Governor had ways of getting it done

The visitor managed to enter the state mental hospital in Sparks without fanfare. He strolled the halls without being noticed, then took a seat among the patients.

When curiosity got the better of one, he approached the stranger and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m the governor of Nevada,” Mike O’Callaghan said.

After processing the information for a moment, the patient replied, “We’ve got two or three other governors in here.”

The story was funny as O’Callaghan’s old friend Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently retold it. But the best part is, it was also true. As governor from 1971 to 1979, the pugnacious O’Callaghan wasn’t shy about pulling a surprise inspection at the overrun state mental hospital at Lake’s Crossing.

“If somebody complained about the care they were receiving or the food they were getting, he would see for himself,” Reid said. “He did this in Sparks. He would go to prisons. He was very, very good in that regard.”

Reid freely concedes being a champion and admirer of O’Callaghan’s legacy. O’Callaghan was Reid’s boxing coach and government teacher at Basic High. They later teamed up as governor and lieutenant governor from 1971 to 1975. Although their personal approaches to politics were very different, Reid fully appreciated his mentor’s dogged devotion to public duty.

O’Callaghan served as the state’s first director of health and welfare under Gov. Grant Sawyer. Throughout his life, and without self-aggrandizement, the devout Catholic fed the poor and championed the troubled. When he died of a heart attack while at Mass in 2004, Nevada lost a great friend.

And those seeking to improve this state’s sorry record of mental health treatment lost the closest thing they’ve ever had to a patron saint. In a recent interview with the staff of the Review-Journal, Reid lauded O’Callaghan’s focus on a subject that again has returned to embarrass the state. Widely published reports of state officials dumping mentally troubled patients in neighboring states have once again placed Nevada in a deserved negative light.

“My friend Mike O’Callaghan was really devoted to doing something about mental health in Nevada, and he did that during his eight years,” Reid said. “As soon as he left, it started going down again. Because it’s really easy to cut mental health, because they have no lobbyists. They have a few lefties out there screaming out in the wilderness, but there’s no support group for people who have children that are sick.”

A few days later Reid reflected, “They don’t have people sticking up for them now. And they didn’t have lobbyists then. But they had Mike O’Callaghan.”

O’Callaghan fought through two terms to improve the conditions and security at Lake’s Crossing and to expand government’s role in aiding the mentally ill throughout the state. Until the early 1970s, officials held persons it considered dangerously mentally deranged — even if they hadn’t been convicted of a crime — at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a governor who combined progressive politics with the tenacity of a U.S. Marine to force the Silver State out of the Dark Ages.

O’Callaghan challenged legislators to expand bed space and improve living conditions. He took time during his 1972 State of the State address to call for a secure, 32-bed facility to house the violently mentally ill. O’Callaghan appointee Roger Trounday would later recall, “We did not want to build a prison, but we had to have some kind of treatment program.”

Treatment instead of draconian incarceration: A novel concept in Nevada, where outdated facilities were reminiscent of a Victor Hugo novel.

The challenge at Lake’s Crossing and in Nevada generally in the early 1970s was one to which the state’s mental health insiders in 2013 can relate: By the time the expansion was complete, the facility was overwhelmed and out of date. But O’Callaghan cajoled and clobbered legislators into improving the state’s mental health outreach.

Reid said, “To think someone who has schizophrenia, they put him on a bus and send him some place, I’m not blaming this on anyone but the state of Nevada.”

Contrary to the relentless political baiting of Democratic Party operatives, the patient dumping scandal isn’t the full responsibility of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Even Sandoval’s pathetically slow reaction to it was in keeping with a long tradition. And Sandoval’s recent attempt to stanch the political blood flow by recommending changes in policies and an additional few million to the state’s paltry mental health budget isn’t out of character for a Nevada governor under public pressure.

Mike O’Callaghan didn’t fix the state’s mental health system, but he understood that mental illness wasn’t a leaky pipe or a flat tire. It’s a tragic challenge of the human condition.

The character of a society is judged by how it addresses that challenge. O’Callaghan didn’t wait for troubling headlines or political advice before displaying the courage of his convictions.

He was willing to fight the good fight. It’s what defined his character then — and what sets him apart now.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.