It has been said by many, including myself from time to time, that one cannot go home again. Well this past weekend I in fact did go home again. It is not your typical home but it was home for me for seven plus years of my youth.
I had spent the first eleven years of my youth moving from one home to another; fourteen moves altogether. This ended shortly after my eleventh birthday.
On April 16, 1961, I arrived at the place that would truly be my home and the place I call home until this day. This place I returned to this past weekend for only the sixth time in the forty plus years since I graduated high school from. This special place is Father Flanagan’s Boys Home; better known throughout the world as Boys Town, Nebraska.
Every two years those who were once young boys, and now also young girls, return to Boys Town from across the country. For many of us it is the only place we ever had to call home. It is a time to remember our youth, renew old friendships, swap stories and ask whatever happen to. Though I had visited a few other times on my own this would be only the third actual reunion I have attended.
I arrived at Boys Town after a drive of about seven hours from Fargo, North Dakota. There upon my arrival I was greeted by three alumni from my era…Chris, Chuck & Carl. Just seeing them and giving big hugs made me feel immediately that I had come home.
After greetings as well as a reminder of something I had said upon graduation day back on June 2, 1968, “I will never come back to this %$#&@ place” we quickly moved on to the Alumni Office on campus to let them know we had come home.
While here I got to see the welcoming of the oldest alumni attending the reunion. He was at Boys Town 1937-1939 and is now 88 years old. He returned with his children and grandchildren. Though he was here only two years he stressed how much those two brief years changed his life and how grateful he was to be an alumnus of Boys Town. The oldest surviving alumnus of Boys Town had passed away only a few months ago at age 93.
After a lunch at the Visitor Center Chuck, Chris and I were off on a walking tour of the place we had spent so much time at, our old high school cottage, the high school, the old trade school and the field house. There would be more walks around the campus over the course of the weekend. While visiting these places we began almost immediately to do as returning Boys Town boys do…telling stories of the past. Yes, stories that may have taken but a few minutes when first told now took much longer as some seemed to expand as the years passed.
One thing I can tell you now is whenever Boys Town alumni gather for a visit DO NOT expect just a short visit. When we gather we can spend hours upon hours remembering stories of our youth at Boys Town…and many do this over the days of reunion weekend.
Before leaving campus to check in to my hotel for the weekend I had to make one stop alone. I went to Dowd Chapel to briefly visit and say a prayer of thanksgiving at the tomb of Father Flanagan. It is something I have done upon each return visit to Boys Town. Though I did not fully appreciate things during my years at Boys Town I have since. If not for a simple priest seeing the need to found a place for boys in need back in 1917 I do not know where I would be today. I admit each time I do this a few tears come as I am so grateful now for those seven plus years I spent in this place I call home.
In the early evening a pre-reunion weekend pizza party was in store. This had been planned by a small group of us to accommodate those who had arrived early for the weekend. The official Reunion Weekend did not start until Friday. Over 100 alumni, some with family in tow, gathered at a local pizza establishment to begin the story telling. Here I had a chance to greet and hug a number of my former classmates; each eager for the weekend ahead.
Friday brought the official beginning with registration at the Great Hall on campus. Each registrant received a bag with the weekend program and several goodies. One also had their first chance to purchase a few mementos. There appeared to be a steady stream of cars arriving bringing alumni home. The big event of this day besides a golf tournament for those who play golf would not come until the evening hours.
I would spend part of this day continuing my walking journey around campus. One should note that walking was the way we got around the 1400 acre campus back in my day. Today the youth are driven everywhere they go. I prefer the old mode of transportation…my own two feet! Today I visited Chambers Chapel (where those not of the Catholic faith attend services and not on campus when I was here), Father Flanagan’s official home on campus until Dowd Chapel & rectory was built, the Boys Town Lake and the Music Hall. As I walked I could see many others doing the exact same thing. In some cases alumni were bringing their children and grandchildren to the home for the first time to show them where that had grown up.
