Whether you’re a Omaha resident who lives here year-round or part of the year, a native returning home, or a visitor here for the first or tenth time, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of some places to see and things to do in the metro. I prepared the following list for the Omaha World-Herald a few years ago. At least one of the attractions is now defunct (Project Omaha) and if I were making a new list today I would include some additional sites (including the House of Loom and TD Ameritrade Park). The point is, it’s by no means a comprehensive list but more of a sampler of, as the headline says, some of the obvious and not so obvious sites to check out.
Finding the Essence of Omaha in all the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald
Loves Jazz & Arts Center
2510 No. 24th St., 502-5291
Steep yourself in Omaha’s rich African-American heritage through photographs, videos and other art/historical materials at this gem of a cultural center in the heart of the black community. See displays on the music and civil rights legacy of black Omaha. Catch lectures, panel discussions, poetry slams, live music jams, film screenings and other educational-entertainment programs.
South High School
4519 So. 24th St., 557-3640
Reminiscent of a visit to grandma’s attic, this one-of-a-kind museum in a public school setting uses artifacts along with student-made videos, books, games and other resources to explore Omaha history, including the stockyards. The collection’s size and depth will impress. Note the Brandeis department store Xmas window mockup. Call 557-3640 for a visit or a guided tour of historic city sites.
A Straight Horn – Dizzy Gillespie at Dreamland 1948 showing the unique Metal Pan Suspended Ceiling
The Jewell Building
Omaha Economic Development Corp. offices
2221 No. 24th St.
This National Register of Historic Places and Omaha Landmark designee was home to the famed Dreamland Ballroom, hosting scores of jazz/blues performing legends and overflow dance crowds. Now the offices for the Omaha Economic Development Corp., the restored Georgian Revival building features a large photographic display of those halcyon Dreamland nights of Basie, Ellington and more. A North O shrine.
The Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Jewish Community Center
333 So. 132nd St., By appointment at 334-6441
Photographs and archival documents depict Jewish life in Omaha from the turn of the last century through today. Special collections highlight the Jewish American experience of local merchants, war veterans and figures of national prominence, including Henry Monsky and Rose Blumkin. Print/video interviews reveal an Omaha Jewish community that was once much larger but that remains vibrant.
Cathedral Cultural Center and the St. Cecilia Institute
St. Cecilia Cathedral campus
3900 Webster St., 551-4888
The history of Omaha’s Catholic archdiocese and its cornerstone edifice, St. Cecilia Cathedral, is revealed in artifacts, photos and interpretive panels. The life and work of Thomas Kimball, architect of the Spanish Renaissance worship site, is well-chronicled. The center, located just east of the church in midtown, presents temporary art exhibits, lectures, receptions and other programs. Free admission.
El Museo Latino
4701 1/2 So. 25th St., 731-1137
National touring art exhibits complement a Latino Presence in Omaha section with photographs-narratives drawn from local community founders and elders. Listen to these pioneers’ oral history interviews in Spanish or English. Learn how the current Latino immigrant wave echoes earlier migrations in transforming Omaha. The El Museo Latino building was the former Polish Home and the original South High.
801 So. 10th St., 444-5071
The former Union Station is a beautifully appointed, restored Art Deco railroad terminal now home to interactive Omaha history displays and major touring shows. The Smithsonian affiliate and National Register of Historic Places site exhibits train cars and engines and a model layout of downtown’s U.P. yards. Enjoy lectures, discussions and films. The Durham also holds the Bostwick-Frohart collection’s 8 X 10 view camera photos of early 20th century Omaha.
Sokol South Omaha
2021 U St., 731-1065
Omaha’s ethnic enclaves celebrate their own and the Czech community is no different. Aside from the classic gymnastics program that’s part of any Sokol facility, this site maintains a museum featuring photographs and other memorabilia related to the nearby Brown Park neighborhood as well as local Sokol history, Czech traditions and leading Omaha Czechs. Tours by appointment at 731-1065.
3902 Davenport St., 595-2199
Built on a 5.5 acre estate this ornate Gold Coast home of George and Sarah Joslyn reflects the grandeur of early Omaha. The John McDonald-designed 35-room Scottish Baronial castle, now being restored in all its splendor, features exquisite mosaic tiles, in-laid woodwork, a ballroom and a conservatory. A splendid backdrop for teas, receptions and dinners, the mansion’s an Omaha Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site. For tours and rentals, call 595-2199.
Joslyn Art Museum
24th and Dodge, 342-3300
Sarah Joslyn’s magnificent memorial to her entrepreneur husband, George, opened in 1931. Designed by John and Alan McDonald, with a 1994 Norman Foster addition, the stunning Art Deco temple showcases a comprehensive permanent collection. Enjoy exhibits, lectures, concerts, films and tours. The new sculpture garden provides a major new attraction. The pavilion atrium is a popular gathering spot.
