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Disability advocates blast plans for holiday light show at Waltham’s Fernald site

A sign promoted the Greater Boston Celebration of Lights at the former Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.
A sign promoted the Greater Boston Celebration of Lights at the former Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A giant Santa Claus, ticket booths, and lights have been set up along a 1-mile stretch in Waltham for a holiday display scheduled to open to the public on Friday — but the site of the festive attraction has generated controversy.

The choice to hold the event on the grounds of the former Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center has drawn withering criticism from advocates who say the spot where disabled children were fed radioactive cereal during the Cold War and endured other mistreatment is not an appropriate venue for holiday cheer.

“What parent of a kid with a disability wants to drive through this and say, ‘Happy holidays! And kids who were just like you were kept in locked buildings here for all the Christmases of their lives,’ ” said Alex Green, a Waltham resident and faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School. He helped organize demonstrations held Friday to protest the use of the site for the event.

The Waltham Lions Club and Fiesta Shows have collaborated to host the Greater Boston Celebration of Lights, where they say ticket-holders can drive through a display of more than 1 million lights while listening to music on their vehicle’s radio.

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Tickets cost $20 to $50 per vehicle, with the most expensive fee being for weekend visitors traveling in a limousine, passenger van, or small bus. The event is a fund-raiser for the Waltham Lions Club and will be open nightly through Jan. 3.

A petition signed by more than 1,900 people asks Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy of Waltham to revoke the permit and encourages organizers to find another place to hold the event.

“The Fernald is a site of national historic importance. It is a place of memory, of human rights abuses, and a major civil rights movement,” the petition reads. “All of that should be told and memorialized. It should not be a site for a holiday party that erases that history so people can drive among abandoned buildings.”

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After a long and tumultuous process to close the center, the city of Waltham purchased the 196-acre site from the state in 2014 for $3.7 million. The city has considered building a new high school or police station on the grounds, but the plans were scratched and the site has yet to be redeveloped.

Liz Pulice, president of the Waltham Lions Club, said the city picked the property for the event during the permitting process based on considerations for traffic and other factors. In 2017 and 2018, the club hosted a carnival on the site and no one complained, she said.

The light show is the organization’s major fund-raiser this year, Pulice said, because other fund-raising events were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The proceeds will benefit charitable efforts to reduce hunger and improve vision for more than 30,000 people, she said.

“The Lions Club’s goal in hosting a fund-raiser is to think about what help we can provide and what happiness we can spread in the city of Waltham,” Pulice said.

When Fernald was still open, Pulice said the club hosted holiday activities and cookouts for residents and staff and continues to support local organizations that help people with disabilities.

McCarthy and Fiesta Shows didn’t respond Saturday to requests for comment.

Established in 1848, Fernald was the nation’s oldest publicly funded facility for those with developmental disabilities. Its namesake, Walter E. Fernald, endorsed eugenics and forced sterilizations, which took place there, according to a letter to McCarthy from Phillip Kassel, executive director of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, a state judicial agency.

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The school was the site of experiments by MIT and Harvard University from 1946 to 1953 in which boys were given tracer doses of radioactive isotopes.

The experiments were sponsored by Quaker Oats Co. to study the absorption of iron-enriched cereals and calcium-enriched milk.

In 1995, former president Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the federal government for the tests, and later, MIT and Quaker Oats agreed to pay $1.85 million to children involved in the cereal experiments.

Conditions at Fernald improved dramatically following a class-action lawsuit filed in the 1970s. Former governor Mitt Romney ordered the facility to close in 2003.





Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.