Late afternoon brought me back to Dowd Chapel to supposedly listen to a period of reflections by Father Clifford Stevens, class of 1944). Usually Father Stevens talks of his memories as a youth of Father Flanagan. Today was different. He gave a very moving tribute to Msgr. Schmidt. Smittie, as some of us call him now that he can’t get us) was Choir Director at Boys Town for over thirty years. The Boys Town Concert Choir was known throughout the country as one of the finest youth choirs that toured all over the country each fall. Smittie was also one of my father figures throughout my years at Boys Town. At the conclusion I could only go to Father Stevens with tears in my eyes to say thank you for his very emotional tribute. Seems I get teary eyed rather easily these days -:)
The time came for the first official gathering of the weekend in the Great Hall…the Alumni Social. Here at the hall, as with many other buildings on campus, hung a huge banner welcoming alumni home. Hundreds began pouring into the hall. You could hear the greeting of old classmates, much laughter, stories being told. Though it may have been years in some cases of seeing each other one could see how easily old classmates interacted as if it had only been yesterday since they had seen each other.
I had one such experience that evening. There was one person whom I had lived with in Cottage 38 for part of my high school years who graduated with me but I had not heard from or seen since 1968. Am grateful he still recognized me as I would not have him as he had completely changed hairstyles since then…he came over to me saying he recognized me immediately. We sat down with his wife and son and just immediately began sharing what we had done since our days at Boys Town, recounted stories and other boys we had known. You would not have known over forty years had passed since we last saw each other. Thank you John, Candy & Shamus for one of my highlights of the weekend. We also determined that evening we would not let forty years go by again without speaking to or seeing each other. The fortunate thing is we found out live only a few hour drive from each other.
I saw so many of my former classmates that evening. We took a photo which included many of us though throughout the weekend we never seemed to be able to gather everyone from the class of 1968 together in one spot for a complete picture.
Three more highlights were added to the weekend experience on Saturday. Jim Acklin had been one of my closest friends during my final two years at Boys Town. He had also been my debate partner in our senior year. Our winning record in 1968 still stands today. Jim went on to Notre Dame then joined the Air Force. Jim became a test pilot and on one training mission in the fall of 1987 his plane’s window was hit by a flock of birds. After seeing to it that as many of his crew as possible could be saved Jim, along with two crew members, went down with the plane. Jim had given his all for his country and fellow men. This day Jim was honored by the BTNAA (Boys Town National Alumni Association) as one of the outstanding alumni of Boys Town. I had hoped and prayed Jim would be honored in this manner for years.
The second highlight came after a luncheon for alumni in the Great Hall. Each reunion weekend includes a short but solemn memorial service at the Armed Forces Memorial. Boys Town alumni have been a part of each of our armed services as well as war since WWII. Over 40 alumni gave their all in WWII and alumni have been lost in each war since. A color guard of present day ROTC members is presented, the pledge is recited, words of remembrance given, a wreath is laid, taps are played and a prayer is offered not only for those who lost their lives in war but for all who have been willing to answer the call of their country yesterday as well as today.
The third highlight of the day was the gathering of the Alumni Choir for rehearsal. The alumni choir had become a part of reunion weekend in 1997. The choir would rehearse to sing the high mass on Sunday as well as give a short Patriotic concert. The choir section back in the old days lived in one building during grade school years (Gregory Hall) or old Section 4 (Cottages 34-39) during high school years. Since we lived in one area we probably developed some of the stronger relationships during our years there. The choir section seems to bring a number back for reunion weekend. Over forty of us gathered in the upper room of the Music Hall this Saturday afternoon to rehearse the mass and concert; it was just so much like the old days…especially with some of the Latin liturgical selections to be used for the mass. It is amazing how the Latin comes back to one even after so many years.
Another highlight within this highlight deserves mentioning here. Reggie, a member of the class of 1967, attended. This was a highlight because of what Reggie has endured the past ten plus years. In 1998 it was discovered that Reggie had kidney cancer. Though he overcame it there was not a kidney transplant available thus Reggie had to go on dialysis. He then experienced testilcal cancer and prostate cancer…each of which he overcame but also until he was cancer free for three years made him ineligible for a transplant. Two weeks before the reunion Reggie finally got his new kidney. Though still very weakened and in pain Reggie was determined to make the reunion. Reggie had been prayed for by many of us over the years and to see him present was truly an inspiration for all of us!
