Patricia Hudson remembers taking a client -- a 3-year-old boy with Down syndrome -- to the supermarket one day, some 30 years ago.
"I remember going to the grocery store with this little guy -- blond, blue-eyed, a cute little fellow," said Ms. Hudson, 65, executive director of Providence Center, a nonprofit organization for the mentally retarded.
As she moved through the store, mothers grabbed their children and scurried away.
"People actually ran from me. When we got to the checkout, they moved out of line rather than stand near us," she said.
"Talk about being shunned! But that's how frightened they were."
Thursday, Ms. Hudson ended her 31-year tenure at Providence Center, turning the leadership over to deputy director Charles E. Coble. She plans to move to New Jersey, open a toy shop with her brother and spend more time with her three grown children and six grandchildren.
Sitting in her Annapolis office last week, Ms. Hudson recalled many incidents of discrimination against the mentally retarded.
But she also talked about successes and breakthroughs. Understanding and tolerance have improved so dramatically that she believes she has witnessed a revolution.
"Thirty years ago, even 20 years ago, the expectation was they'd be institutionalized most of their lives," she said. Older parents told her that doctors would tell them not to hold mentally retarded newborns because they would have to give them up.
When Providence Center first opened, it served only young children because most weren't educated in public schools. Nowadays, the center doesn't have any children as clients because all youngsters are guaranteed a public school education, regardless of their disabilities.
Once, the center had no job services for adults because no one expected mentally retarded adults to work. Now the center offers multiple job training programs because mentally retarded adults are expected to lead productive lives.
"The emphasis is on independence. The emphasis is on opportunities," said Ms. Hudson. "We really have come a long way."
Although Providence Center's work is far from done, Ms. Hudson said it's time for her to move on.
"I'm still not satisfied with the number of jobs, the quality of jobs [for mentally retarded adults]. It's difficult for them to have their own homes. And the lack of public transportation is still a problem," she said. "But we have made a lot of progress. When people get together and focus on things, it's amazing what they can do."
Thomas Baldwin, an early organizer of Providence Center, credits Ms. Hudson with improving the lives of mentally retarded people.
"She built the whole thing from the ground up," he said. "I've always credited her as the master of working with all the rules and regulations and finding the funds" to establish new programs.
She guided the organization from its small beginning -- five teachers serving 12 children on an annual budget of $36,000 -- to its current status as a countywide network of services with 235 employees serving 450 people. Providence Center has 11 locations and an annual budget in excess of $6 million.
"There's been just an astronomical increase in their budget," said Fran Philips, the county's health officer and a member of the center's board. "She leaves no stone unturned. And not just with money. Last year, when she already knew she was going to retire, she was pushing the state system [for improvements] as aggressively as if she had just come on board."
Ms. Hudson didn't set out to be a champion of the mentally disabled.
She grew up on the New Jersey shore, where her family owned an amusement park. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics from Cornell University, she married Dr. James Hudson, a pediatrician. They moved to Maryland and settled in Wild Rose Shores on the South River in Annapolis.
"I was a doctor's wife," she said.
When her youngest child started first grade, she decided to go to work. However, she didn't know what she wanted to do.
At that time Mr. Baldwin, a friend from Cornell, was looking for some one to direct the fledgling Anne Arundel Day Care Center for Retarded Children, which would later become Providence Center. He asked Ms. Hudson to give it a try, even though she had no experience working with mentally impaired children, and she agreed.
"What I had to offer was a pretty strong business background. I wanted to make a nonprofit run like a business," she said.
She became fascinated with the field early on while trying to do research.
"What amazed me was I went to the library to read everything I could. I realized there wasn't much written. And what was written was totally wrong."
Books on the mentally retarded decribed them as having "no attention span, no ability to learn." Most research described them "practically as vegetables," she said.
After working with mentally retarded children for a number of months, she concluded that a lot of human potential was being lost.
"They had all kinds of talents. They do have the ability to learn," she said. "What they needed were the opportunities."