A renowned clinical psychologist who worked for more than thirty years to modernize and humanize treatment for mental health patients in Randolph County, Dr. Terry Brelje sought to improve both the facilities and therapeutic programs serving patients at Chester Mental Health Center and across the state of Illinois.
Terry Boyd Brelje was born in Chester on May 5, 1938. He was the first of two children born to Gerhard and Virginia Brelje. In Terry’s younger years, the Brelje family lived on High Street in Chester. There, Gerhard worked in a local grocery store, Pautler’s IGA, while Virginia managed the family’s home and cared for Terry and his younger sister, Linda. Both of the Brelje kids attended school in Chester, where Terry was an active and involved student. At Chester High School, he played in the band, competed on the bowling team, and took part in student government. He was also a member of the school’s photography and Spanish clubs and wrote for the newspaper and the yearbook. He also showed an early interest in leadership activities, serving as student chairman for the March of Dimes in his junior year.
After graduating from Chester High School in the spring of 1956, Terry enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. As a child, he had dreamed of a career as a diplomat with the state department, and he began working toward a political science degree with that goal in mind. After taking a course in psychology, however, his plans for the future shifted. “I’ve always been curious over what makes a clock tick or a car run,” he told the Southern Illinoisan. “As a psychologist, you learn about what makes people work, and that’s much more fascinating than a clock or a car.” He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the university in 1960, and then returned to complete his master’s degree and his doctorate in clinical psychology, graduating in 1967. He also finished some of the research requirements for his PhD at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he completed his internship in the Department of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
While working as an intern in Indianapolis, Terry took another important life step. At the city’s First Presbyterian Church on September 4, 1966, he married a fellow academic, Martha Brose. Like Terry, Martha was passionate about both knowledge and people. A native of Chatfield, Ohio, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University in Indiana before going on to complete a master’s degree in social work at Indiana University. After Terry completed his studies in Wisconsin, the couple settled in Carbondale, where Martha joined the faculty at Southern Illinois University. There, she worked in social and community services, at the Clinical Center, and in the SIU School of Medicine’s family practice program.
As he had worked to earn his academic degrees, Terry had returned each summer to Chester, where he worked part-time at the Illinois Security Hospital, which is now called the Chester Mental Health Center. The facility, located beside the Menard Correctional Center, is the only maximum-security forensic psychiatric hospital in the state of Illinois. The institution, which was founded in 1891, houses a subset of patients linked to the state corrections system, including those who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or have been found unfit to stand trial, as well as those requiring more secure housing. After Terry completed his PhD in the summer of 1967, he was offered full-time employment at the hospital, becoming its chief psychologist. A year later, he was promoted to program director.
In the 1960s, the facility was in dire need of both physical upgrades and changes to its care procedures for patients. Issues were raised by the state employees’ union, and newspapers like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published reports of significant problems with both the buildings and the conditions for workers and patients. The hospital had been run for years by political appointees rather than medical professionals, and the buildings were dated and crumbling. The John Howard Association, a correctional oversight organization based out of Chicago, wrote a damning report on conditions at the hospital. They asserted, “It appears by any standards one might choose the professional staff of the psychiatric division at Menard is so inadequate that it virtually constitutes a fraud on the unsuspecting mentally ill prisoners as well as the general public,” adding that the hospital was “an incredible, unbelievable facility and should be replaced at the earliest possible date by a modern, adequately staffed, treatment facility for such of the prison body as needs psychiatric treatment.”
In 1969, the Post-Dispatch reported that, in response to the issues highlighted within the facility, major changes were being made to the leadership model for the hospital: “Requirements for the position of superintendent of Illinois’s mental hospitals were rewritten recently to require high professional and educational standards and to remove the superintendencies from political patronage.” Bert Rednour, who had been the hospital’s superintendent for more than a decade, retired, and in his place, the state’s Department of Mental Health appointed Terry to serve as the new head of the hospital. The Post-Dispatch reported that officials of the Illinois Department of Mental Health described Terry as “an eminently qualified professional.” In 1970, his title was upgraded once more, as he became administrator of the psychiatric division of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Each promotion allowed Terry more chances to make changes to the way the hospital was run. Among these was a change to the building that was especially important symbolically. The Edwardsville Intelligencer reported in 1971 that Terry ordered a new door to be installed, allowing for entry into the hospital facility without first going through the general prison building and prison yard. The paper reported that the new door “symbolized the fact that the psychiatric division was a functioning entity serving the entire state prison system” rather than a subsidiary of the penitentiary. Terry told the press that he hoped that the patients living in the hospital would soon gain more public support and attention, too. He would later tell the press that part of the challenge in making substantive changes to the facility was a lack of public interest: “This group of patients is a unique and small group and just didn’t have the constituency. There just wasn’t any public pressure or awareness.”
The symbolic addition of the new facility door was only the first step in what would eventually become a complete overhaul of the institution. Treatment programs deemed archaic and even abusive were abandoned, and rooms were repurposed for more modern therapeutic sessions. More than 20 new staff members were hired, including additional trained counselors and psychologists. Terry told the press that all of the changes were aimed toward achieving one major goal: “We want to make it less repressive, more humane.” Randolph Hall, a new large multipurpose room intended for use as both a gymnasium and an auditorium, helped to underscore that mission. The room housed classrooms and an arts and crafts workshop, where patients could weave and make other handcrafts. Patients were also allowed to add personal touches to their accommodations, including choosing paint colors for the walls.
