The Remembrance Project: Ralph McPhee

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Ralph McPhee, legally blind and cognitively impaired, was a ward of the state of Massachusetts by the time he was 4.

"I’m assuming he was abandoned because of his disabilities and because of poverty," Meg Robertson posits. She first met Ralph when she worked for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind. He’d grown up in a series of state hospitals and, for a few years, in the Perkins School, where he learned braille. Decades of reassignment never diminished Ralph’s inner resources. He developed a gift for endearing himself.

Ralph McPhee (Courtesy Meg Robertson)
Ralph McPhee (Courtesy Meg Robertson)

"One of the things the records would say all the time was, 'Very friendly, very happy.' And so people would relate to that and look out for him," Meg remembers.

In the 1970’s, amid the rush of de-institutionalization, Ralph was discharged to the community. He lived in group homes and, eventually, his own proud apartment. He worked at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind for 10 years as a dishwasher, and traveled each Sunday to church on the T using his long cane. Life was full — there were historical books on tape, his day program, and of course, the Red Sox.

When he was in his 70’s, right before he broke a hip, Meg became Ralph’s legal guardian. "When I first became his guardian, when we’d go anywhere, he would introduce me as, 'She's my guardian!,' Meg recalls. "And he was really happy. He was so proud to have a guardian. It was a big deal for him."

They went out for breakfast every Saturday, taking turns on the bill, as he insisted. First it was Ralph and Meg, then Meg’s husband joined them, then Meg’s sister, then her friends.

"I’d go pick him up and he’d say, 'Is anyone else with you? Is Charlie with you? Is Ginny with you? Is Mary with you?' He loved being part of a group," Meg remembers. He’d made himself a family.

Ralph McPhee died last January in Wilmington, Massachusetts. He was 91 years old. His ashes were placed in a Red Sox urn. It’s quite possible that one day they’ll end up in Meg’s family plot.

Correction: An earlier version of this post, misspelled Meg Robertson's last name. We regret the error.

Did you know Ralph McPhee? Share your memories in the comments section. 

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Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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