Douglas County Historical Society
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus
30th and Fort
Discover a vast repository of history pertaining to the city of Omaha and to Douglas County through archived newspapers, clipping files, maps, plats, atlases, documents, diaries, letters, books, artifacts, photographs and audio visual materials. Located in Building 11A on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus. Call 451-1013 to schedule research visits.
General Crook House Museum
The restored 1879 Italianate quarters for Indian Wars campaigner Gen. George Crook includes Victorian era decorative arts, costumes and furnishings. Classes and a reference collection on the history/appreciation of antiques are available. Tea aficionado Mona Christensen hosts proper teas. Call 455-9990 to arrange tours or private functions. Located in Building 11B on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus.
Orsi’s Italian Bakery
621 Pacific St., 345-3438
It’s a bakery/pizzeria not a gallery but walls of family and neighborhood photos depict Omaha’s Little Italy section through the years, including Santa Lucia festivities, Mason School graduation classes and local Italian-American sports icons. Orsi’s is an anchor business in the trendy nouveau residential urban community emerging in this historic district south of the Old Market.
Omaha Central High School
124 North 20th St., 557-3300
Omaha’s oldest all-grades public school dates back to 1859 but the stately National Register of Historic Places building on Capitol Hill was completed in four phases from 1900 to 1912. John Latenser’s Renaissance Revival design included an open courtyard. This school known for academic rigor boasts many distinguished grads. Exterior markers note the school-site’s rich history. Call 557-3300 to arrange viewing interior displays.
The Omaha Star
2216 No. 24th St., 346-4041
Since 1938 the Omaha Star newspaper has carried the collective voice of the local African American community in calling for equal rights and decrying bias. A beacon of hope on North 24th Street, the Star was a mission for its late founder and publisher, Mildred Brown. The apartment she kept in back has been preserved just as she left it. The National Register of Historic Places building is undergoing restoration.
Boys Town Hall of History
132nd and Dodge, 498-1300
The story of this fabled American institution is told in audio, video, artifact displays. Learn how Rev. Edward Flanagan’s original home for boys grew into a childcare leader at satellite campuses across the nation. See how the school’s band, choir and athletic teams helped put Boys Town on the map. View the Oscar Spencer Tracy won portraying Flanagan in the 1938 movie, Boys Town. Marvel at the many notables who’ve visited the Omaha campus.
W. Dale Clark Library
215 So. 15th St., 444-4800
Omaha history can be found in hundreds of books and videos as well as in decades-worth of local newspapers on microfilm. Inquire about Omaha history talks.
Omaha Community Playhouse
6915 Cass St., 553-0800
The Omaha Community Playhouse represents a significant portion of local live theater history. The original site at 40th and Davenport is where legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their starts on stage. At the height of their stardom they returned for benefit performances of The Country Girl that raised money to construct the current Playhouse, which contains a collage of famed players who’ve trod the boards there.
Livestock Exchange Building
4920 So. 20th St.
For nearly a century the Omaha Stockyards and Big Four meatpacking plants ruled the roost. The hub for the booming livestock market was the 11-story Livestock Exchange Building, an example of Romanesque and Northern Italian Renaissance Revival design. The stockyards are gone but the National Register of Historic Places structure lives on as an apartment-office site. The grand ballroom still in use today. Historical monuments outside the building describe its lively past.
Ford Birthsite and Gardens
32nd And Woolworth Ave.
Markers and descriptive panels commemorate the birthsite of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913 in a Victorian style home at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. The surrounding gardens in honor of former First Lady Betty Ford make the spot a popular choice for weddings, receptions and other events.
Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center
1326 So. 32nd St., By appointment at 595-1180
In addition to dedicated laboratories for examining, evaluating and conserving historical and art materials, the facility features a small exhibition on President Gerald R. Ford. The center’s state-of-the-art facilities include a microscopy laboratory and a digital imaging laboratory. There’s also a library of reference works on conservation and collections care.
Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, North Unit
2610 Hamilton St., North BGCOO 342-2300, NBSHF 884-1884
Until a permanent structure is built a wall of descriptive plaques honor Hall of Fame inductees, whose ranks rival that of any state athletic hall in the country. We’re talking history-makers in Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Don Benning, Johnny Rodgers and many more. Looking at the names and achievements arrayed before you a story of staggering dimensions emerges.
Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite
3448 Pinkney St., 1-800-645-9287
The struggle to build a brick-and-mortar memorial to the slain activist is symbolized by the stark 10 acres of land the Malcolm X Foundation has been trying to develop for decades at his birthsite. Only a simple sign marks the spot. Paving stones lead to nowhere. A fence encloses an empty lot. Dreams for a visitors center, museum and plaza remain deferred. A most forlorn National Register of Historic Places site.
