Who is Downtown Dan?
MEDFORD — Lurching forward with a tilted gait, Dan Doty walks down Medford's Fir Street in a hurry to get nowhere.With a few freshly bummed bills in his pocket, the 47-year-old trudges through the morning mist to the Purple Parrot, where he'll blow his wad on Oregon Lottery Scratch-its. From there it's off to Dairy Queen to gum his way through two hot dogs before he foots it to White City for a doctor's appointment, then back to Medford to inquire about his monthly disability check.In between, he cruises downtown, stopping to talk with any of dozens of people who regularly cross his 15-mile walking path every day."There's Barbara," Doty says to the meter maid."There's Dan," she replies.Everyone seems to know Medford's most recognizable pedestrian, the grizzled, red-faced man who has walked the streets and engagingly panhandled residents here for the past 25 years.And Doty in turn seems to know everyone, where the people work, even when they go to the coffee shop on Thursdays. From community leaders to soda jerks, Doty knows all and approaches all.Most happily accept his bug-eyed hello, even those he hits up for spare change or a cigarette."I have a lot of friends, and a lot of acquaintances," Doty says. "Some of them I don't even know."That's just a part of Dan Doty's daily dichotomy.While he knows the names of acquaintances, he can't remember his own birth date.He can summarize this week's news in excruciating detail, but he can't recall where he went to school.Doty remembers the day he quit outpatient help at the Jackson County Mental Health Department and struck out completely on his own 15 years ago as "one of the best things I've ever done for myself." But he cannot remember that he didn't graduate from Medford Senior High in 1964, that he never was in the military or that he doesn't have three kids.A lifetime of mental illness and a brain injury have left Doty a walking contradiction. But this combination of fact and fiction somehow has become accepted and even protected by everyone from clothing merchant to beat cop as part of the fabric of downtown Medford."Dan's a survivor," says Tim George, Medford's deputy police chief. "He's a fixture of the community, living on the edge but keeping it all together. He'll hit up the mayor for change like he would a homeless guy."And man, that guy can really walk," George says.Most of Doty's daily walking itinerary, though, is phantom. He remembers Department of Veterans Affairs and doctor appointments that don't exist."And sometimes I have appointments that I forget," he says.Some know him as "Downtown Dan." To others, he's "Walking Dan." Or "Crazy Dan."But no one here really knows Dan Doty.Sandra Toney was 16 years old and already married a year when she painfully bore Daniel Paul Doty on June 6, 1959, in a Coos Bay hospital. The doctor had to pull him out, and she recalls a dent on his head, perhaps from a tool used during the delivery.Three days later at home, Doty began drinking enough formula for three babies, she says."He always had a totally insatiable appetite," says Toney, now living in Oklahoma and co-owner of an upholstery shop. "He was always like that, and he grew so big so fast."And he was so different. Before he was 5 years old, Doty could read portions of the Reader's Digest out loud, Toney says."I always thought he was so brilliant," she says.But there was also something wrong. His impulsive behavior and compulsive eating were alarming, she says.When he started kindergarten, Doty would sneak into the coatroom and eat all his classmates' lunches, she says.On his third day of kindergarten, Doty ate all his school supplies and started gnawing on his desk when the school called home, Toney says."We kept having problems, and they would always get worse," Toney says. "No one could do anything for him. Eventually, they told us, 'childhood schizophrenia.' "At age 6, while riding his bike on a Coos Bay driveway, Doty was run over by a pickup truck. Among his many injuries was severe head trauma that led to a lengthy hospital stay, says sister Sheri Mitchell, from Okay, Okla.Over time, Doty seemed to recover from the accident, Toney says, but the behavioral problems escalated.Outpatient mental health treatments didn't seem to take hold. He had bouts of aggression toward his four younger siblings and other kids in the neighborhood."That's the nature of his disease," Mitchell says. "He could be like that and the next minute he could be the nicest guy. But he was getting progressively worse."Toney says she all but gave up when Doty was 9. Then divorced and living in Lane County, she shipped Doty to live with his father in Southern California.While there, his father had him committed for his first inpatient mental health treatment.Doty was released and he returned to his family, then living in Junction City. But his behavior became even worse, family members say.By age 11, he was smoking. At 13, he was 230 pounds and often violent.In 1972, he built a fire under his brother Lonnie's crib. Later, he went out for a bike ride and came back in a police car, angrily slamming the cruiser's door on one officer's hand."We all loved him," Mitchell says. "But that was the last straw."Toney signed commitment papers on Oct. 19, 1972. Doty ended up in the Oregon State Hospital for Adolescents in Salem, remaining locked down until Aug. 26, 1976, after almost four years of inpatient treatment."Back in the early '70s, it was considered fairly long, but not unusual," says Jerry Williams, civil commitment coordinator for the Addiction and Mental Health Division of the state Department of Human Services.Doty was in and out of the state hospital and halfway houses until he was released Nov. 2, 1982, when hospitals began to focus more on outpatient services than inpatient services, records show."Long-term inpatient treatment is truly reserved only for the people who really have a need for it," Williams says.Marching up Biddle Road toward Dairy Queen, Doty says he knows he was hospitalized, but not when or for how long."I was glad it happened, actually," he says. "I thought it could help, and it did."He offers no details of his treatment.
