Driving on the Lanterman Freeway


A fun game my oldest daughter likes to play is to call the freeways of L.A. by their true names. For instance, if we want to get to the beach from La Crescenta, we have a lot of options. We might take the Ronald Reagan Freeway (118) and cut over toward the coast on the Moorpark Freeway (23, AKA the Military Intelligence Memorial Freeway), or we can hit the southern beaches via the San Gabriel River Freeway (605). If our destination is the Santa Monica Bay we might find ourselves on the Marina Freeway (90), which is kind of confusing as we used to know it as the Richard Nixon Freeway. On the way home, we can shortcut through downtown L.A., and jump on the Allesandro Freeway (2) in Echo Park. Heading north we cross the Golden State Freeway, and the Allesandro becomes the Glendale Freeway. Passing under the Ventura Freeway, we catch a view of our familiar valley and the Glendale becomes the Frank Lanterman Freeway.

The Lanterman Freeway? How did Frank Lanterman rate a freeway? My knowledge of the Lantermans is of a very local focus – Jacob and Amoretta founded La Cañada, son Roy was its dentist, and grandsons Frank and Lloyd managed the family’s land holdings. When the drought of the late ’40s threatened the Lantermans’ real estate values with a lack of water, Frank got himself elected to the state Assembly in 1951 with the seemingly self-serving agenda of bringing Colorado River water to the water company the Lantermans owned.

My view of Frank Lanterman changed when I was reading an obscure California history journal recently and came across an article titled “How Frank Lanterman Changed My Life” written by an autistic teenage girl from Sierra Madre named Rebecca Liu. In the article she opened my eyes to who Lanterman really was.

Frank Lanterman arrived in the state Assembly as a gruff fiscal conservative who immediately wrote legislation to bring municipal water to Crescenta Cañada, thus maintaining his family’s real estate fortunes. The tight-fisted Lanterman became the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. The first witness he had before him was the state director of mental hygiene who begged the committee for the funds to give his “inmates” fruit juice to supplement their diet of surplus beans. Lanterman was first disturbed, then outraged, as he dug further, and found that the mentally ill of California were stripped of all civil rights and treated as prisoners.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning, Lanterman was suddenly transformed from a “no spending at any cost” conservative ideologue to a passionate advocate for those who suffered from mental illness. For the next three decades, Lanterman dedicated his career to humanizing the treatment of those with autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy or just plain emotional problems. He ended the practices of warehousing “the feeble minded” and involuntary incarceration. He got the state to take responsibility for returning these unfortunates to their families or to residential care and to have them placed in public schools and special education programs. He changed not only the state’s handling of mental illness, but inspired change on a national level. He earned his place in history as both the “father of mental health” and the “father of special education.”

Liu related in her article that without Lanterman, she, as a severe autistic without the ability to speak, would never have been diagnosed, would never have received the treatments that allowed her to finally communicate by typing, and she may have eventually been removed from her family and placed in an institution. Liu wrote: “I would have been a closed, scared child without hope. I would have lived the rest of my life unable to communicate my needs, my ideas, or my love.”

And that’s how Lanterman rates a freeway being named after him! Next time you jump on the 2 Freeway, think to yourself, “This is the Frank Lanterman Freeway, and our world is a better place because of him.”

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.

He can be reached at lawlerdad@yahoo.com