Prospect Hill Cemetery
3230 Parker St., 556-6057
Omaha’s oldest cemetery was founded in 1858 and is the internment site for many early city leaders, their familiar names still adorning streets and structures today. Some notorious figures also lie there. Often referred to as Omaha’s pioneer burial ground, Prospect Hill remains an active cemetery as well as a historic site open for visitation daily. A state historical marker describes its rich heritage. Free admission.
Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters
3215 State St., 453-9372
A heroic, tragic chapter of the Mormon Migration played out in what’s now north Omaha when thousands of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846-1847 in an encampment. 325 died there. An audio-visual display details the struggles encountered in reaching this Winter Quarters, the camps’s harsh conditions and the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. View a pioneer cabin, pull a handcart and visit the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery. Free admission.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center
601 Riverfront Dr., 661-1804
Learn about the historic Corps of Discovery expedition led by famed explorers Lewis and Clark, including information about sites along the trail. A National Parks Service ranger can answer questions and help you plan a site trip. The Riverfront Books store offers an array of educational materials for sale that can enhance your experience on the trail.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum
200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, (712) 329-8307
Artifacts, photos and interpretive panels chart the development of the transcontinental railroad and its role in helping pioneers settle the West. View displays about the heyday of passenger travel and innovations made by the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, which is headquartered in Omaha. The museum’s housed in the Bluffs’ historic, newly restored Carnegie Library.
Historic General Dodge House
605 3rd St., (712) 322-2406
This restored 1869 Victorian home was the residence of Civil War veteran and railroad builder Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, a military, political, financial wheel whose counsel was sought by presidents. The 14-room, 3-story mansion commands a terrace view of the Missouri Valley. Note the exquisite woodwork and “modern” conveniences unusual for the period. The home is used for a variety of receptions and other events.
Western Historic Trails Center
3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, (712) 366-4900
Discover the history of four historic western trails — Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California — through exhibits, sculptures, photographs and films at this State Historical Society of Iowa center designed and built by the National Park Service and local partners.
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha For Free (learningtoliveoutsidemybox.wordpress.com)
- Nebraska prizes its U.P. ties (omaha.com)
This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby. Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America. Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents. Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him. The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests. It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.
Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.
The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.
He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.
Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.
To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.
So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”
“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach – and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’
“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”
Cosby was just getting started.
“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.
“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.
“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”
Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.
“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”
A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.
“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children’” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.
He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.
Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”
“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.
“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.
Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”
“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”
Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.
“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”
Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.
“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”
Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”
“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.
Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.
Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”
Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”
- Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bill Cosby Coming to Omaha to Perform Comedy Concert May 6 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni Immerses Herself in Community Affairs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Octogenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance. Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is. This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down. This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog. While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical. My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Ocotgenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.
The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.
Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.
Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.
There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.
More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.
“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”
“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”
“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”
Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”
“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”
On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.
She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.
A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”
It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”
She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.
It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.
“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”
With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”
By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.
Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”
She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.
“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”
She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”
Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”
Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”
Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”
The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.
Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.
“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”
So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.
Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”
She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.
Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”
When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”
He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”
Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”
Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.
Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.
Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.
Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.
Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”
Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”
“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”
- Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Leo Greenbaum is Collector of Collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I remember when the Omaha Sun Newspapers’ investigative report of Boys Town’s finances came out in 1972 my very Catholic mother and my similarly persuaded maternal aunts took it as a low down, dirty attack against “our Boys Town.” The Father Flanagan established youth care center has always been synonymous with the Catholic Church or at least seen as a Catholic institution, which in fact it has been for its entire life, always with a Catholic priest at its head and traditionally with the local archdiocese and archbishop as its ultimate authority. The story‘s major revelation was that Boys Town still portrayed itself as a poor, humble, perpetually in debt, and on the verge of closing home for boys when in fact it had accumulated a vast fortune through a systematic fundraising apparatus that kept right on churning out teary letters asking for donations — by the tens of million a year –and taking in millions of dollars above and beyond what it cost to operate the place. Boys Town did not share this bounty with anyone and didn’t want anyone to know about it. There’s no doubt the story spurred changes at Boys Town, just as there’s no doubt Boys Town is a very different organization today than it was then — now boasting multiple locations around the country and doing business in a very transparent manner. As for the weekly Sun, which was owned by Warren Buffett at the time, it went out of business a little more than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Boys Town investigative report. The following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at that report and, in effect, the story behind the story.
NOTE: Also on this blog see my profile of Stan Lipsey titled “Buffett’s Newspaper Man.” Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business. For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”
Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.
Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town
©by Leo Adam Biga
As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood editions had called out a venerable Omaha institution, Boys Town, in crusading journalistic fashion terms. No crime was alleged, but rather the violation of a public trust.
A front page headline asked accusingly, “Whatever happened to Father Flanagan’s dream?” That was followed by the stark declaration, “Boys Town: 700 boys with $209 million.” Thus the Sun set the incredulous tone and exploited the shocking results of a special eight-page report inside provocatively titled, “Boys Town, America’s wealthiest city?”
