RETURN HOME TO BOYS TOWN
I would not return to Boys Town until 1987; nineteen years after I graduated.
It took me that long to fully realize all that it had done for me during my years I was there. Boys Town had been "my home." It was the only home I have ever known or will ever know in my lifetime.
On this page, I will share a few pictures from my return in 1997. I will also share black and white pictures of the places that were important to me from 1961-1968, as I remember them.
Old Orientation Center where I first stayed
The Boys Town Alumni Association holds a reunion every two years on the last weekend of July on the BT campus. It is a time for former boys to come "home" to renew acquaintances and friendships and walk the paths they walked as young men.
For years, I had avoided these gatherings, mainly because it took me several years to realize Boys Town had been more than just a place that the foster care system had dumped me into. It had raised me, given me an education, nurtured me, given me a spiritual basis for my life and so much more. It had in fact been a "home." It was time for me to go "home" again.
Boy, was "home" ever different from how I had remembered it.
Boys Town is now called "Boys Town & Girls Town." In 1973 the first girls were accepted onto the campus...yeah right, wait until after I graduate :).
The dormitory style living is no longer, nor are the separate living arrangements for grade and high schoolers. Today there are "house parents" rather than "counselors" in each living quarter. They have a family style living arrangement, with no more than eight children to a home and two to a bedroom. They eat their meals in the home rather than gathering in a huge dining room, as I had done.
Today the home accepts far fewer "homeless" children such as I was in 1961. Now, many are temporary wards of the court at the home to workout temporary behavioral problems, mandated by a court or unstable family situations. The student body has decreased from over 900 when I was there to just over 400.
Dormitory which used to house 100 boys each
Old Grade School...used to be home and school in early days...was first permanent building on campus, but was torn down in 1972 to make way for the new middle school
No longer do many stay at the home for periods of seven years or more as I and so many of boys in my time did...the average stay today is under two years. In a sense, Boys Town today is not the community it was in the 1960's. All of us boys knew each other...we were "one family." Today it is many families in their separate homes not even attempting to be a community.
I did see some former teachers, counselors, and classmates on this trip, but I was disappointed enough that I only stayed for one day of the reunion in 1987. Though had been "home," it had lost the feeling of home.
Outside of Music Hall
Inside Music Hall where so many world renowned artists used to perform for us boys and where we went for movies every Sunday night
It would be yet another ten years before I again went "home" for a reunion. I had more feelings of it being "home" this time, and I stayed throughout the reunion weekend.
This was the first time that an alumni choir was formed to sing during mass to close the weekend. I participated and it brought back oh so many memories. Memories of Fr. Schmidt or Moe directing us, the concert tours each year and the friendships I had with so many. We rehearsed each of the 3 days of the weekend just as we used to every night after dinner. We not only prepared for the mass but also a short concert to be given after mass in memory of Fr. Schmidt and Moe who had each passed away in the last few years. Though the "home" itself didn't feel like "home" due to all the changes that had transpired, it was good to be back.
Choir gathers after mass, I am in top row...far right, Renato, my best friend from boyhood, is towards the front with the sunglasses
Some of Class of 1968 gather for a picture...I'm in back with blue shirt, while Renato, in vest, hogs the front again :)
Picnic and socializing before heading to our "homes"
I returned once again in 1998. Fr. Val Peter, current Director of Boys Town, had asked if the Alumni Choir would sing the Memorial Mass to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Fr. Flanagan on May 15. Fifteen of us gathered to sing the mass...all were living in Omaha except Joe from Kansas City and myself from Fargo. We made sure we also had a chance to remember and eat while we were there.
The "home" continues to change. Today the students live by a whole set of rules and earn points for good or lose points for bad behavior. Privileges are based on points earned. Many of those that come do not make it through the program, as it is now called...they are sent back home or back to foster care. There appears to be more staff than students.
