the epitome of kindness at boys town in omaha

I didn’t go looking for kindness on that September morning, but I found plenty of it at Boys Town. Founded in Omaha, Nebraska in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan, Boys Town has been providing care and advocating for the causes of children for more than 100 years.

Kindness is multilayered, starting first with oneself.  A kind person has integrity, treats oneself as he would treat those he cares about, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and heeds a call.  Father Edward Flanagan epitomized kindness. A priest born in Ireland, he first heeded a call to priesthood. He wanted to serve and built his life around the faith he developed within the Catholic Church.

After he came to America, he began working with men; soon, he decided boys could benefit most from his help.  He didn’t believe a boy could be bad.  He founded Boys Town to help boys who were suffering due to poverty, neglect, beatings, and other societal ills. The boys lived with families in a community and were given not only a regular education but also were schooled in a trade and skills. They also played sports and were able to practice their own religion.  Father Flanagan helped a lot of boys who wouldn’t have had a chance to make anything of themselves.

Kindness means being true to one’s own values and beliefs, not other people’s beliefs.  It sometimes means being tough and acting on one’s own principles; it is not enabling another to act as one pleases.  It also means finding compassion for a person’s life journey while maintaining one’s own boundaries and respecting one’s own needs. Father Flanagan accepted boys from all races, religions and ethnicities.  He believed they could all become productive members of society.  He allowed them to worship in their own religion, but they were encouraged to have a spiritual life.  He wanted them all educated, both academically and vocationally, and to develop a work ethic.  He wasn’t interested in letting them run rampant and do whatever they pleased.  He had expectations for them, and held them to high standards.

I was moved by the story of Father Flanagan’s life, and the story of Boys Town, as I visited the Campus during my Road Trip to Nowhere last fall.

I started at the Visitor Center, where I found the biggest ball of stamps in the world.  The Ball of Stamps was started in 1953 by D.O. Barrett, the first curator of the Boys Town Stamp Center, and youth who were members of the Boys Town Stamp Collecting Club.  It started from a golf ball and grew to a ball 32 inches in diameter, weighing 600 pounds and consisting of 4,655,000 postage stamps. In 1955, the attraction earned recognition as a record-setter from Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Father Flanagan promoted stamp collecting as an educational hobby at Boys Town in the 1930s and 1940s.  That led to the creation of the Leon Myers Stamp Center, a museum and office in the Boys Town Visitor Center.

I also saw a stamp mural and bought some stamps of the Lewis and Clark expedition to put in my journal.  I also bought my own golf ball and stamps to begin to make my own giant stamp ball.  I threw out the golf ball and kept the stamps, as I’ve always been attracted to the “idea” of collecting stamps, although I’ve never actually formally collected them.

I drove around the beautiful campus, with its high school, middle school, recreation center with a pool. I saw the huge and lovely homes where a mother, father and up to three of their own kids also live with as many as 13 boys, like a real family.

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Boys Town North Campus map

I encountered a statue of Father Flanagan with four boys of all races and ethnicities, all of whom he helped.

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Variety Club Statue

I went to Father Flanagan’s historic home, but it was closed.

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Fr. Flanagan Historic House

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brick names

Then I walked through the Bible Garden with Bible verses mentioning various garden plants and a stone marker with the Beatitudes.

For Sage: Exodus 37:17: “And he made the candlestick of pure gold…even its base, and its shaft…”  Weeping mulberry: Luke 17:5-6: “…If you have faith as small as mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree…”

Boys Town has both Protestant and Catholic chapels. From the beginning, Father welcomed boys of any religion to Boys Town.  He insisted that they continue to learn and worship in their accustomed faith.

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Chambers Protestant Chapel

I went into the Dowd Chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows.  I kept getting choked up as I learned of all that the organization has done.  I saw Father Flanagan’s casket in the chapel and said a prayer of thanks for his good heart, his kindness, and the work he did in the world.

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Dowd Chapel & Fr. Flanagan Tomb

After all of this, I dropped in to the Hall of History, a museum about the history of Boys Town, which is still going strong even after Father Flanagan’s death in 1948.

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Hall of History

The home’s reputation as a haven for homeless youngsters soon brought hundreds of boys – wards of the courts, victims of broken homes, orphans, and runaways – to its doorstep. Crowded quarters forced Father Flanagan to accept only those boys whose situations were most dire.  He began to look for a larger, permanent home.

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

Father Flanagan envisioned a rural community, self-sufficient and removed from the disrupting influences of urban life. He wanted the space and opportunity to build an educational, spiritual, and recreational program that would give his boys a new chance in life. Ten miles west of Omaha he found Overlook Farm, 160 acres of rolling farmland and plenty of room on which to build his “City of Little Men (1921-1948).”