That evening a dinner and dance was held at the DC Centre. Besides the dinner it is also a time to give special recognition to some of the classes returning home. Very special recognition is given to those commemorating their 25th & 50th anniversary of their graduation. Those remembering their 30th & 40th are highlighted in a smaller fashion. It was great however when it was aksed that those celebrating their 40th anniversary (classes of 1968 & 1969) to stand up…close to 50 alumni stood in unison…the largest contingent of the reunion. John, Alumni Advisor, could only say, “WOW boy did they ever storm Nebraska this weekend.” We are quite proud of this accomplishment!
I was excited by The Alumni Ambassador Program introduced by Fr. Boes, current BT Director, at the Reunion Banquet. This program is designed to challenge and empower us as alumni to spread the good work, by public speaking, that Fr. Flanagan started by giving us the proper tools and education to do so. In addition, this Ambassador program will give us the opportunity to welcome new alumni to our communities by introducing them to the community and aid them in their transition period and all the potential conflicts that might arise—sort of like a Welcome Wagon.
This is the first time Boys Town has challenged alumni to give back though we asked for a challenge many times before. In the past we were just asked to return for reunions, pay our membership dues and try to uphold the traditions of Boys Town. Now for those of us who accept the challenge we can become true partners in the efforts of the Boys Town of today.
Sunday morning brought another choir rehearsal followed by mass and concert. Dowd Chapel was packed to the rafters as many had to stand in the aisles throughout the service. The church was filled with present day youth, their teaching parents, local parish members and of course the alumni and families. The closing song of the concert proved to be the highlight of the concert. Those in attendance were asked to sit, they had been standing throughout the concert to this point, and stand when their branch of service song was sung…it was a medley to the armed forces of our country. As each song was sung alumni stood to cheering from the others in tribute to their service to the country. The concert ended with a standing ovation and shouts of more, more, more. We gave them what they asked for by singing Salve Mater which had been sung earlier in the mass.
The final event of the weekend is a picnic at the Boys Town Lake; a site which many tales can be told about. Here final photos are taken, the final stories are told and promises to return in two years hence are given. As quickly as the weekend began it also ends.
Boys Town has undergone many changes over the past forty plus years, some I agree with and others not, but this was not a weekend to dwell on those changes. It was a time to remember our youth, our friends and what Boys Town meant to each of us. A bond of brotherhood has been established amongst those of us who call Boys Town home and it is a bond not broken even after many years since leaving Boys Town. To us we are family and for many the only family they will ever know.
Though the reunion was over I was to have one more highlight before arriving home in Fargo. A fellow member of the class of 1968 who had planned to attend in the end was unable to. We had reconnected after forty years earlier in the year via E mail and phone calls but had not seen each face to face since graduation. On my way home I made a call to him and he said I had to come by the house. He lives only three miles off the interstate I was travelling. What was planned to be but a half hour visit turned into over two and a half for us. Just like John a few days earlier in the weekend we talked like we had seen each other just the day before rather than it having been over forty years. Thank you Tom & Linda for making the perfect ending to a perfect weekend!!
I have made an album of photos from the weekend, some of the photos I personally took while others were provided by fellow alumni. They tell the story in photos while here I have tried as simply as I can to put it all into words…the photos probably tell it better than I can.
Those who may have looked at the album already may wish to do so again as many more have been added (up to 70 now) and a few more will yet be added. Though it is on Facebook one does NOT need to be a member of Facebook to view it. Just go to:
I know this blog entry is rather lengthy or wordy some might say. I however could not let the weekend pass without putting into words what I felt on this inside over the course of the weekend. This was only the third reunion of the twenty held since my graduation and it was the best of the three. If health wise and financially able I hope to attend each reunion from this point on.
If for some unfortunate reason I am not able to attend another reunion gathering I wish to thank fellow alumni who were not part of my class such a Chuck, Tom, Chico. John, Javier, Reggie & Joe but especially members of the class of 1968: David, John C, John G, Renato, Chris, Gregory, Tom B, Juan, Dan, Pat, Bruce, Vernon, LaVerne, Joe, Stan & Jim as well as John Mollison and the Alumni Office staff including Tom & Mark for making this weekend one I will always remember….thank you for the cherished memories!
One can go home again and this weekend proved it to me!