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Dessie Lola Bailey

At a glance:

Born: August 7, 1918, Burlington, Colorado
Died: November 28, 1999, Bremerton, Washington
Maiden Name: Bassette
Race/nationality/ethnic background: Caucasian 
Married: Elbert “Al” Bailey
Children: two (one son, one daughter)
Primary city and county of residence and work: Las Vegas (Clark County)
Major fields of work: volunteer work with mentally handicapped children
Other role identities: wife, mother

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Biography:

Dessie Bassette was born on August 7, 1918 of Henry and Sarah Bassette in Burlington, Colorado, the  seventh of eight children. The family worked a hardscrabble prairie farm in Kit Carson County in the east central part of the state, adjoining the Kansas border. 

Farm life was difficult for the young girl. From the age of six, Dessie herded cattle from horseback every day, winter and summer, to help the farm sustain her large family. When she was only eleven, the country was suddenly sucked into the Great Depression. Farm prices fell by more than 50 percent during the early years of the Depression; and just as farmers like the Bassettes were beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel, a severe drought hit the Great Plains states. Savage dust and wind storms ravaged the area that would become known as the “Dust Bowl.” Henry Bassette’s farm was caught right in the middle of these twin hells.

Dessie graduated from the eighth grade when she was thirteen, the valedictorian of her class. But as most of her classmates headed to high school, Dessie was forced to find work to help support her struggling family. With no jobs available, she went from farm to farm earning pennies by milking cows, doing housework and gardening, and performing whatever chores were assigned to her. She earned from $2.50 to $3.00 a week, a small sum but just enough to keep her family’s sagging fortunes from going completely under.

In the mid-1930s Dessie older sister, Mary, moved to Las Vegas. Mary’s letters home were brimming with the excitement of life in the “big city;” so in 1937 Dessie went for a visit. She had just turned eighteen. A new law had just been passed in Las Vegas setting a minimum daily wage of $3.00 for women. It didn’t take the valedictorian long to calculate that she could make as much in one day as she had been earning in a week in Colorado; and she decided to remain in Las Vegas with her sister.

Las Vegas had grown to about 8,000 people, and despite the Depression, jobs were plentiful. Dessiebailey family found a position at the Vegas Sweet Shoppe at 111 Fremont Street, and she settled happily into her new home. By July 1938 she had met and married Elbert “Al” Bailey, who had a good job with the Nevada State Highway Department; and the young couple began building a new life.  They bought their first small home at 711 Sixth Street; and in 1944 their first child, a son, Patrick, was born. Three years later, a beautiful daughter, Claudia, joined the family.

 The joy in the Bailey household was short-lived. After only a few months, Dessie could tell that her baby daughter was “different.” She was slow to respond, often lethargic, and her almond-shaped eyes didn’t focus well.  Local doctors weren’t able to tell the Baileys what was wrong with their daughter, so the couple took the child to a specialist in Long Beach, California. There, Dessie and Al learned that Claudia had an “intellectual disability,” according to the doctor, and would never be normal. Thus began what would become a lifelong campaign for Dessie Bailey to find a place in the community for her child and others suffering from mental disabilities. It would also mark the genesis of what would eventually become Opportunity Village, the Las Vegas organization that is today one of the most highly regarded and unique not-for-profit centers in the nation for those suffering from mental retardation.

Claudia was a Down Syndrome child, one of about 3 percent of American children born with an intellectual disability. Today our country is enlightened regarding mental and physical disabilities, but in the late 1940s things were very different. Mental retardation was known then as “the hidden disability.” Its young victims—boys and girls like Claudia—were generally isolated behind closed doors. It was the black, shameful era when the mentally retarded were used as guinea pigs to test the promising new Salk poliovirus vaccine, or fed radiation poisoning to test human reaction to that deadly killer. But voices like Nobel Prize winning author Pearl Buck and cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, both parents of mentally handicapped children, also emerged at this time; and it was this latter group of heroes that Dessie Bailey would soon join.

