Remembering Karl Menninger

Feb 6, 2012 - by J. J. Maloney

Feb. 2, 2012

Dr. Karl Menninger

Dr. Karl Menninger

Former convict and Kansas City Star reporter J.J. Maloney recalls his 17-year association with Dr. Karl Menninger, the avatar of prison reform.

by J.J. Maloney

In December, 1972, I attended a conference on prison reform in Topeka, Kansas, in connection with a prison series another reporter and I were writing for The Kansas City Star.

At lunch I found myself sitting next to Karl Menninger.

I'd seen pictures of him, but he was much more of a presence than I had expected. About 70 at the time, he was developing bags under his eyes, had silver hair, and was getting jowly; but he radiated intelligence, confidence and power.

Menninger remained slightly aloof until I mentioned to him that I had enjoyed a piece he had written for a bulletin published by the W. Clement Stone Foundation in Chicago.

What piece was that? Menninger asked.

The piece on the history of prison literature, I replied.

Menninger looked puzzled and said he didn't remember that piece. When I said I had a copy in my suitcase, he insisted I go to my room and get it.

He read the piece then said to me, "I didn't write this."

I finally told Menninger I had written the piece myself, for Book World, which was published in The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune. Apparently someone at the foundation had thought it would have more impact with Menninger's name on it.

Menninger appeared deeply embarrassed, but from that moment forward we had a warm relationship. Every time I would cover one of his appearances, or happen to attend some event at the same time he did, he would insist that I sit at his table.

We met frequently in those days. The 1970s was the heyday of prison reform in America, and Menninger bore the torch for the movement.

It wasn't always cordial. On one occasion when I attended a seminar sponsored by the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Menninger talked on the subject of training prison management personnel.

I asked him if he'd considered the common problem of prison managers using convicts as pawns in office politics – i.e., after one official gives a convict a job, that official's rival determines the convict isn't really "qualified" for that job and has the convict reassigned. The object of the game is to place the first official's judgment in question. The convict is just a pawn.

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