Readers of my blog or my book know I spent what I considered the most formative years of my youth (age 11-18) as one of Father Flanagan’s boys at world renowed Boys Town, Nebraska.
I consider those years my most formative as they are the years where I would learn things and have some folks influence me that would stay with me throughout my life.
People who taught me some life lessons or influenced me were folks like Mr. Clarence Weinerth (Debate Coach), Ms. Geneveive Condon (English Teacher), Moe Synskie (Choir) and Dr. Patrick McGinnis (Guidance Counselor). I was able to thank Mr. Weinerth before he passed in 1997. I had a special meeting with Dr. McGinnis at the Alumni Reunion in 2011 to say a heartfelt thank you. Ms. Condon & Moe I never said thank you before they passed but I say thank you now.
There were however two men who taught me the most and whose influence has carried me through the very trying times of my life since my youth. Two men who unfortunately I never took the time to say thank you to for how much they did for me and still do for me all these years later.
I never knew my father as a child. I would not meet him until I turned forty years old. I had a foster dad whom I always called DAD and do so til this very day, however he was hundreds of miles away during these formative years.
The two men I speak of are the late former Executive Director of Boys Town, Msgr. Nicholas H. Wegner and the late former Director of the renowned Boys Town Choir, Msgr. Francis P. Schmitt…for the seven plus years at Boys Town both were to become the “father figures” in my life.
Both men were big in stature, strong disciplinarians. had booming voices but yet both were very gentle in heart and caring in spirit.
Both men had an open door policy for me, especially during my high school years. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I used the policy. I could talk to both of them about anything going on in my life and there were some very tough days during my years at Boys Town when I needed to talk or just have someone available with an open ear and a caring heart.
Msgr. Wegner personally took me to the funeral and then to her home afterwords to eat and to meet her sons. Apparently she had told them about me. They knew me as soon as I entered the door. It was a sad day for me.
Msgr. Wegner did not hire a new cook after Mrs. Fischer’s death. Thus my job at his home ended and I moved on to work with the Director of Food Services.
Working for Mrs. Fischer and Cy is where I learned to cook and bake. A skill still in use today being a single person.
Msgr. Wegner’s and my relationship however continued throughout my remaining years at Boys Town. His door was open to me whenever I wanted to visit with him if he was in town.
During my senior year while I was still entertaining the thought of becoming a priest he arranged for me to spend a week at Mount Michael Abbey in Elkorn, Nebraska. It was shortly after that week I decided it was more my desire to be like Msgr. Wegner than a real vocation making me think of becoming a priest. I decided not to enter the seminary. I believe Msgr. Wegner knew this would be my decision but he allowed me to make it on my own rather than directing me in any one direction.
I have to tell you about the escapade with Msgr. Schmitt. For this story I will call him just “Schmittie.” One was not allowed to call him that while we were at Boys Town but once we graduated he felt we earned the right to do so. Schmittie was the Boys Town choir director I spoke of before. Now Schmittie loved the good things of life. He loved his berets, his loud Hawaiian shirts, rich expensive cigars and his Chives Regal.
I, as well as others, were always asking him to let us try his Chives. We always got no for an answer.
Underneath the high school dining hall was a quarters where the priest on campus went for their meals as well as relax. They had a private dining room as well as library area. This is also the space where most of them kept their alcohol…especially at Christmas time.
Schmittie seemed to get his share of bottles of Chivas at Christmas. A friend and I were determined that the Christmas of our junior year he would have one less bottle.
A few days before Christmas my friend stood watch as I crept and and snatched a bottle while Schmittie and a few other priests were having dinner.
We ran back to our cottage and down to the basement. I had never tasted hard alcohol before and did this stuff ever taste strong and have a bit. We had about three shots a piece and were feeling pretty good. We hid the remainder.
As we came upstairs who was standing by the doorway but Schmittie. He said he knew it had to be us who took his Chivas. Of course we denied it. He said he wanted to give us something to enjoy it with and handed us both one of his rich tasting, expensive cigars. He also reminded us that choir rehearsal was in an hour and left.
Well, I just had to have another shot of Chivas and a taste of this cigar. Back downstairs I went. My friend didn’t join me.
I had two more shots and lit up the cigar. Was that ever a mistake. I don;t know which caused most of the room spinning but did it ever spin. Soon I was looking for a bucket.
Anyone in the choir did not miss a choir rehearsal. After attempting to clean up, away I went despite still having the room spin and feeling sick.
Schmittie saw me as I entered the rehearsal hall. He just knew I was sick. All he said was, “Larry,feeling OK?” Smiling all the while as I looked and felt like hell.
It seemed that night that he worked the baritones and basses extra hard. All the while I just couldn’t wait for rehearsal to be over.
Schmittie never said another word about the incident until 1987 when I went back for my first reunion. His first words to me were, “Larry, feeling OK?” We both had a good laugh and I finally admitted his Chivas tasted pretty good and it was his awful cigar that made me sick.
It was at this reunion the alumni made a special presentation to Schmittie. He had left Boys Town about ten years earlier. The presentation was a large oil painting. Around the outer corners were various pictures of the choir. In the center was a smiling Schmittie wearing a beret, a Hawaiian shirt and a cigar in his mouth.
Msgr. Wegner passed away in 1976 and Msgr. Schmitt in 1994 but their legacy in my life continues to live on. The were the father figures in my life growing up at Boys Town; when I needed it most. One couldn’t have asked for two better ones than them!
I miss them both but I know they are never far away as it is their lessons taught and influences that I rely upon in life. The years of Boys Town are over forty-three years in my past but these two men and what they meant to me make it seem like just yesterday.
I will always regret never taking the time to say thank you to them and sharing with them what I just shared with you the reader. Hopefully this message with make its way up to them.
Since I did not know my birth family until I searched them out as an adult I have found several useful web site in that effort. One of those site is called, “Find a Grave.” Recently I decided to see if anyone had set up a memorial for Msgrs’ Wegner and Schmitt as one had been set up for Fr. Flanagan. I did not find one for either of them so decided to do one for each of them. I used some of my own words for each but also drew upon some words which were written by others far more eloguent than I. The memorials may be find at the links below. I know I am not the only Boys Town alumni who were taught lessons by them or have influenced their lives, there are thousands, feel free to leave a note or flowers at these memorials:
When I graduated from Boys Town I did not realize the impact these two men had had on my life, it took me almost twenty-five years to realize it. Then it was too late to thank them personally as both had already passed to their just rewards. I will forever regret my stupidity!
May God grant them both eternal rest and peace…they both earned it! Your lessons were well learned and I say Thank You!