People will have a hard time deciding on what may have been Dale Evans' greatest role. There are certainly a lot to pick from. In addition to all the movies, television shows, and live appearances that she did with Roy, Dale sang with Fats Waller; was on the radio with Don Ameche, Edgar Bergen, and Jimmie Durante; and made movies with other stars, like John Wayne. She also wrote several popular songs, including “The Bible Tells Me So” and “Happy Trails to You,” as well as a number of books, including a best seller. Dale's charitable work and Evangelical Christian activities also were powerful roles in themselves.

For me, however, as the parent of child with a severe disability and as a professor who studies the history of people with disabilities and their families, Dale's greatest role was in “The Great Family Rescue,” even though the plot for this drama might seem a little far-fetched. It is a story about hundreds of thousands of parents of kids with disabilities all across North America who were being held prisoner by a bunch of nasty characters, armed with some downright dangerous ideas. The Queen of the West found out about what was going on because those characters tried to do the same thing to her, along with Roy and her family. When she found out what was going on she started breaking down a lot of locked doors and setting free families who had been hidden away in closets for years. That, however, was not the end of the story. Dale was not satisfied with just opening the doors; she helped those parents get organized, so they could fight their own battles. Of course, it was a heartbreaking story, too. Before Dale had a chance to rescue the others, she lost her own dear daughter, Robin Elizabeth. Even the Queen of the West could not make that pain and sorrow go away, but she learned how to transform it into the strength she needed to help others.

Even Dale Evans could not do all this by herself. Roy and the rest of the family were right at her side. Little Robin Elizabeth was there, too, at first in body and later in spirit, telling her mom what needed to be done. A few other stars, even President John F. Kennedy and his family (Shriver, 1962), fought on her side, and once those families organized to fight their own battles, they were unstoppable.

Now, a lot of folks might be thinking that this plot is too fantastic for a TV western. Sometimes, however, truth is stranger than fiction, and this story is absolutely true. I know that because I have heard from hundreds of families who have the same story to tell about how Dale rescued them. I have also seen some pictures and the documents that prove what really happened. Most important, I feel it in my heart because my family is one that could easily have been locked away in one of those closets without Dale's help, so I just want to say “thanks.” Here is how this all happened.

Before World War II, families of children with disabilities, especially children with mental retardation, faced some pretty rough treatment. A gang of eugenics-crazed professionals armed with a bunch of pseudoscientific ideas kept families in disgrace. They said that if families had kids with disabilities, they must come from bad stock and probably should be “cut from the herd.” Many people knew that these ideas were just hate-filled lies, but there were not many brave enough to take on the ones who kept spreading those stories. Even some of the people who claimed to be preaching the word of God spread their own stories about how children with disabilities were punishments for their parents' sins. Even the ones who were supposed to be the good guys often claimed that having a child with a disability was a burden that would ruin a family. They tried to tell families that the only option was to abandon their kids with disabilities to institutions and try to forget about them. Sadly, a lot of families took that advice. Of course, there were always some who knew that it was wrong and kept their children at home and loved them; but all of those stories made it so hard that a lot of them hid their children in shame. As late as the early 1940s, families were being pushed around pretty badly. In 1942, for example, the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association ran an official editorial written by Farrar, who suggested that children such as these be killed when they reached the age of 5. The editorial suggested that the biggest obstacle to carrying out that plan was that parents loved their kids and might object to having them killed. The editorial urged health care professionals to try to prevent parents from getting attached to their children.

When this editorial was published in America, Germany under the Nazi's had already started killing children like these. By the end of the war, almost 300,000 children and adults with disabilities had been killed by the Nazi regime. After Americans saw what happened in Germany, a lot of those eugenic ideas became less popular, but the shame that kept families hidden did not disappear quickly. A few parents began to come out of the closet, but it was not easy. One of the first high-profile people to talk openly about having a child with mental retardation was Pearl S. Buck. In 1950, she published a book called The Child Who Never Grew. She talked about her daughter Carol, who was then 30. Buck was brave to come out of the closet after 30 years of pretending publicly that Carol did not exist. Her book still reflected her conflicting feelings, but it was a big step in the right direction.

Shortly after that book was published, Roy and Dale's daughter Robin Elizabeth was born with Down syndrome. The doctors advised Roy and Dale to put her away in an institution. A lot of their show-business colleagues agreed. They felt having a child with Down syndrome would be bad for the all-American Roy Rogers image, but Dale and Roy would not go along with that view. Robin Elizabeth was their daughter, and they were not about to give her up. She was a part of their family, and there was nothing more to say. Sadly, Robin Elizabeth died of complications of the mumps a couple of years later. In spite of her sorrow, Dale believed that Robin had been a treasured gift, like all children. She wanted to spread that message to other families. She wanted to let them know that they could all hold their heads up high, accept their children, and recognize the power of these children to have positive effects on their families. Dale wrote about this in a little 63-page book called Angel Unaware. In spite of Dale's celebrity status, her manuscript was turned down by at least two publishers before being accepted by Revell. One of the publishers explained, “Sorry. The subject of handicapped children is one that people do not want to read about.”

