— “Cresson – Remembering Life at the San,” a documentary produced by Pittsburgh station WQED, has
been nominated for an Emmy Award under the category of historical and cultural programs for the Mid-Atlantic region.
The San was one of four state-run sanatoriums that housed and treated people diagnosed with tuberculosis from 1912 until the facility was turned into a center for the mentally challenged in 1964.
Two years ago, Chuck Felton, now living in Texas, started a website and urged survivors and former employees to talk about their experiences – life at the San, the horrors of TB and the stigma of returning to the community after going into remission.
It was the mid-1950s when Felton, a senior in high school, contracted TB and was forced to spend more than a year at the Cresson facility.
In the summer of 2011, many of those impacted returned to Cresson for a San reunion, a two-day event that attracted WQED and producer David Solomon.
The documentary includes a rare peek at some areas of the San and what is now the State Correctional Institute-Cresson and powerful interviews with some of the patients recalling good times and horrors of the institution.
“I think it was the human emotion of it all,” Solomon said. “This (nomination) was done by a generation of judges who do not know a lot about this topic and to see this and the compelling emotion ...”
People with TB were almost forced to go to the San and live, and so many people were lost, he said.
Felton was elated over news of the nomination.
“That was quite surprising. I was dumbfounded,” he said.
The idea that such a place could operate less than 50 years ago is hard to believe, Felton said. People of all ages were often forced to go to the sanitorium and were given few choices regarding treatment and length of stay.
“People have no concept of what it was like,” he said. “Nowadays, with the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights, they would be all over this.”
The Tribune-Democrat received a Golden Quill Award in 2011 for a package of stories and photographs on the sanitorium. One story was about a cemetery near the Summit in Cresson Township, where unmarked graves mark the final resting place of those who died at the San and whose bodies were never claimed.
The documentary is part of WQED’s “Experience” series and is one of five nominees for the award category.
For Solomon, the nomination is reward enough.
“We’re just satisfied to tell the story ... (although) I will be hoping to bring this statue back,” he said.
The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Philadelphia on Sept. 22.