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Father Flanagan

In the spring of 1922, the boys began to turn Overlook into a working farm.  Using teams of mules, the boys planted corn, alfalfa, and potatoes.  Others tended the fruit orchard and vegetable gardens.  By 1923, the Home had Holstein cows and milking machines, but 35 gallons of milk still had to be purchased daily to feed the boys.  Food was often scarce and donations were needed.  By the late 1930s, increased crop yields and livestock production made the Home more self-sufficient.  A vocational training program in agriculture and 4-H clubs gradually took over most of the farm work.

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windmill from Overlook Farm

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

By the mid-1930s, life at Boys Town had settled into a routine that centered on home, school and church.  What Father Flanagan was accomplishing with his wayward boys began drawing national attention.

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Hall of History

Daily life was busy in the City of Little Men.  The boys woke to a trumpet call at 6:30 a.m. to make their beds before breakfast in the dining hall.  Their days were filled with school work and vocational training courses.  In the evenings, the boys enjoyed hobbies such as stamp collecting or model building, and they listened to the radio.  With the sound of taps at 9 p.m. each boy returned to the “apartment” he shared with 25 roommates to get ready for bed.

The whole community gathered for meals daily, a regular Sunday night movie, and religious services on weekends.  Special events and holidays, plays and musicals, an annual Fourth of July picnic and a large Christmas celebration fostered community spirit.

Father Flanagan recognized that wayward boys needed more than food, shelter and an education to turn their lives around. A boy’s spiritual needs must also be nurtured.  Daily life in the Home stressed the importance of moral values, strength of character and each boy’s personal relationship with God.  Father Flanagan served as an inspirational model for the boys.

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

On Sunday afternoons in the 1920s, thousands of Americans tuned in their radios to hear Father Flanagan’s latest message from Boys Town. It featured addresses by the Father and music by the Boys’ Home Band.

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

Play and organized sports were also activities at the home. Father Flanagan believed athletics demanded discipline and built character. In the early years when money was short, he encouraged boys to hold marble tournaments and boxing matches, fly kites, or go swimming and fishing. Later sports attention focused on the high school’s basketball, baseball and football teams.

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

When his boys left the Home, Father Flanagan wanted them to have two things: an academic education and training in a trade. He believed knowing the skills of a job would help the boys become responsible adults. Woodworking and broom making were taught in a carpentry shop that opened in 1921.  Baking, barbering, tailoring, printing, agriculture and other vocations were added later.

Work in the trades program also benefited the Home: apprentice bakers, for example, prepared the loaves of bread daily and students printed the monthly newspaper in the school print shop.

Many boys had little schooling before arriving at Boys Town, so the academic program focused on remedial learning. An emphasis on math and science complemented the trades program.

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Hall of History

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Hall of History

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Bank window at the Hall of History

A 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy, Boys Town, was based on the life of Flanagan. Mickey Rooney also starred as one of the residents.

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Boys Town with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney

An ambitious $13 million expansion program in 1948 transformed Boys Town from a rural village into a small city.  Twenty-five cottages supplemented the traditional dormitory quarters for the boys and their counselors.  A new High School and Trade School housed expanded academic and vocational training programs. A new Music Hall held 1,400 seats; nearby the Field House contained a basketball court, swimming pool, and indoor track. A High School Dining Hall, Post Office, Town Hall, Welfare Administration, and Visitors Center were also added to the campus. In 1951, a 40-bed hospital was staffed by dentists, physicians and nurses.

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Buildings and homes on the Boys Town Campus

Many of the troubles Boys Town children struggle with today are similar to those that early Boys Town residents faced: economic inequality, racial injustice, absent parents, broken families, violent streets, violent homes, failing schools. Many of these children never learn the social skills they need, or have the opportunity to grown into well-adjusted young adults.

On Boys Town Home Campus, Boys Town High School serves youth in grades 9-12.  Wegner Middle School serves youth in grades 5-8, and lower grades if necessary. School is year-round, including half-days in summer. Both schools provide comprehensive academic and vocational classes, which include instruction in reading, math, science, art, music, religion, and physical education.

I was very impressed with this organization and the beautiful campus, where kindness is shown to those who might not otherwise have a chance to succeed in the world.

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My day in Omaha

*Wednesday, September 4, 2019*

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“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write up to a post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose.

It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction for this invitation.  You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose. You can also include photos, of course.

One of my intentions for my Road Trip to Nowhere was to pick a theme a day. Freewrite about that theme and intermingle it with that day’s explorations. Today’s theme was kindness.

Include the link in the comments below by Monday, June 8 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this invitation on Tuesday, June 9, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!