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Visiting Boys Town… Where A World Of Care For Troubled Youngsters Rose On Nebraska Plains

September 26, 2023 Frontpage No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

By DEXTER DUGGAN

OMAHA — An Irish-born priest in Phoenix once recalled that when he and a young friend from the seminary in the Emerald Isle were told they were being assigned to Arizona, they got out a map. One of them was being sent to Phoenix, the other young priest to Tucson.
The two cities didn’t look far apart. The priests decided that on their days off, one of them could bike over to visit the other. They hadn’t noticed the scale of mileage on the map. Phoenix and Tucson are about 116 miles apart, hardly a distance for a morning’s quick bike ride, especially on a summer desert day.
Following God’s will can bring surprises, as also happened to another Irishman arriving in the United States. That would be Edward Flanagan, who emigrated to the United States in 1904, pursued seminary studies in Europe, then was ordained a priest in 1912 and returned to Nebraska.
Who would have dreamed that a quarter-century later, the work that this young Irish-born priest decided to pursue would result in a movie featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars having its world premiere on the plains of eastern Nebraska, in Omaha in 1938.
That would be the movie named after his pioneering work to provide non-punitive rehabilitation on a campus of youngsters outside Omaha, Boys Town, featuring Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan himself and Mickey Rooney as a tough young kid who was reformed.
Visiting Omaha in late August, The Wanderer stopped by Flanagan’s two-story brick home, where the front parlor, his office, kitchen, and dining room are among exhibits of his life’s work, as well as a “Hall of History” museum, all set amid the daily activities of Boys Town today, located at the former Overlook Farm, where the program moved in 1921 after beginning in Omaha in 1917.
Flanagan, who became a U.S. citizen, believed there was no such thing as a bad boy if the youngster was given proper upbringing and support, but boys went bad due to such conditions as deprivation and cruelty.
In the movie, which has fictional elements, a condemned murderer rails against the plight he’d suffered as a youngster, homeless and in state institutions.
The morning after the movie premiere, the Omaha World-Herald reported on September 8, 1938: “Thirty thousand persons jam-packed all streets surrounding the Omaha Theater last night for a fleeting glimpse of a troupe of movie bigwigs who turned the city into Hollywood for a night. The city did more than imitate Hollywood for this — its first world movie premiere. It outdid Hollywood….
“While 110 policemen and 40 firemen worked strenuously but efficiently to keep the crowd in check, impatient persons who had stood in the middle of Douglas Street for more than two hours to see the event strained steel wires holding them back to near the breaking point,” the lengthy story added.
It said that Flanagan had made a special request to MGM Studios for the movie to receive its premiere before an Omaha audience.
Tracy received an Academy Award for his role as Flanagan, and the movie was a box-office money-maker, reportedly one of the most successful films of 1938, even though back in Hollywood there earlier was said to have been some concern that it lacked “sex appeal.”
Striking a modest note about portraying Flanagan when he received his Oscar, Tracy said, “If you have seen him through me, then I thank you.”
However, the Boys Town website says one flat note occurred when donations to Flanagan’s endeavor dropped drastically because the public mistakenly thought Boys Town was sharing in the movie’s financial rewards, and Tracy had to issue a statement to ask people to resume contributing.
After Flanagan’s ordination in 1912 and early service as a parish priest for the then-Diocese of Omaha, he was able to establish a hotel for poor workingmen and later said that he was told repeatedly, “It’s too late for me now, Father. If only someone had helped me when I was a boy.”
Bearing this in mind, in 1917 Flanagan borrowed $90 to pay a month’s rent on a building where he brought the first five residents of what would develop into Boys Town. He wrote later: “My first two boys came from the juvenile courts, and three others, whom I had been befriending in my own small way to keep their bodies and souls together, I picked up off the streets.”
An article at the nebraskastudies.org website says Flanagan received permission to focus his efforts on this endeavor, with nuns assigned to help him, and soon there were 50 boys in their care, bringing about a move to larger quarters the following year, 1918, the abandoned German-American Home in Omaha, which had a capacity of 150 boys.
In late 1921 the move to Overlook Farm was accomplished, the nebraskastudies.org article says, where “the boys raised some of their own food in a vegetable garden and had room for a baseball diamond, track, and football field. They planted corn, alfalfa, and potatoes, and tended their fruit orchard and vegetable garden. They also gathered milk from the cows.