A quiet, unassuming couple, the Baileys did their best to love and protect young Claudia as she grew from infancy. Al now worked with the railroad, and was away a lot; so most of the care giving fell to Dessie.  As little Claudia neared school age, Dessie began searching the community for a school where her daughter’s special needs could be met. But it was a futile search, as public schools in the early 1950s were not required to serve children with either mental or physical disabilities. Dessie Bailey simply would not accept that fact, so she rounded up a few other local families with mentally handicapped children and they began to talk.

The National Society for Crippled Children, founded in 1921 and now the Easter Seal Society, was the first support organization for physically handicapped children. Dessie and her group arranged for a chapter to be established in Las Vegas in 1949; but this first step did not go well. When the new group held their first clinic, the doctors refused to see two of the children—including Claudia—who had Down Syndrome. Unbelievably, one of the doctors even made fun of the two children. Those members who children were mentally handicapped immediately dropped out of the organization; and they founded their own private association, the Clark County School for the Handicapped (CCSH). Dessie Bailey, a person who preferred to work in the background, refused the post of president, and served instead on the first board of directors. As the years would pass, however, and the fight continued, Dessie did step to the forefront and became the official leader—as well as the spiritual leader—of the organizations she helped foster. With CCSH established, good things began to happen, but the group badly needed some financial assistance.

Contact was made with the local chapter of the Variety Club, an organization of hotel executives and entertainers, and the timing was perfect. Variety Club was searching for a local charity to support, and in no time a partnership was formed for the sole purpose of raising funds to build a school for mentally handicapped children. A fundraiser, “Night of Stars,” was staged, featuring such big-name luminaries as Jane Froman, Dennis O’Keefe and Eddie Bracken; and soon the school fund was swelling. Dessie and Al arranged for the city to donate a 5.5-acre parcel of land for the school, and soon construction was underway. Nobody has been more active in bringing the plan to reality than Dessie; but she was about to learn the true meaning of disappointment.

CCSH had grown. Some parents of physically handicapped children had become active in the group as well, and they were welcomed with open arms. Just before the school was to open, the board of directors met; anddeclaring that the school was too small to accommodate both mentally and physically handicapped children,  they voted to limit the school to handicapped children that were “intellectually educable.” This disqualified most of the mentally handicapped children, including Claudia Bailey, even though their parents had initially launched the project.  The Baileys were devastated. But Dessie was not a quitter and she continued working as a board member for what would become the Variety Club School for Special Education, and incorporated into the Las Vegas School District.

BaileyFollowing an 18-month hiatus in her work, during which she recovered from a complete mental and physical breakdown, Dessie and five other parents of mentally handicapped children launched the Clark County Association for Retarded Children, or CCARC.  In late 1954, following a great deal of hard work, the group opened the Updike School; and 27 local children with mental disabilities—including seven-year old Claudia Bailey—began attending school for the first time. Although the fight for equality for all children was far from over, Dessie and her co-workers had finally broken through. In 1956, again through Dessie’s leadership, the Variety School for Special Education began accepting children with intellectual disabilities into its ranks. In 1975 Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, the “Education of All Handicapped Children Act.”

The following year The Variety School—which is still in operation today—added a new wing that was appropriately named the Dessie Bailey Wing.

 With the schooling of mentally handicapped children finally under the wing of the Clark County School District, and protected by law, CCARC began devoting its time and resources to serving the needs of that population when they finished school. Eventually the organization would morph into Opportunity Village, today one of the nation’s top organizations for the training, employment and socialization of mentally handicapped adults.

 Claudia Bailey graduated from the Variety School in 1965 at 18 years old, and immediately became a “client” of Opportunity Village, where she happily remained for many years. Claudia passed away in 2000 at 53. 

The one constant throughout this entire three-decade struggle to provide support for this often neglected segment of the community was Dessie Bailey. She is today recognized as the founder of special education in Nevada. Dessie passed away in 1999, but her contribution to all the mentally handicapped citizens in the state of Nevada will live forever.

Researched and Written by Jack Harpster

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Endnotes & Sources:

All information is taken from: Harpster, Jack, Helping Hands, Helping Hearts: The Story of Opportunity Village. Las Vegas, NV: Stephens Press, 2007.

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