The subhead, “Give an account of thy stewardship,” was a Biblical admonition for a quasi-Catholic organization that cried poverty in syrupy mass donation appeals each Christmas, while hoarding a fortune no one was supposed to know about or, if they did, question.
Some movers and shakers were prominent characters in the story and in the story behind the story. Sun owner Warren Buffett pointed to the records that revealed Boys Town’s “hidden” assets. Publisher Stan Lipsey supported the investigation. Managing editor Paul Williams masterminded and ran it.
The power behind Boys Town lay with Monsignor Nicholas Wegner and Omaha Archbishop Daniel Sheehan. Aged civic-social leaders comprised a rubber-stamp board.
Pleas for money continued even as fortunes swelled. Making matters worse, Boys Town did little with its wealth after a 1948 building project. It shelved new initiatives and rejected best practices, effectively standing still, stuck in time.
The Sun implied Boys Town betrayed Flanagan’s mission by staying mired in outdated attitudes and methods. Buffett would later write, “We reported the extraordinary contrast between decreasing services and mounting wealth.”
The story won the Sun seven national awards, including a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, the same year the Washington Post’s Watergate series took the Pulitzer for Public Service. The papers earlier swapped in the same categories at the national journalism society, Sigma Delta Chi, awards.
More importantly, the Sun’s probing coverage compelled an organization that after Flanagan’s death in 1948 behaved like an imperious empire, paralyzed in what Williams termed “institutional inertia,” to enact long overdue reforms.
Today’s Boys Town hardly resembles that fossilized institution. Its entire methodology of youth care has been transformed. Boys Town is now recognized as a national leader in parenting and child speech-hearing impairment research and treatment.
The Sun was the liberal, plucky alternative to the conservative, timid Omaha World-Herald. Under Williams, the paper previously won awards for covering Omaha environmental issues and Omaha Transit Company irregularities. Boys Town, however, was a bigger target. While the report did the Sun no harm financially, the paper lost its edge when Williams left a couple years later. In 1980, Buffett sold it to a Chicago publisher. After an anti-trust suit against the World-Herald, the Sun disbanded in 1983.
Nearly 40 years since the story shook Boys Town’s foundation, The Readerspoke to key players who worked on the project.
Doug Smith, the youngest, least experienced member of the reporting team Williams assembled, says the irascible editor was the driving force behind “Project B.”
“Paul wanted that big recognition, he wanted that big prize … and he really went after it.
“I think he knew this was going to be the biggest story of his career, or not. I thought, maybe we all thought — he’s obsessed with this thing. When we got the announcement we won the Pulitzer one of the guys said, ‘Ahab has his whale.’ Paul was a great leader on this project. He did bring it home.”
“The story was really there for the taking by somebody with energy and enterprise, and that’s what Paul Williams had,” says Randy Brown, hired as associate managing editor just as the Sun launched the investigation. “He was the brains.”
As the team dug into the reality behind the carefully cultivated Boys Town facade, it became clear the wary institution was paranoid for a reason.
“I felt the story was really justified,” says Smith.
He and his colleagues knew the heart-tugging letters Boys Town sent out suggesting the boys would go hungry without donations were pure hokum.
“I’d say an unethical appeal considering they were sitting on a lot of money,” he says.
Team member Wes Iversen, the Sun business editor, was dismayed Boys Town made it appear “as though the wolf were at the door when they had a big pile of money they were doing nothing with.”
In the end, Boys Town was its own worst enemy.
“It was a case of they had lost their way, their mission,” says Smith. “It was the story of an American institution that had gone off track.”
When Smith asked Boys Town post office officials how much mail went through to try and gauge the scope of fundraising efforts, a reluctant staffer was quoted saying: “The reason they won’t let me give out the amount of postal receipts is because people will get everything misconstrued.”
It turned out up to 50 million appeal letters went out per year. The volume suggested a cash cow system returning huge revenues.
Boys Town officials repeatedly made ill-advised statements that came back to haunt them. In classic investigative fashion Smith and photographer Len Cook burst in on its secret direct mail apparatus, housed in a downtown building, to find 125 women typing the appeal letters and a flustered fundraising director trying to hush it up.
The Sun quoted the director as saying, “Please don’t mention this in your article. It’s so easy for the public to get the wrong idea. People will think we’re rich.”
Smith recalls Boys Town as remarkably unsavvy then in handling press inquiries. “At that time they were not equipped to handle this kind of assault by journalists,” he says.
Ironically, Flanagan had been a genius at promotion. He invited Hollywood to make two feature films on Boys Town. He cooperated with newsreels, he did national radio broadcasts, he toured the home’s band and football team nationwide, he made speaking appearances across the country and he welcomed celebrities to the campus.
