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THIS BAR MITZVAH BOY WAS ALREADY A MAN.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

They knew. They all knew how emotional this moment was for Gail Stillson. The tears in their eyes told her that.

Many of these people had supported her gut-wrenching decision more than four decades ago, while others thought she had been wrong. But it didn't matter anymore.

It was what it was, and for Gail Stillson standing in front of a microphone at her 43-year-old son's bar mitzvah party last month, it was the proudest moment of her life.

"Jeff, my first-born child, my first-born son. You are a truly amazing man," she began.

"As they say when you have a bar mitzvah, you become a man, but you reached that mark years ago. For the past 43 years, you have broken the mold for Down syndrome.

"You helped the medical advancements in amniocentesis, and you broke the barrier at Sutter Junior High and Canoga Park High by being the first student with Down syndrome to attend both schools and succeed.

"You are participating in university research studies for (the link between) Down syndrome and Alzheimer's so that others may reap the future benefits.

"You have participated in the Special Olympics in track and field, swimming, bowling, softball, basketball and soccer for the past 35 years, and each year you get better and better.

"You have had the same job at Goodwill Industries for 15 years and have improved in your productivity. You have volunteered weekly at the Jewish Home for the Aging, and you have read for the High Holiday services several times.

"Now, you have studied and worked hard for your bar mitzvah. Jeff, we are so proud of you and all your accomplishments. What mother could ask for anything more? I love you."

They knew. All the guests standing and clapping with tears in their eyes knew the story.

The pediatrician stood at the foot of Gail's hospital bed in 1964 and didn't mince words.

Her baby was not normal, he said. He was Mongoloid. Put him in a state hospital and try again for a normal child. Did she have any questions?

He used a word that seems so harsh and hurtful today, but was all too commonplace in talking about mentally challenged children 43 years ago. Gail asked the pediatrician one question.

Would her son be an idiot?

"I had taken a class in college where they said that all Mongoloids were idiots," she said Friday, watching Jeff stock some shelves at the Reseda Goodwill Industries shop.

"The doctor said, 'Yes, your son will be an idiot. Any more questions?' When I shook my head no, he walked out of the room. That was it. Goodbye."

There was a waiting list for the nearest state mental hospital in south Los Angeles, so Gail and her husband, Mel Pechter, took their son home and waited.

They would have two more "normal" children and later divorce but remain close. Gail married Alan Stillson.

"Mel became our baby sitter when Alan and I needed a break," Gail said. "Alan has been Jeff's stepfather for 24 years, and both men are a major, loving support in my son's life."

A week or so after Jeff came home from the hospital, Gail and Mel took a tour of the mental hospital that was to be their son's next home, probably for the rest of his life.

"There were no group homes or support systems back then. It was either the state mental hospital or trying to raise a child who would need constant care and watching the rest of his life at home."

It was a frightening choice and, candidly, Gail says some members of their family thought putting Jeff in a mental hospital would be the best thing for everyone.

"On the tour of the hospital, they showed us the worst of the worst," she said. "I was shocked at how horrible it was.

"When we left that day, they said they would give us a call when there was an opening.

"They never called."

The new governor of California, Ronald Reagan, was closing down state mental facilities, not opening new ones.

Would she have put Jeff in that mental hospital if the phone call had come? Gail doesn't even want to think of that possibility today.

"I just thank God for that waiting list," she said.

She won't lie. It's been a hectic, challenging 43 years raising Jeff, along with his two younger siblings, Howard, now 39, and Debbie, now 40, who always included their older brother in everything they did growing up.

"He's their big brother. They've always loved and protected him. They're proud of everything he has accomplished. We all are."

It was tough, though, holding down a job as a clerical worker at Kaiser Medical Center (until she retired last year), then rushing home to work another eight-hour shift caring for the needs of a Down syndrome child before he finally nodded off to sleep.

She had plenty of sleepless nights herself, and fights -- not with Jeff, but with a society slow to expel the ugly word "idiot" from its vocabulary when dealing with the mentally challenged.

"We had to fight to get him into just about everything -- schools, programs, social activities.

"Acceptance was very difficult 40 years ago, and still is sometimes.

"We were out just last week and two kids and their parents walked right up to Jeff and stood there staring at him. We stared back.

"I never know how deep it goes with him, don't know if he's aware of a lot of things. But I do know he loves parties, loves being around people and having fun."

Why the bar mitzvah now? Why not, Gail says.

"He has four nephews and one niece and they are getting older. They're going to be having their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvah. I wanted Jeff to have one, too."

So, in a room filled with family and friends who all knew the story, Gail Stillson stood in front of a microphone and told her 43-year-old bar mitzvah boy how much she loved him and how proud she was to call him her son.

What mother could ask for anything more?

dennis.mccarthy(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3749

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Gail Stillson hugs her son, Jeffrey Pechter, whom she raised at home despite a doctor's advice to put him in a state mental hospital.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 5, 2007
Words:1069
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