Boys Town recalled as strict, caring

January 28, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Boys Town has held a mystique as the cure for troubled youth ever since Spencer Tracy's heart-rending 1938 movie about a benevolent priest bent on saving wayward boys.

And that image was revived recently when House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested Hillary Clinton watch the movie to understand his desire to revive orphanages as a cheap answer to welfare reform.

But Boys Town is no mere Hollywood creation. The Nebraska-based organization has reared thousands of children during its 77 years -- leaving warm memories that stretch into Maryland.

For Joseph Pline, who lives near Frederick, the Boys Town of the 1930s was a strict, but decent, place for a Depression-era child whose father was dead and whose immigrant mother was so poor she had to give up her four children.

More than 50 years later, Maureen Folts, a suicidal teen-ager from a wealthy home, discovered in Boys Town the close family (( life she craved and an inner strength that "gave me everything I need in life."

Today, Father Flanagan's Boys' Home, once a financially strapped orphanage for wayward white boys, has become so wealthy that the National Charities Information Bureau, a watchdog group, has criticized it for having assets that far exceed its expenses. And it welcomes troubled boys -- and girls -- of different races.

Joe Pline arrived in Boys Town, just outside Omaha, from an Iowa orphanage during the Depression. He was 13.

He remembers baling hay and milking cows on the Boys Town farm. Strict nuns rapped the knuckles of boys who threw spitballs "or sassed a sister" and the real Father Edward J. Flanagan forced boys to eat whole green apples when they were caught stealing fruit from the orchard.

The worst punishment was reserved for Sundays when Hollywood movies were shown in the gym -- bad boys had to sit with their backs to the screen so they could hear, but not see, the film. "It was a very rough punishment because we were all quite young," recalls the 75-year-old retired military and government worker.

As for the real Father Flanagan, who started the orphanage in 1917 with $90 and five boys, Mr. Pline says, "I liked him very much. I had no home to go to, and if you don't have a home, the next best thing would be going to Boys Town."

The discipline learned at Boys Town helped Mr. Pline during his 22 year in the Navy. And he still keeps in touch with those he grew up with, attending reunions at the home campus in Nebraska.

Eight years after Mr. Pline left Boys Town, Charlie Powell arrived on a train from Baltimore in 1947 with 4 cents in his pocket.

Mr. Powell wasn't an orphan or in trouble. He went to Boys Town to sing. At age 13, he was a coloratura soprano and had fallen in love with the famed Boys Town Choir when it played in Baltimore.

The teen-ager was allowed into the boys home because his mother had abandoned him at birth. He was raised by his father with the help of a family on Druid Hill Avenue.

By the time he arrived at Boys Town, its population had grown from the 200 of Joe Pline's day to 500.

"I think I was the 14th black to come on campus. I had never seen so many white people in my life, because on Druid Hill Avenue the only whites I had contact with were the police officers on the corner.

"The whole of my high school years, being in a society that was white, there was never in my entire experience a racial incident. Father Flanagan wouldn't put up with it," says Mr. Powell, 63, who lives in Prince George's County and is the senior passenger operations supervisor for the Washington Metro.

The Boys Town that Joe Pline and Charlie Powell remember is gone.

It's located in the same place and run on the same principles that Father Flanagan espoused. But Boys Town's approach to troubled youths has changed as American society has had to deal with drug use, sexual abuse and other problems far more serious than picking forbidden fruit.

Children, ages 9 to 18, live in 76 family-style "homes" with married couples acting as counselors and surrogate parents. Eight children live in each "home."

With an annual $94 million budget, Boys Town spends $109 a day, or nearly $40,000 a year, to care for troubled children, said the home's spokesman, Randy Blauvelt. The endowment now totals $500 million.

In addition to donations, the home receives money from local governments that send children to Boys Town from juvenile service or social service agencies.

And it has expanded to seven campuses around the country, with 1,152 children from 35 states.

That's probably not the kind of "orphanage" that Newt Gingrich envisioned as a cheap way to reform the welfare system.

Today, 45 percent of the children are minorities -- mostly black or Hispanic, said Mr. Blauvelt. And there are 200 girls at Boys Town.

Maureen Folts, who once lived there, arrived in 1990 at her wits' end.

Ms. Folts says she had been suicidal, anorexic, bulimic and manic depressive and was living with a 32-year-old man when she was 16. She also abused drugs and alcohol.

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