For a decade, Gina Rozyczka took care of the ladies who called Rockhaven home.
By Brandon HENSLEY
“They let everything die here, huh?”
Those were the first words Gina Rozyczka said when she peered through the gates of Rockhaven Sanitarium recently, taking in the empty, bare ground she once walked on all those years ago.
“It saddens me,” she said a little bit later. “They used to have beautiful flowers everywhere … now it looks sad, and angry. To me it looks angry.”
The word “sanitarium” conjures up thoughts like that – of patients being angry, crazy, tied up in a straitjacket, maybe a Nurse Ratchet-type watching their every move.
But of course anyone who knows even just a little about Rockhaven’s history knows that wasn’t the case there. Started by Agnes Richards in the 1920s and eventually handed over to her granddaughter Patricia Travis, Rockhaven was a place that treated its mentally unstable women differently.
“All you had to do was take a look at the garden and know this was a wonderful place for the women,” said Joanna Linkchorst, who gives tours of the property for the group Friends of Rockhaven, which is associated with the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. “[Richards’] idea was not to lock women away in padded cells, but get them outside and get them respectful treatment for rehabilitation.”
Rozyczka was a nurse there from 1965 to 1975, and knows this better than anyone. She called Richards’ heart “as big as the whole United States.”
The sanitarium provided good memories for the 73-year-old Rozyczka, who is from Spain and spent time in Pennsylvania before finding that Southern California’s weather was more hospitable toward her and her husband Ronald (Ronald has since passed away).
After Rockhaven, Rozyczka continued to work as a nurse in private duty care before retiring in the early 2000s. And if you think those 10 years working for Richards yielded memorable stories – a mixture of funny, scary and interesting involving some Hollywood stars of yesteryear – you’d be correct.
One of the more famous residents was Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch of the North in “The Wizard of Oz”).
“They told me, ‘It’s Billie Burke,’ but I didn’t know who Billie Burke was,” she recalled upon learning whom she’d be taking care of. Rozyczka walked into the room and Burke said in a real cute voice, “Hi! I’m Billie Burke.”
“And I say, ‘Hi Billie. I’m the Queen of Sheba,’” Rozyczka said. “And she says, ‘Hi, Queenie!’”
Burke was also in “Father of Bride,” and was watching the film on TV one day. Rozyczka pointed out that Burke was actually watching herself, and with surprise Burke responded, “That’s me?”
Rozyczka said no one ever came to visit Burke, and when she died in 1970 Rozyczka was given two of her purses.
Then there was Josephine Dillon, the first wife of Clark Gable.
“She was silent. She never talked,” Rozyczka said of Dillon. She said it was the loneliness that she thought got to most of the patients.
“When they get old, nobody cares,” she said. “Relatives came only once in a great while. But little by little they faded away.”
Rozyczka asked Dillon one time, “Wow, you’re married to the hunk Clark Gable?” and Dillon said yes but it cost her a lot of money. Dillon was Gable’s drama coach and poured time and money into fixing his accent – a heavy Texas drawl – and, most of all, his bad teeth.
Rozyczka had a couple of scares as well during her time at Rockhaven. One patient she said grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down to the floor. Another time, she was on her knees putting a diaper on a patient when the women swung and hit her in the back of the head. Rozyczka actually lost consciousness.
“You can’t scold them,” she said if something like that happened. “They don’t know why you scold them.”
Not that she wasn’t, or isn’t, tough. Every day she picked up patients from their beds and carried them to their chairs. Don’t ask if she did that all by herself, because she’ll respond, “You want me to pick you up? And I’m 73!”
“She’s awesome,” Linkchorst said of Rozyczka. “I just want to wind her up and let her go.”
Linkchorst will be conducting two tours on Saturday, and there is a chance Rozyczka could come along and share stories with the people alongside her. Linkchorst grew up in La Crescenta, and had to research as much as she could when she was given the job of Rockhaven docent a year ago.
“My heart jumped into my throat,” she said. “After my whole life, to walk on [the property] … and it looks nothing like it did. It used to be Eden. But to me it’s still beautiful, and peaceful, and old and cool.”
Rockhaven was sold by Travis in 2001 and shut down in 2006. It is awaiting funds to move forward into its next purpose, which Linkchorst hopes can be some kind of park and community activity place, just as long as some of its original fixtures remain, including the tile and doorknobs.
While Rozyczka may be a bit dismayed at its current state, she said she still waves to it every time she drives by because she loves the place, and it gave her an opportunity to fulfill her goal.
“All my life, growing up in Spain, I wanted to do two things: be a prima ballerina or become a nurse,” she said. “I was raised in a convent and I thought being a nurse was like being a nun; you dedicate your life to others, and that’s what I did.”