By the early ’‘70s the cautious Wegner isolated Boys Town, making it an island cut-off from the world.
Bulldog reporter Mick Rood interviewed Wegner and caught him in several untruths, including the assertion Boys Town was in debt. Even when confronted by the facts, Wegner and, in a separate interview, Sheehan indicated the fundraising would continue unabated. Business as usual. The arrogant dismissal of serious questions, such as when would enough money be enough, made everything Boys Town said suspect.
“When you as a reporter or newspaper discover that,” says Rood, “that makes you want to dig. It makes you forget for a little while that the poor monsignor was in very poor health, it makes you forget that some people wouldn’t like the story because people don’t need to be deceived like that. That’s the motivation right there.”
For that interview, Rood was armed with sensitive, though public record documents that delineated the true picture of Boys Town’s finances. Buffett had informed the Sun team of a federal tax statement, Form 990, that nonprofits were required to file. He had to file one for his own foundation and it dawned on him Boys Town did, too. It took much wrangling and waiting to pry a copy from the Internal Revenue Service. When all 100 pages arrived the scope of the holdings stunned the team. Boys Town stocks, bonds, properties, though undervalued, gave it a net worth exceeding Omaha’s largest bank, and an endowment surpassing all but a few universities nationwide.
“I didn’t know quite what to think of it because the numbers were enormous,” says Brown. “It was jaw dropping.”
Iversen says it was “a money machine.”
Until those documents were secured, the team had only been able to speculate about Boy’s Town’s riches. With the hard numbers in hand, all was exposed.
“This was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Rood.
The surviving team members readily credit Buffett with giving them the golden egg that pushed the project over the top.
“Without that it would have been a good story, but not a Pulitzer story,” says Lipsey.
Buffet also helped the Sun analyze the Boys Town treasure chest.
“I worked with Warren compiling the numbers, making sure they added up, getting all the details straight, ready for publication,” says Brown. “And he insisted on double checking everything. We knew we were taking on an institution that’s beloved in the community and he didn’t want any mistakes — not 25 cents in the wrong column.”
Rood says Williams was methodical planning assignments and supervising their execution: “He made very thorough outlines … very detailed things, so we were all well aware of what we were supposed to be doing. It was also a way to make you accountable. I mean, if it was written down there you better have done it. There was no excuse. You had to have made that call you said you were going to make.
“We worked separately most all of the time. We had periodic meetings to compare notes. It was a very disciplined operation — one you wouldn’t expect from such a small paper. He was the best editor I ever worked for, ever will work for, and a good friend.”
Brown says, “everything was reread and reedited,” adding, “It was a grind.”
Iversen recalls months of slogging away, interspersed by occasional euphoria.
“A lot of it is just hard, heavy-duty grunt work,” he says. “At that time we had no easy way to check things. It’s just a lot of legwork, a lot of looking things up in books in libraries and county offices and you name it, running around checking various places and trying to piece things together. At times it could seem like drudgery, at other times when we would get a major insight everybody would say, Ah-ha, now we see where this is headed and we’ve made a breakthrough here.
“It was really heady times.”
Some intrigue did attend the story. Though the stakes were much different from the Post’s Watergate coverage, the Sun had its own Deep Throat in Claude Organ, a reform-minded Boys Town board member. Buffett met with Dr. Organ about the project and the surgeon-educator steered the Sun in the right direction.
“Everything was closely held,” says Rood. “We were more than sworn to secrecy.”
During the investigation’s last few weeks Williams took the precaution of the team working out of his home’s basement rec room for fear of losing the story to the Herald. Rood says a defensive Boys Town came to suspect the story was more than the routine historical piece the Sun painted it as. When the report broke, no one at Boys Town was prepared for its all-encompassing depth. The expose laid Boys Town bare.
Much more could have been published, team members say.
The Sun did many follow-ups over the next year and beyond as Boys Town changed its administration and board, opened the campus to consultants, replaced its warehousing of youth with a home-family model and developed new facilities and programs.
In 1974 a desperate Boys Town, still reeling from the fallout from the story, which went national and spawned new stories, hired Omaha PR man Bill Ramsey to help repair its tarnished image. It took time, but things turned around by the late 1970s-early 1980s.
Current Boys Town spokesperson Kara Neuverth says the institution did act on the reported misalignment of net worth and youth services:
“We listened to that feedback regarding some fund raising practices. What I can tell you about this organization today is that we are transparent and we pride ourselves on our experience. For an organization to remain at the forefront it must adjust its practices to stakeholder input, changing times, and new knowledge — just as we did 40 years ago. That is the lesson learned.”
The Sun investigative team scattered to the far winds. The shared Pulitzer opened doors for Rood, Iversen, Brown and Smith. Paul Williams left to teach at Ohio State. He also co-founded IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and wrote a book before his untimely death. Publisher Stan Lipsey went on to head the Buffalo News for Buffett.