“By March 1922, business and religious leaders and many Omaha residents had raised enough money to break ground for a new Boys Town structure,” the article says. “It was a five-story brick building, which would house the classrooms, dining hall, gym, dormitory, chapel, and infirmary.”
At the time the farm was 10 miles west of Omaha, but today the city has grown around it.
Boys Town willingly took in boys regardless of race or religion. As the project continued to grow, it had separate chapels to accommodate both its Catholic and non-Catholic residents, and sometimes encountered problems when its sports teams traveled elsewhere in days past and faced laws enforcing racial segregation.
As decades passed major changes occurred, including welcoming troubled girls to Boys Town, too, and replacing dormitory living with a number of family-style homes on the campus, each with a resident “family-teacher” married couple, even while the large majority of young people receiving attention no longer even lived there but were part of a Boys Town network of care.
Girls began living at Boys Town in 1979. Their presence reportedly even improved the behavior of the boys.
An article posted in May 2023 at the Boys Town website says: “The decision to welcome girls to Boys Town’s Family Home Program initially was met with much uncertainty and some resistance. But Fr. Robert Hupp, then Boys Town’s executive director, realized that young girls faced the same problems as boys, and that Fr. Flanagan’s mission had to include helping and caring for all children.
“Boys Town successfully weathered the storm of controversy that came with this new approach, and more and more girls were able to find success through our compassionate, family-style care,” the article says.
“Today, girls make up about half of the youth population that receives care in the Village of Boys Town and at several of our affiliate sites. Girls have served as the mayor and vice mayor of Boys Town, have excelled in academics, sports, music, art and leadership, and have represented the Home as inspirational ambassadors,” the Boys Town article says, adding:
“In 2017, during Boys Town’s Centennial celebration, a new statue depicting a boy carrying a girl on his back was dedicated on our Home Campus, joining our iconic ‘Two Brothers’ statue in symbolizing Boys Town’s commitment to helping children.”
The reference to the “Two Brothers” statue meant the logo with one youngster carrying a smaller one on his back and labeled, “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s m’ brother.” Today, the smaller child is a pigtailed girl.
An article on the local-news first page of the August 25, 2023, Omaha World-Herald said that a growing emphasis at Boys Town on providing preventive services that focus on keeping families together “has been in line with trends in child welfare nationally.”
Rather than remove youths to institutional settings, the World-Herald article said, “Boys Town says today more than 90 percent of the youths it serves never set foot on the campus.”
The article also reported that Boys Town’s executive director, Fr. Steven Boes, announced his retirement from that post after serving since 2005. In a September 7 message posted at the Boys Town website, Boes said: “Fr. Flanagan believed that faith was integral to the healing process and that belief continues to guide us today.
“As the leader of Catholic worship here at Boys Town, it has been my honor to work alongside the other religious leaders on campus to foster a community that warmly welcomes all, regardless of religious beliefs, race or creed,” Boes said. “I will remain eternally grateful for those partnerships and the inclusive community that is, and always has been, Boys Town.”
Following WWII, President Harry Truman asked Flanagan, by then internationally known for child care, to visit parts of Asia and Europe to see what could be done for children orphaned and made homeless by that conflict. While in Germany in 1948, Flanagan died of a heart attack at age 61. He is interred at the Catholic chapel at Boys Town.
The Boys Town website features a number of Flanagan’s quotations. Here are a few:
“No race that does not take care of its young can hope to survive, or deserves to survive.”
“There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.”
“A true religious training for children is most essential if we are to expect to develop them into good men and good women — worthy citizens of our great country.”
“I have yet to find a single boy who wants to be bad.”
“I know when the idea of a boys’ home grew in my mind, I never thought of anything remarkable about taking in all of the races and all of the creeds. To me, they are all God’s children. They are my brothers. They are children of God. I must protect them to the best of my ability.”
“When parents fail to do their job, when they allow their children to run the streets and keep bad company, when they fail to provide them with good examples in the home, then the parents, and not the children, are delinquent.”
“The poor, innocent, unfortunate little children belong to us, and it is our problem to give them every chance to develop into good men and good women.”
“Without God at the beginning, there can be only confusion at the end.”

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