"That's something I try real hard not to remember," he says. "But I do remember the cast of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' when it was filmed there (in 1973)."Inside Dairy Queen, he buys two hot dogs, without buns. He mashes them between his gums, the way he's eaten every meal since he paid a Medford dentist to remove all his teeth almost 20 years ago.Dairy Queen hot dogs are a Doty staple, the walking fuel used to burn through a pair of Goodwill tennis shoes every three weeks."I practically live here," he says. "I should put a cot in the aisle and sleep here, but Amber wouldn't let me."Cleaning a table nearby, store Manager Amber Lough laughs."You got that right, Dan," she says.Lough, 25, has served Doty hot dogs the past 5 1/2 years."He's a nice guy," Lough says. "He makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but he seems to know when to back off."One Doty hello is enough to make patron Kim Sheldon squirm."Yes, he made me feel uncomfortable, but I think that says more about me than him," she says. "I've seen him around. He seems harmless, but loud. I don't like it when people get that close to me."Sheldon is not alone. Doty is banned from a handful of businesses for that reason. He is not allowed on Rogue Valley buses and can't step foot inside Barnes & Noble."I'm a good person, for the most part," Doty says. "But a lot of people don't see that. They judge me by appearance and that's wrong."But I don't take it personally."Neither does Mary Ann Beecher. When the state hospital workers brought Doty to Medford in 1982, they placed him in Beecher's foster home. She found him different and, at times, difficult."He's actually pitiful," says Beecher, 70.During his first eight years in Medford, Beecher helped Doty with his mental health appointments. She noticed on forms he wrote the names of former foster parents as his next of kin.At times, Doty would insist Beecher drive him to the post office so he could get a letter sent to him by his parents, she says."Of course, there never was a letter," Beecher says. "You can't believe everything Dan Doty says."After he would burn through his Social Security disability check, Doty would ask people for small loans, then tell them that Beecher had his money, she says."He got so bad people were screaming at me from the street for money," she says. "I couldn't just walk away from Dan. So I sold the house to some people who wanted to run a foster home."Soon after, Doty left all foster care. Beecher still steers clear of Doty, believing that he would pester her too much if he knew where she was."I still believe Dan needs to be kept in a secured home," Beecher says. "All he does is bum money. He has no one looking after him."Nicole Crone sure is looking after Doty.When two men stop Doty out front of Crone's Tuxedo Junction on East Main Street for an interview, Crone instantly moves from behind the counter to the shop door. Mistakenly believing them to be college kids, she tosses a menacing stare their way until they leave."I'm protective of Dan," Crone says later. "I just want to make sure nobody's making fun of him."People think he doesn't have feelings," she says. "But he does."
Doty also has just enough social skills to survive on his own.Since he came to Medford, Doty has earned his GED, held a few odd jobs and has his own apartment off Biddle Road in Medford. He lives on his disability check of about $640, and what he can glean from passersby.Other than a few municipal court citations for trespassing, Doty's kept his nose clean here since 1990, court records show.In time, he's endeared himself to local officers, who couldn't help but notice the red-faced man who turned up at most downtown crime scenes."Dan's OK," George says. "He's even helped us out a time or two."Doty was once invited to speak at a Medford police sergeant's retirement dinner, George says."I got too embarrassed to say anything," Doty says.But Doty is never too embarrassed to hit up Don Bruland for a buck.Bruland, the program director for Senior and Disability Services at the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, says Doty is one of many fringe people who do well enough on their own not to receive social services other than disability checks and food stamps."He actually has reasonably good coping skills," Bruland says. "I don't know if he would accept services. He's a pretty independent fellow."Doty is also an ever-walking example of how one head injury or one chemical imbalance can change a life, Bruland says."There but for fortune go you or I," he says.Doty's family members in Oklahoma say they haven't seen him in 17 years. They worry about Doty and they are heartened that people in Medford help him and accept him."Nobody's ever been able to tell me, or him, anything about why he is how he is, other than childhood schizophrenia," Toney says.Somehow, Doty manages to get use of a telephone and call Toney every Aug. 9, her birthday, she says.When he does, Doty tells her the same stories he tells people in Medford — that he was in the Army, has three children and that he is doing well with the help of friends all over town.It's not necessarily a lie, she says. Just an elaborate backstory his damaged mind has created to mask years of misery."Wouldn't we all prefer, when we tell our life story, to tell it like it was a good thing?" Toney says. "Wouldn't you?"
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.