The story solidified Buffet’s long-held interest in newspapers — he soon acquired a major share of the Washington Post — and confirmed for him their vital role in a free society. In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders he wrote the Sun’s achievement “vividly illustrated that size need not be equated with significance in publishing.”
The Changing Face of Boys Town and its Finances
The following sidebar appears in the print edition of The Reader but not in the Web edition:
©by Leo Adam Biga
In 1972 you had to be a member of the Boys Town inner circle to see its balance sheet. Or, as in the case of the Sun Newspapers, you had to know about a new and therefore obscure tax form filing that required nonprofits to report their financials. Even then, it took the Sun time and expense to obtain the public records, documents and figures Boys Town dearly wanted to suppress.
Today, due in part to the Sun’s disclosures of Boys Town’s worth, the law requires nonprofits to be much more transparent about their assets. The same information the Sun had to go to some lengths to get 40 years ago, anyone with access to a computer can easily and freely obtain today with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks.
In 2009, Boys Town, which now has a national reach, reported $1 billion in assets, $810 million in the Father Flanagan’s Fund for Needy Children (the institution’s endowment) and $122 million in liabilities for a net worth of $903 million. Five to six percent of the endowment supports annual operations.
Boys Town reports nearly 90 percent of every dollar received is spent on child care.
Charity Navigator awarded it a four-star rating for sound fiscal management. Boys Town’s accountability has earned it recognition as a Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance accredited charity. These are all signs of how the organization does business very differently now compared to when the Sun rattled its cage.
- Omaha, NE- and you thought St. Louis was cold… (craftycreek.wordpress.com)
- LA Times wins Pulitzer for exposing big salaries (msnbc.msn.com)
- Breaking News Pulitzer Not Awarded For The First Time (huffingtonpost.com)
- ProPublica makes history with web-based Pulitzer Prize win (guardian.co.uk)
- Berkshire’s Sokol broke law, report says (business.financialpost.com)
- Buffett releases details of former exec’s actions (seattlepi.com)
- Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much. He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title. He was also a very good football player. He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner. I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football. This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.
Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.
At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).
Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.
Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.
To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.
“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.
It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”
When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”
Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.
According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”
Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.
During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”
In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”
To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”
Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.
As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”
- Revoked scholarships surprise college athletes (thegrio.com)
- Sherwood Ross: Big-Time College Football Depriving Athletes of an Education (grantlawrence.blogspot.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Another native Omahan who has achieved great things is Stanford Lipsey. This publishing scion has enjoyed a full career in journalism. A good deal of his newspapering life has been associated with billionaire investor Warren Buffett. The two men are good friends. Lipsey retains strong ties to Omaha, where Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are based. This story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, which draws tens of thousands to Omaha for what’s been described as a Wooodstock for capitalists. Lispey and Buffett made journalistic history back in the early 1970s with the Omaha Sun Newspapers, when an investigative report into Boys Town’s vast financial holdings and wealth ended up winning the paper and its publishing team a Pulitzer Prize. Buffett later hired Lipsey as publisher of the Buffalo News, a position he continues in today.
NOTE: See my new story on this blog about the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer winning report on Boys Town during Lipsey’s reign as publisher. The story is titled “Sun Reflection.” Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business. For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”
Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.
Buffett’s Newspaper Man, Stanford Lipsey
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native and veteran newspaper publisher Stanford Lipsey has seen and done it all in a six-decade journalism career that’s closely allied him to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.
Lipsey climbed the ranks at the now defunct Sun Newspapers in Omaha to become owner-publisher. In 1969 he sold the Sun to Buffett, but remained as publisher. In 1972 Lipsey was at the helm when the Sun, acting on a lead from Buffett, poked into the finances of Boys Town. The Sun’s probing led to sweeping changes at the charitable organization and earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
Buffett later appointed Lipsey publisher of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News. Lipsey is still its publisher today. In 1988 he was named a Berkshire vice president. The old friends, inducted in the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame in 2008, may or may not get together this weekend at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha.
Lipsey, who got his start as a photojournalist, came out with a photography book, Affinity of Form (2009, powerHouse Books), that can be purchased at the Qwest Center exhibition hall during the May 1 meeting or at the Bookworm. He still shoots, only with digital equipment, not the Brownie or Speed Graphic he began with. Instead of snapping news pics, he makes fine art images for galleries and books.
His life as a news hound has spanned hot type, clattering typewriters, digital off-set presses, computerized newsrooms and newspaper web sites. His training began at Omaha Central High and the University of Michigan. While in the U.S. Air Force he served as editor of the Offutt Air Force Base publication Air Pulse.
