They take me on field trips. They take us to the movies now and then...In jail I can’t do any of that.’” Francis also saw several patients admitted to the hospital for “alcohol induced psychosis.” Typically, these men were fine once they sobered up and usually earned release in a few weeks. The problem, of course, was keeping them sober once they were out. The retired social worker remembers one alcoholic who returned to the hospital drunk as a goat. He told the staff that he hadn’t touched any liquor or beer but did take an occasional sip of Listerine. His breath was fresh but his blood-alcohol content was 0.35 percent, roughly four times the legal limit. A Revolving Door Of course, patients didn’t need substance abuse problems to make return trips to Bull Street. Francis estimates between 80-85 percent of the patients he worked with returned to the hospital back in the grips of severe mental illness. He blames two trends for that revolving door. The first is that, by the time he arrived at the state hospital, the place was fully in the process of deinstitutionalization. As a result, doctors were releasing patients prematurely. “They were wanting to get everybody either to a halfway house or back home,” Francis recalls. “I thought it was a very bad idea.” The second contributor to so many readmissions was that patients invariably stopped taking their medications once they were back in their communities. “The primary thing that I saw was that a lot of them were able to get an apartment and a job and everything. But they would end up back in the hospital because they’d say they couldn’t afford the apartment, food AND the medication,” Francis explains. “So they would let go of the medication because they felt ok. It was a financial thing for most of them. They just couldn’t afford it.” Suffice it to say, some of those cases had tragic endings. One patient Francis had worked with returned to the hospital in a full-blown rage. The retired social worker describes the man as a giant, about 6’6 and weighting between 350-400 lbs. When staff were unable to pacify or tranquilize him, they locked him in a seclusion room (“rubber room”) naked so that he couldn’t hang himself with an article of clothing. He committed suicide anyway. “What he did was he got on one side of the room and he put his head down,” Francis recalls. “And he ran and just bashed his head into the door as hard as he could. It just crushed the vertebrae in his neck, and it killed him instantly right there in that room.” The only other suicide that took place in Babcock during Francis’ time there was a man in the admission ward who somehow got hold of a web belt, the kind used in the military. “He crawled under his bed one night, put that belt around his neck and he physically pulled that thing until it crushed his throat and he died there underneath that bed,” says Francis. Salaries and Celebrity Siblings Financially, the ‘70s were a tough decade on Bull Street. In 1973, SC DMH Director William S. Hall told the SC Budget & Control Board that the hospital would lose its accreditation if they didn’t double staff. The situation remained dire even after the hospital’s patient population fell to 1,840 by 1975, less than half its total a dozen years earlier. “They had to fight for every penny they got,” says Francis, who alleges there was a 100 percent turnover rate among nurses while he was there. It’s a staggering statistic; but on Bull St., the jobs were tough and the pay terrible. Even with a Master’s in Social Work, Francis earned just $700 per month, an amount grossly insufficient once he and Lisa welcomed their first child into the world. “If the pay had been better, I would have stayed there,” he admits. “The people working at the state hospital while I was there were pretty well dedicated to our patients and wanted them to get the help they wanted to succeed.” Two of his best friends there even had famous siblings. Helen Danner, the hospital’s chief of social work, was the older sister of actress Blythe Danner (TV’s “Will and Grace,” “Meet the Parents”). Meanwhile, psychologist Mike Conroy was the brother of bestselling author Pat Conroy (“The Prince of Tides,” “Lords of Discipline”). “I had no clue that Mike was his brother,” Francis explains. “I was sitting in my office one day and Mike walked in and threw a paperback copy of ‘The Great Santini’ on my desk. He said, ‘You need to read this book. It’s about a Marine pilot that is my dad.’” Francis even got to meet the man who inspired that famous novel, Colonel Donald Conroy, when he came to Babcock one day to pick his son up for lunch. Francis informed him that he’d served overseas in the Air Force, and the two men spent several minutes talking shop about planes. Ironically, around the same time, Warner Brothers began shooting the film version of “The Great Santini” in Beaufort. It starred Robert Duvall in the lead role and none other than Blythe Danner as his loyal but overmatched wife. Back to the Air Force Unfortunately, the long and short of it is that Francis’ salary on Bull St. just wasn’t sufficient for a family of three. Knowing his predicament, a grad school friend recommended he return to the Air Force and gave him the number of a recruiter in Charlotte. The recruiter came to the state hospital to interview him and, within weeks, Francis was back in the Air Force. His pay went from $700 a month to almost $2,400. “You just can’t say no to that,” he admits. Francis climbed to the rank of Captain by 1981 and moved to Kansas a decade later after McConnel AF Base was leveled by a devastating string of tornadoes. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 but decided to stay in Kansas, living in the small town of Derby. After leaving the service, he spent the next 17 years returning to social work, helping special-ed kids in in the Derby public school system. Today, Francis is fully retired and residing just a few miles from Wichita, a city with a growing homeless population. Seeing so many struggling souls living on the street makes him lament the death of our nation’s giant psychiatric hospitals. After all, from 1977-1979 he witnessed the curative powers of such places firsthand. “The people you now see on the street are the ones who used to seek inpatient treatment in the state hospital system,” he explains. “I think that system offered a good alternative for a lot of people, especially the lower economic class. It gave them a safe place where they could get effective treatment.”

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