SANTEE — The name alone of San Diego County's Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital connotes an image of elderly patients aimlessly passing away their final days.
Add to that the underfunding and lack of attention paid to the former county poor farm in recent years, and the public view of Edgemoor is anything but positive.
But the strengths of Edgemoor--the staff (albeit overworked) and especially its resident patients--have weathered the years of neglect. And they are today rebounding under new attention.
The residents are taking more pride in themselves and their home. Individually, they have much in their past to reflect on favorably. Their backgrounds are occasionally extraordinary, often interesting, but never dull. All had productive careers and contributed much to the lives of those around them.
Through recollections from some of the patients, Edgemoor emerges far from a spiritless place of inactivity and becomes a diverse community of individuals--elderly and disabled--whom, for reasons both financial and medical, are able only to be cared for by the county.
\f7 The photographs that Norman Alfred Nelson takes these days are Polaroid snapshots of fellow residents at Edgemoor as they go about their daily routines.
But for more than a decade, through the 1950s and early 1960s, Nelson's subjects were glamorous movie stars posing for publicity photos for Paramount Pictures and later for some of the first issues of Playboy magazine. And for almost two decades prior to his Hollywood days, Nelson roamed the world for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, putting together military manuals with pictures of everything from proper troop formations to the correct method for taking apart and putting together rifles.
Popularly known as "Sergeant" to the many volunteer workers at Edgemoor, Nelson fondly recalled the late James Mason and Marilyn Monroe as particularly enjoyable.
"She (Marilyn Monroe) was very difficult (to work with) at first but she came around," said the 77-year old Nelson, a full shock of white hair accentuating his Scandinavian features. "She really didn't think she was perfect--but everyone else did."
Nelson grew up with what he called the "moving pictures" and remembered the various Hopalong Cassidy movies in particular. "Skipalong Hot Spurs, that was his nickname. I identified with the heroes, of course, but I also liked the villains because without them, we'd have no heroes."
Was Nelson ever in awe of the actors he positioned in locations ranging from the Mohave Desert to Cuba and Finland?
"No. The stars worked for me. Just like when I was in the Army, I had generals working for me." Nelson frequently had actors over for parties at his apartment but said the friendships didn't always prove beneficial. "My landlord found out I worked for Paramount and raised the rent. I guess sometimes it's not smart to let out too much information."
Nelson moves a little slower these days than when he globe-trotted, having been slowed by several strokes and blood clots. His memory fades at certain moments, as when he tries to recount his days at UCLA prior to leaving the Army in the late 1940s. But he still relates with animation his childhood in Coudersport, Pa., when his father--"a Swedish man who spoke eight languages"--presented his son with a 2x3 Brownie.
"My first picture was taken of my parents," Nelson said. Later, he studied art and composition in high school, first in Minnesota and later in Los Angeles, where his father moved in the late 1920s to work on a Norwegian-language newspaper.
Nelson joined the Army out of high school in 1934, but he still thinks about the Depression and the "many people who were starving."
"The Depression came with Herbert Hoover," Nelson said, and the experience indelibly linked Republicans with bad times, in his view. "They come to power, we have problems. I don't like them. Ronald Reagan? No, I never took his picture and I didn't vote for him."
Glenn Kellison has left his imprint on San Diego. The longtime carpenter placed the top railing on the 22nd floor of the San Diego Gas & Electric skyscraper in 1967. Kellison was the construction foreman for the Buffums department store in Fashion Valley, and he worked on the City Hall tower and the multistory garage at the downtown Community Concourse. He cut and nailed lumber to put up innumerable county schools during the boom days of educational growth in the 1950s.
Kellison has been in San Diego for 41 years, but the 75-year-old construction worker took a long time coming to California. His childhood in Lake Andes, S.D.--along the Missouri River in wheat and corn country--centered on horse riding.
"Knew how to ride a horse well by the time I was 5," Kellison said from his wheelchair at Edgemoor, where he has lived paralyzed from the neck down since suffering a serious auto accident in 1980. "By comparison, I've never rode a bicycle in my life.