He began working at the Sun in 1952, learning the business inside and out. Lipsey said the Sun “was small enough so I could do it all.” He considers a well-rounded newspapering experience an “invaluable” education most publishers “don’t have” today. “In the large daily business hardly anybody has it. They come from one field. They were either an editor or an advertising manager or a business manager, but they don’t have the crossover background between news and advertising,” he said.
Buffett said, “He’s a real journalist but he understands every aspect of the business, and that was one of the considerations why we wanted him up in Buffalo.”
Under Lipsey’s watch, managing editor Paul Williams guided the Sun expose of Boys Town when the still single-campus, dormitory-style, boys-only home used weepy mass mail appeals to portray itself as destitute. The Sun revealed Boys Town sat on a $162 million endowment dwarfing that of many national institutions. Property and building assets created a total net value in excess of $200 million.
“We knew there was a story there, but we didn’t know how to get it,” said Buffett. “I was sitting at home doing the tax return for my own tiny little foundation and there was something in the instructions that said my tax return would be public. All of a sudden it dawned on me if a tax-free institution such as this foundation of mine had to make the return public, Boys Town probably did.”
The story goes Buffett called on a well-placed source who sat on the Boys Town board to verify Sun suspicions the nonprofit had accumulated a fortune. Public records confirmed the rest. Public indignation was strong.
“It’s a helluva story,” Lipsey said by phone. “It was so well done.”
He said breaking the exclusive, which major news outlets picked up, was what the Sun needed to do to stay relevant opposite the Omaha World-Herald.
In Buffett, the paper had deep pockets and considerable clout. In Williams, who went on to help found Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a solid newsman. In Lipsey, a crusading publisher.
“See, we didn’t have the advantage of being a daily, so when we came out we had to have something fresh, so we did investigative reports, enterprise reports,” said Lipsey. “Warren, Paul Williams and I would sit down and brainstorm — what’s the story, what should we go after, and then this thing came along — it actually came along on a tip from Warren. It made for a great story.”
Like Lipsey, Buffett still feels a sense of pride about what they did.
“That was a watershed. It didn’t do us any good commercially as a paper, but that was probably as interesting a month or two of my life as has ever occurred,” said Buffett.
The report upset the Catholic community. Defensive Boys Town officials attacked the Sun as “a yellow rag.” The gutsy coverage earned the Sun the first Pulitzer given to a weekly for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting. It’s the last Pulitzer, period, won by any Nebraska newspaper. The award also recognized the reforms the story instigated. A chastened, more transparent Boys Town embarked on a course serving at-risk youth in new, home-like environs across the nation. Boys Town also built the first of its major research facilities.
When Buffett acquired the Buffalo News in 1977 he asked Lipsey for help. “When I was in trouble up in Buffalo with the paper I called him,” said Buffett. At first Lipsey served as a consultant, commuting between Omaha and Buffalo, before accepting the role of publisher in 1983. The two men share an abiding mutual respect. “I admire Warren. I would say he’s someone who has taught me a lot. He’s a steady hand. He makes decisions that are totally moral, totally wise, and for the right reasons, and they’re not always necessarily for profit,” said Lipsey. “He won’t buy a company where the management isn’t in place. The only exception to that is me.”
The book The Warren Buffett CEO, Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers, devotes a chapter to “the turnaround” Lipsey engineered in Buffalo.
“You see a newspaper doesn’t really match what Warren buys in companies because this paper was losing money when he bought it but he always had enormous respect and love for newspapers. But then he was short — we had a very good editor but we didn’t have a good publisher here. He had to get one to come in, and he tapped me,” said Lipsey. “There was a daily newspaper here in competition called the Courier Express. It became one of these fights to the death type thing. I got very interested in that. That was an enormous challenge, and I wanted to make sure we survived.”
Buffett said Lipsey was well qualified coming from a small paper to oversee a big paper because he knew all phases of newspaper operations: “Stan knew the press room, he knew circulation, he knew ad sales, he knew the newsroom. Stan’’s been a terrific friend and business associate. He’s over 80 now and he goes to work every day with the same zest as always. There’s no one I trust more.”
With the dynamic pair behind it, the Buffalo News won out. Lipsey’s still in charge, but the shrinking place of printed newspapers in this digital age concerns him
“Certainly right now the newspaper business is challenging. We’re doing better than most papers, but we’re not doing well. All our numbers are way down. Circulation, advertising, profit, volume, everything, and I think you’ve seen the same thing with the World-Herald, and they were enormously profitable. The trouble with newspapers is they’re extraordinarily costly, so when you have a sharp fall off in revenue it’s hard to cut as much as you’re losing, because you have to so many people in the newsroom, so many people running the presses, so many people driving the delivery trucks. That’s the problem.”
