Hall County was a pioneer in providing training for special needs or developmentally delayed children.
The efforts date to the early 1960s with the Newman School, housed in the old First Presbyterian Church on Green Street in Gainesville. The name came from Dr. Harvey Newman, a Gainesville pediatrician who saw the need for a place for children who didn’t fit or weren’t admitted in the traditional school situation. He was chairman of the board of directors of the Gainesville-Hall County Mentally Retarded Association, which he helped organize in June 1962. Dot Edwards was the first full-time director, Olive Hipps assistant director.
Dr. Newman, who died earlier this year, grew up in Gainesville, graduated from Gainesville High School, completed studies at Medical College of Georgia in 1948 and served in the U.S. Naval Medical Corps. He opened his practice in Gainesville in 1954 and shared calls with Drs. Ben Gilbert and Janet Jackson.
Dr. William T. “Buddy” Langston joined him in starting the Northeast Georgia Pediatric Group in 1965. That group merged with Northeast Georgia OB/GYN in 1994 to form today’s Longstreet Clinic, where Dr. Newman practiced until 1997. He served on various Medical College boards during his active practice.
Though quite humble and shy about publicity for himself, he loved serving the community and caring for his young patients and their families, especially underserved children with disabilities.
When his name was selected for the school from among suggestions from Times readers, he asked the association not to name it after him, but members unanimously voted against his wishes. The community recognized his early work with the Newman School by presenting him the Kiwanis Youth Service Award in 1977.
In the early 1960s there were few options in the state for children with special needs, although there were some limited opportunities at New Holland, Gainesville Junior High and Main Street schools. Gracewood at Augusta was a state-supported school, but had a waiting list of 1,700. There were limits to those schools, however, and no place for other children with special problems. Their only choice was to stay at home with a parent or guardian.
Most children attending the Newman School had never been in a group setting; they began to interact with fellow students and staff and were able to take field trips as students in traditional schools did.
As people became more aware of the need, various civic organizations and individuals pitched in to help and sought a more permanent space for the school.
The Newman School evolved into the North Georgia Children’s Center in May 1965. Among those involved in the early efforts were Betty Price, director; Happy Kirkpatrick, later longtime director and original trustee; and Sylvia Earls. Gainesville Jaycees and the Junior Service League led efforts to locate or build a facility for the center, but after a long search for a suitable site, the center moved into an annex at First Baptist Church on Green Street in March 1968.
Having depended on Community Chest, civic clubs, donations and a small tuition for its operation, the children’s center finally looked to the state to support its expanding enrollment. It merged with the Hall County Training Center in 1971 with Kirkpatrick as director.
Gainesville Civitan Club named Kirkpatrick its “Outstanding Citizen” for 1970, and the Rotary Club named her Woman of the Year in 1971 because of her dedication to those special children. Serving as director of the children’s center “was the most important thing in my life; my whole life has changed,” she said at the time.
Earls volunteered at the original Newman School and later became a staff member. She recalls Dr. Newman coming in at least once a week to check on the children and sit with them as they played.
Public schools in Gainesville and Hall County as well as the rest of the state now provide programs for children with special needs. In addition, the highly successful Challenged Child and Friends, started by Jean Willers in 1985, has expanded over the years to serve children with disabilities along with typically developing peers. It began in First Baptist Church on Green Street, but now has its own facilities on Murphy Boulevard serving children from 14 counties.
Dr. Newman’s family plans a celebration of his life from 1-4 p.m. Dec. 7 at Quinlan Visual Arts Center.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.