As Terry shaped changes at the hospital, he continued to commute from the family’s home in Carbondale. Martha and Terry had welcomed two sons, Matthew and Mark, in 1969 and 1972. When asked how their experiences as a psychologist and a sociologist had influenced their parenting style, the Breljes told one reporter, “We just enjoy them. They have taught us a great deal.” The Southern Illinoisan wrote a lengthy piece on the Brelje home as part of their “Family Living” series in 1975, describing the “two-story redwood and brick home at 33 Hillcrest Drive in Carbondale” as a cozy, wooded retreat in the midst of the surrounding city. While Martha joked that their initial decorating style had been “early Goodwill,” the family’s home had been carefully furnished with handpicked eclectic pieces. Notably, some of the home’s decorations even reflected Terry’s connection with the patients he saw on a daily basis. The profile noted, “Throughout the 10 rooms in the house are numerous art objects, some created by the Breljes, and many made by prisoners and patients.” To help unwind from his sometimes-stressful occupation, Terry particularly enjoyed working in his greenhouse, noting wryly that when he talked to his plants, “they [didn’t] talk back.”
At work, Terry was focused on making even bigger changes to the hospital. In the early 1970s, construction finally began on a new state-of-the-art facility to replace the dated hospital buildings, which had been compared by one judge to a “medieval dungeon.” One reporter for the Associated Press wrote in 1974, “About the best thing anyone says of the maximum-security mental hospital is that soon it will be replaced.” When asked about the old hospital buildings, Terry pointed out that the facility’s condition was actually preventing the staff from achieving some of their therapeutic goals for patients: “The old facility is not adequate in space or arrangement of space for the treatment needed. With its bars and concrete and brick three-foot thick walls, it transmits a sense of hopelessness to some patients.” Parts of the facility were at that point more than 80 years old, dating from a time when mental health was understood very differently in the country.
The new center, which cost $8 million to complete, featured more private accommodations for patients and upgraded security features to replace outdated, repressive iron bars. More space for educational activities was also included in the new facility, as were better and updated spaces for medical services. Notably, the new facility, located on the humid banks of the Mississippi River, would finally be fully air conditioned. The cleaner, more modern buildings were anticipated to lead to better rates of employee retention as well. Overall, Terry explained, the new complex was “designed with therapy in mind, rather than punishment.” As he toured the facility with press during construction, he noted, “This is infinitely better. That’s an understatement. It should have been done long ago. Overall it’s a more humane, reasonable environment. It probably will be the most modern mental health security facility in the country.”
The new Chester Mental Health Center was officially opened in April 1976. By the time the new facility was ready to admit patients, enough support staff had been employed to allow Terry to focus largely on his administrative duties, including the development and evaluation of treatment delivery systems. In 1978, Terry was named the coordinator of forensic psychiatry programs for the Illinois Department of Mental Health. In addition to his work at Chester Mental Health, he also became responsible for coordinating clinical forensic psychiatry programs at Chester, the Manteno Mental Health Center, the Illinois Psychiatric Institute in Chicago, and the Elgin Mental Health Center. In the early 1980s, he also taught as an adjunct professor for both the SIU School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota School of Mental Health.
Terry remained at the helm of the Chester Mental Health Center until 1983. That December, he was appointed Associate Director for Policy and Special Programs for the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. The new role brought with it a move to Springfield, where he was joined by Martha and their sons at the end of the school year. Sadly, the family suffered tragedy shortly after they relocated. In November 1984, Martha died of cancer at the age of 45. In her memory, the family established the Martha Brelje Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to undergraduate students in SIU’s Social Work Program.
After Martha’s death, Terry did not remarry. Instead, he continued to focus his attention on his sons and on his career. By the 1980s, he had become a nationally recognized expert in the field of forensic psychiatry, with several books and articles to his name. He had undertaken consulting work for the US Department of Justice and served on a mental health task force during the Reagan administration. He was lauded for his work by numerous professional organizations, including a citation for outstanding leadership from the Society of Police and Criminal Psychologists. In 1988, he was appointed Deputy Director of the Illinois Department of Mental Health.
After his retirement from the Department of Mental Health in the early 1990s, Terry maintained a private practice in Springfield. He also served on the board of directors of the Gateway Foundation, a treatment and rehabilitation center serving patients struggling with substance abuse, and the Hope School, a provider of educational and residential services for children living with Autism Spectrum Disorders and developmental disabilities.
Dr. Terry Brelje passed away in Springfield at the age of 67 on November 23, 2005. He had devoted his life to improving forensic psychiatric care and extending more modern mental health services and treatment for patients in the state of Illinois. With a focus on therapy and humanity, he worked to create a healthier, kinder environment for patients in state care, providing them with enhanced opportunities to rehabilitate and grow.
Dr. Terry Brelje was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2021.