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The Other Dale Evans
By Dick Sobsey
Like lots of other folks who grew up watching Roy and Dale, along with Trigger Nellybelle and a bunch of other neat stuff on Saturday mornings, I was saddened to hear that Dale Evans left this earth. But the autographed copy of her book Angel Unaware in my office and limited edition Roy and Dale 50th anniversary plate that hangs in our living room make it pretty clear that I was a little bigger fan than most.
For me and thousands of other people like me, Dale's greatest contribution wasn't her songs, or singing voice, or those old shows, although I liked them all a lot, too, Dale touched our lives in a much more important way because we were parents of kids with developmental disabilities. A lot of us believe that Dale Evans set us free, and I would have to say that I agree with that at least to a point.
Of course, Dale was a parent of child with a disability, too. Robin Elizabeth was born on August 26, 1950. She had Down syndrome and she only lived for a couple of years. But, Robin Elizabeth had a profound effect on Roy and Dale, and what transformed Dale changed the rest of the world in a pretty big way.
You see, before that time, few parents had the courage to admit to having a "retarded" child.
In pre-war North America, the powerful eugenics movement blamed such things on bad stock, and most people were pretty quick to believe children like Robin Elizabeth were a burden on society. In the 1940s, prominent Canadian psychiatrist C.B. Farrar, one of the experts used for quality control of institutions here in Alberta, wrote an editorial suggesting that we kill all of these children when they reach age five, and very few people dared to raise their voices in disagreement. The eugenics and euthanasia movements lost a lot of their appeal after people saw how those programs were implemented by the Nazis. Many parents still loved their children who had disabilities and kept them at home, but few had the courage to admit it publicly.
Three women did a lot to change that. These three courageous mothers were Dale Evans, Rose Kennedy, and Pearl S. Buck. Buck did not acknowledge the existence of her daughter early in her career, but later followed the lead of the other two and came out of the closet.
Rose Kennedy certainly deserves a part of the credit, but in my opinion, it was Dale Evans 1953 book "Angel Unaware" that made the biggest difference. The royalties from the book were donated to what was then the National Association for Retarded Children, but Dale's contribution was much more than just financial.
It is only a little book and it started pretty out humbly with a small run. By its twenty-fourth printing it had sold 660,000 copies and the hard cover version still sold for $1.00. The book is still selling well, even though the paperback version now costs $8.99. It has been read by millions. The book is deeply religious and is written as an imagined conversation between Robin Elizabeth, who is returning to heaven after a two-year mission on earth, and God.
The foreword that Dale wrote for the original edition describes it in
this way:This is the story of what a baby girl named Robin Elizabeth
accomplished in transforming the lives of the Roy Rogers family. (p.7)
She goes on to say:
In this instance, both Roy and I are grateful to God for the privilege of learning some great lessons from his tiny messenger. (p.7)
What followed was an intensely personal account of spiritual growth that Dale believed was the result of her parenting experience.
As much as the lives of the Roy Roger's family were transformed by Robin Elizabeth, Dale's book transformed a lot of other families. For some of those folks, that transformation might have been spiritual like it was for Dale, for others it was just down to earth. For all of us who are parents to kids with serious disabilities, however, Dale's work made a difference in how we fit into the world even for those who don't realize it.
Some people find the book too steeped in Christianity and others feel that describing her daughter as an angel and not just a regular kid just created another stereotype. For me, the important thing is that Dale Evans made being the parent of a child with a disability something to be proud of and I am extremely grateful for that.
Last year I had a chance to write a father's day article that discussed Roy and Dale, and a lot of media picked up the story and ran it. I was thrilled to get over four hundred e-mails, letters, and phone calls about the article.
Most of what people wrote about was more about what Dale Evans and Roy Rogers had meant to their family than about my article. One told me about a man with Down syndrome who visited the Roy Rogers Museum and the personal attention that he had gotten from Roy. Many others told me how their mothers used to sing Happy Trails to You or how Dale's book had helped their parents feel proud of their brothers and sisters with disabilities. More than one had been named after Dale because of the inspiration that she had been to their mothers.
When Dale Evans had the strength of character to speak proudly of having a child with a developmental disability, she blazed a trail through a frightening wilderness for other parents. Most of us traveling down that trail don't give a lot of thought to the woman who created it. Many don't even know who made that path. Those of us who know who travel this trail and how much harder life might be without it are extremely thankful.
Some say that when Dale Evans sang Happy Trails to You, until we meet
again she was thinking about her reunion with Robin Elizabeth in heaven. I
know that she had great faith and firmly believed that they would be reunited
there. I wish I could be as sure Dale was about life after death, but I sure
hope that she is right. If Dale did pass on a better place when she left this
one the other day, she might tell God the story of how she transformed people's
lives just as she imagined Robin Elizabeth telling hers. If so, I suppose she
might finish it in the same way
"And now, Father, please could I just go out and test my wings?"
Dick Sobsey, Director
JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre
University of Alberta
6-123 Education North
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2G5 Canada
phone: (780) 492-3755
fax: (780) 492-1318
Please feel free to share this short message with anyone who might be interested. You are more than welcome to repost this to others. I grant non-exclusive copyright clearance to publish this in any newsletter, magazine, or newspaper that wants to use it. While it is not a requirement, I would appreciate being informed of where it is published.
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