Revell printed 25,000 copies and was hopeful that they would sell them all. On March 16, 1953, Dale's book went on sale, and it is still selling, with 1,102,000 copies sold in its 59 printings, so far. Sales figures, however, do not really tell this story. Angel Unaware gave countless numbers of families new courage to come out of the closet and be proud of all their children. In doing so, it changed the face of America. Dale saw it for herself when the fall rodeo opened in Madison Square Garden that year:

Among the cheering youngsters were hundreds of boys and girls with mental retardation—kids with Down syndrome, all kinds of kids with disabilities and handicaps who had been brought out by their mothers and fathers. We had never seen them before; in those days parents seldom brought children like that out in public. (Rogers & Evans, 1994, p. 184)

From that time on, families brought children with mental retardation to Roy and Dale's public appearances to see and be seen by their heroes. Before long, they were also coming because they knew they would see other families there who had been through the same experiences, and they could draw strength from each other. Once these families began to come out of the closet, they began showing up in a lot more places than just the rodeo. In October of 1954, Life magazine ran a featured article, “Retarded Children,” that also made reference to this sudden revolution in attitudes and behavior:

More important still is the fact that parents are overcoming their needless shame at having a child with mental retardation. The new freedom to speak frankly about their unfortunate children is producing a climate encouraging research, which now is almost nonexistent. The change in attitude also made it possible for Life to present, this week and next, a two-part series using real names and faces. (“Retarded Children,” 1954, p. 119)

Of course, Dale does not deserve all the credit for what happened. The newly formed National Association for Retarded Children, later to become The Arc of the United States, also was a big influence. The Arc was organizing parents and working hard to create better conditions for people with mental retardation and their families. As it turns out, however, Dale and her book Angel Unaware were also powerful influences on the development of The Arc.

In January 1954, the first year royalties from Angel Unaware were about $40,000. Dale donated this money to the National Association for Retarded Children and that was enough to open its first national office in New York. Dr. Salvatore DiMichael, The Arc's first director, gave Dale credit for making this national organization possible: “It (is) literally true that (Dale Evans’) financial and personal encouragement made it possible for NARC to open up a national office” (quoted in Garrison, 1956, p. 158). Although The Arc leadership of the day happily acknowledged the cash contribution that fueled the growth of their organization, they viewed the social effects of Angel Unaware as an even greater contribution: “If there weren't a penny involved, that book would still have been the greatest thing that has ever happened to our organization. It opened eyes and hearts to our children, and that is what counts the most” (G. Hanke quoted in Garrison, 1956, p. 151).

The Angel Spreads Her Wings, a book about the inspiration of Angel Unaware and the influence of the Roy Rogers family in the American home, was published by Garrison in 1956. Her book was about the incredible effects of Angel Unaware on families and on society in general. A portion of the royalties from Garrison's book were also donated to The Arc, compounding the beneficial effects of the original book. For me, the best part of The Angel Spreads her Wings was the collection of excerpts from the thousands of letters that Dale had received from readers who poured out their hearts to her. Most came from people whose lives had been touched in some way. Some came from people with disabilities who wished that their parents had been able to overcome the prejudice and shame. Many came from parents who found new courage after reading the book. For thousands of families, Angel Unaware seemed to be telling their own personal stories.

According to Garrison, Dale Evans found time to read every one of those letters and responded personally to as many as possible. Last year, after writing another article about Roy and Dale, I got a small taste of what it must have been like. Well over 400 people wrote, phoned, faxed, and E-mailed to tell me how Roy and Dale had touched their lives. A lot of them came from folks who had been brothers and sisters of children with disabilities and wanted to say how Dale's book had comforted their mothers and fathers, who were struggling to come to terms with a sibling's disability. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but a lot of those brothers and sisters were named Dale and Roy.

Angel Unaware was a radical book for its time. Now, almost 50 years later, some of the ideas expressed are still ahead of our times. In the original preface Dale wrote: “This is the story of what a baby girl named Robin Elizabeth accomplished in transforming the lives of the Roy Rogers family” (Rogers, 1953, p.7).

Evans did not merely consider her daughter some kind of tolerable burden; she celebrated her as a gift and an asset to the Rogers family. Her sincerity and passion in celebrating Robin Elizabeth was essential to the power of the book. Although her framework for the book is deeply Christian, the meaning that she found in parenting Robin Elizabeth is equally valid at the psychological and philosophical levels. Fifty years after Dale wrote about the power of a child with a severe disability, researchers are just beginning to study how these children can bring about positive family transformations.

They are finding that many such families report personal growth, more meaningful social relationships, and development of a more positive world view. These researchers are just now collecting the evidence for what Dale knew in her heart a long time ago (e.g., Scorgie & Sobsey, 2000; Stainton & Besser, 1998).

Dale's courage and insight rescued many families from a shame that held them back, a shame that might have driven them to give up their own children and spend a lifetime feeling guilty for doing so. She freed a lot of us from those shackles of shame and made it a little bit easier for us to be proud parents. If she had done all that and nothing more, she would have accomplished a lot, but Dale did not stop there. Her support for the national parents movement through the Arc of the United States helped us to fight for ourselves and our children. As the parent of a child with a severe disability, I want to register my special thanks to her and Roy and the rest of the family.

NOTE: The author thanks Bob Perske, Steve Eidelman, and Cheryl Rogers Barnett for help in acquiring relevant information.

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Author notes

Author:Dick Sobsey, EdD, Director, J.P. Das Developmental Disabilities Centre, 6–102 Education North, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2G5 Canada. (dick.sobsey@ualberta.ca)