In my day, no matter what one might do, Boys Town worked with you to make it through to graduation. There was no such thing as failure unless you decided to go AWOL and not return. That doesn't appear to be what is happening today. Those in charge today, believe that Fr. Flanagan & Msgr. Wegner did not know what they were doing in running a home for boys, despite 50 years and thousands of young men graduating and going on and making something of themselves. "I believe unless it is broken why fix it."
Boys Town was not broken in 1973 when all the changes began happening...it may/may not be broken today...others will have to judge that. If I were at Boys Town today I would probably be among those that the current staff would have considered failures and I would have been returned to yet another cycle of moves within the foster care system. Today I could possibly be in prison or dead.
Cottage into which high schoolers used to move
High School Building
Old High School Dining Room, now the Great Hall where only noon meals are eaten. It is also used for special events, such as Reunion Weekend
I returned to Boys Town Aug 29-30, 2002, with some turmoil in my life. I needed a place where, despite all the changes, I felt comfortable. I needed that quiet time once again at the tomb of Fr. Flanagan and to visit with Renato...we were unable to hook up while I was there.
I also was close to Renato's younger brother, Dennis. He was two years behind us. Dennis unfortunately passed away suddenly just before Christmas 1999.
I spent hours in the Alumni building talking with some who were from the "old days." We compared notes and all realized that although Boys Town had been our "home," it was not "home" anymore.
Very few of those who graduate today join the alumni association, since they don't view Boys Town as ever having been their home. It was a place they spent a year or two and then went back to their own homes. The loyalty to the home is for us old-timers and not for the newbies. Today, they are lucky to know their next door neighbors, yet alone many of the other students.
The "Twelve Night" celebrations no longer happen, "intramural sports" are a thing of the past...even the old grade school football field has been demolished to make way for new family homes. The "Boys Town Choir," once nationally known from our tours and records, has made the heap bin of the past as has "Christmas Eve Midnight Mass." These were some of the things that made all of us at Boys Town part of the community and "our home." It is sad to see them all go.
During this trip, I found out that the last of the "old guard" has left the home. That is, all the teachers, counselors and others from my era are now either deceased or retired. The last was Dr. Pat McGinnis, who was a guidance counselor during my day. He retired in 2001 as Superintendent of Schools. The era of 1961-1968 is now history.
Going "home" again will be difficult in future years as there will be no one from the past to talk to or share memories with, except for fellow classmates. As the years go by, those will become fewer. In time, Boys Town's first 50 years will be only found in the history book of the home.
I can see now why it is even more difficult for those who were here before my time to come home...as their era has long been history. It's like going home and not finding your parents there, since they have passed. So to is that feeling, when those of us at Boys Town boys prior to 1968 go home. It will be "home" but at the same time it won't be...how sad it will be.
On my visit this time, a few of us who had visited in the Alumni Office, decided to go to lunch in the visitor's cafe. We did not know the table we decided to sit at would put us in a front row seat to observe a ceremony. During lunch, six young men and two young women were accompanied by Fr. Peter into the cafe to participate in a "Citizenship Swearing In Ceremony." Fr. Peter in his introduction, with a mural of Fr. Flanagan and the first five boys of Boys Town in the background, stated that thousands of previous students had taken this citizenship oath in the previous 85 years of Boys Town and they were about to become a part of this special village.
Those at my table could only look and wonder when such a ceremony had begun...I had never done this. I became a citizen of Boys Town just by arriving, just as one born in the USA becomes a citizen just by arriving by birth. There before a full cafe, the young people were to raise their right hands and take an oath of citizenship...making three promises which I don't fully remember, as I had become upset by this point.
After taking the oath, each person then had to address those in attendance. They gave their name, where they were from, stated the names of their house parents and assistant, stated 3 things they liked about the home, 3 goals they hoped to achieve while at the home and finally what had been the hardest thing for them since arriving at the home. I felt quite sorry for each young person as they went through this ritual. It became so obvious that the Boys Town I knew as a "home" was no more, but just another "treatment center" like those which can be found all over the country. One could tell by the comments the young people gave that they had been rehearsed so as to make a good impression. It appeared the ceremony was more for the staff gathered than for the young people themselves.