BANGOR, Maine — When Joseph Saxl became the superintendent of the Bangor Mental Health Institute in 1974, the patients there and the community did not mix.
He had a vision to change that by bringing the community and the hospital together in order to de-stigmatize mental illness, his daughter Mary-Anne Saxl said Saturday of her dad, who died in January 1981.
“What he wanted to do was new and radical” at the time, she said. “My father was a great believer in having the community and patients interact so they would not be afraid of each other.”
A year after his death, a committee was formed to take Saxl’s vision and create a park on the hospital grounds that patients and the public could use, said Anna McCloskey, director of volunteers for BMHI when Saxl was director.
Saxl Park was dedicated in May 1984. It includes 66 acres with walking trails, a fish and ice-skating pond, birdhouses and a Circle of Senses area planted with herbs and plants easily identified by their smells, Mary-Anne Saxl said.
“It’s wonderful,” she said at a ceremony Saturday marking the 25th anniversary and rededication of the park.
Michael Saxl, Joseph Saxl’s son and former speaker of the Maine House, said his dad was passionate about improving the interaction of BMHI patients and community residents, and the park is a perfect way to accomplish that.
The creation and maintenance of Saxl Park are a true community effort, said the long-retired McCloskey.
“We’ve had a lot of people help us,” she said, listing local groups, clubs, schools, churches, businesses and individuals that contributed over the past 25 years.
The park is used by John Bapst Memorial High School for sporting events and has been the site for regional cross country meets and the Bangor Humane Society’s Paws on Parade. It is located next to the Maine Veterans’ Home.
Veterans, patients and locals are commonplace in the park and on the trails.
Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, state Reps. Adam Goode, Jim Martin and Sara Stevens, along with Bangor City Councilors Pat Blanchette, Rick Bronson, Geoffrey Gratwick and Mayor Gerry Palmer, attended the ceremony. The small crowd also included Fred Boyce, who was “a driving force behind the creation of the park” and the man the main trail is named after.
“We have a really special jewel here,” Baldacci said of the multipurpose park.
Baldacci commended the entire Saxl family for its dedication to serving the public, and the volunteers who have given thousands of hours of their time to change the former farmland into a community asset that attracts wildlife and residents.
Michaud said Joseph Saxl was a “strong, independent, dedicated man” who changed the lives of his patients and the community by his forward and integrative thinking.
Saxl’s concepts changed the world of mental health care, said Joe Brooks, a former state representative who served in the Legislature along with the late Jane Saxl, Joseph Saxl’s wife.
“Joseph Saxl’s policies changed how people [with mental health issues] are dealt with,” he said. “His philosophy changed how people see patients. He had a whole different vision that broke down so many barriers.”
When Saxl took over as superintendent of BMHI, patients were locked in their rooms, which resembled padded jail cells, Brooks said.
“He physically took those bars off the windows, and today people are living in the community,” he said.
At the rededication ceremony, which fell on National Trails Day, it was announced that the park will be connected by trail to Cascade Park and Eastern Maine Community College, and is the first official segment of the Bangor Trail System.
Steve Ribble, a board member for Bangor Trails and local landscape architect who helped design the interconnected trail system, said when the governor designated Saxl Park as an official Bangor city park last year, he protected it from future development.
The cooperative agreement that will create the interconnected trail is among the Bangor Land Trust, Keep Bangor Beautiful and the city, with the hospital, now called the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, as a partner.
“Our plan for the future is to improve the trails so they are ADA-compliant,” he said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He added that the trail eventually will go “all the way over to Stillwater Avenue.”
Many things have changed over the years, including the name of the mental health facility, but Joseph Saxl’s vision has been kept alive by the park that bears his name, his daughter said.
“This really is his vision,” Mary-Anne Saxl said.