- New Book on Berkshire Hathaway by Ronald Chan; Behind the Berkshire Hathaway Curtain: Lessons from Warren Buffett’s Top Business Leaders (eon.businesswire.com)
- The 15 Best Things Warren Buffett Has Ever Said About Investing (businessinsider.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Berkshire Hathaway Board Responds to David Sokol Controversy (blogs.wsj.com)
- How Warren Buffett Protégé David Sokol Lost His Way (businessweek.com)
TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is asking viewers to write in and tell stories about when Hollywood came to their hometown. In that spirit, I am reminded of perhaps the biggest film event in the history of my hometown, Omaha, Neb., and for that matter in the history of this state.
In my opinion Omaha and Nebraska have never embraced or claimed their film heritage to the extent that they should. Many Hollywood greats have come from here. Some significant films have been made here. One of those pictures was Boys Town (1938), the MGM classic that while hardly a great film was a great success for its studio and for its subject, Boys Town, and for the home’s founder Father Edward Flanagan. Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flangan and he donated the statuette to Boys Town, where it’s on display in the Hall of History. There can be no overstating what a big deal it was for Hollywood’s top studio, MGM, to come to Omaha to make a major motion picture starring two of its biggest stars, Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The picture has to be one of the most powerful marketing tools that’s ever been produced in terms of drawing attention to an organization, in this case a home for boys.
The following story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons in conjunction with the film’s 70th anniversary, details just what a phenomenon the film’s production was in Omaha and then what a spectacle its world premiere became here, too. I trust you’ll find the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding it all as fascinating as I did.
When Boys Town Became the Center of the Film World
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Hollywood rarely comes to Nebraska. On those infrequent occasions when Tinsel Town ventures far afield to shoot a movie here it naturally creates a stir. Alexander Payne’s first three features made in his hometown of Omaha caused a sensation, especially when Jack Nicholson came to star in About Schmidt. Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner had the same effect on Plattsmouth. Terms of Endearment earlier turned Lincoln upside down.
A handful of major Hollywood productions set up shop in state over the years. Some others, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 Union Pacific, premiered here.
But no picture became a phenomenon the way 1938’s Boys Town did. For a solid year the real life subject of the title — Father Edward Flanagan’s haven for homeless youths in Nebraska — became the center of the film world.
When the movie ended up a popular moneymaker, critical hit and Oscar-winner, Boys Town enjoyed a publicity boon and Flanagan turned icon. Always a savvy marketer, Flanagan had faith the film would pay off far beyond the small rights fee MGM paid the home. In a letter he wrote:
“The picture has given us wonderful publicity and while we receive no direct aid from the picture, other than the $5,000 paid us for the use of our name and the grounds, I feel that eventually we will benefit from it because of the many friends we will make.”
Before the movie Boys Town was little known outside the Midwest. The same was true of Flanagan. The movie’s success changed all that.
“The movie had the impact of making Father Flanagan the authority on child care in the world. His child care philosophy were soon very much in demand. He began to consult numerous private and government agencies,” said Boys Town archivist Tom Lynch. “Demands for him to speak across the country poured in and soon he would be gone several weeks at a time…
“The name Boys Town was soon known throughout the world as the movie was shown in various countries. It inspired people in these countries to start their own Boys Towns. Also, the number of boys wanting to live at Boys Town exploded. Every week hundreds of letters arrived from people wishing to place a boy at the home.”
So how did Hollywood get wind of Boys Town?
The studios aggressively searched for source material, scouring newspapers, magazines, reading galleys of new books, catching all the Broadway shows. The story goes that MGM producer John Considine Jr. happened upon a small item in an L.A. paper about the 1936 “city” election at Boys Town. Apparently he was intrigued by an incorporated village of 200 boys who elected a mayor and six commissioners from their own ranks.
The home already operated a well-oiled publicity machine courtesy Flanagan and three Omaha PR men, Byron Reed, Morris Jacobs and Frank Miller. In a letter to Considine prior to the movie being made Flanagan referred to how Boys Town “has developed important publicity contacts” covering practically every newspaper or magazine of consequence in the U.S. Boys Town also sent out its choir and band as ambassadors for the home, netting much press wherever they performed. Flanagan had already taken to inviting prominent figures to Boys Town. When celebrities like Will Rogers and Admiral Richard Byrd visited it made national news. Pathe News featured Boys Town in 1933.
That foundation paid dividends when the movie blew up. Story after story in print and on radio detailed the film and the real life village and priest it depicted. Lynch said the movie made Boys Town and Flanagan “household names.”
The enduring popularity of this classic has introduced Boys Town and Flanagan, who died in 1948, to succeeding generations of viewers. The film provides Boys Town exposure it could never afford to buy. With the passage of time the movie only further reinforces and embellishes the legacy of that place and the man who started it, making Boys Town the stuff of legend.
In its time Boys Town was the rare motion picture that not only chronicled an actual institution still in operation but the leader who still ran it. The timing of the movie was perfect. With America still reeling from the Great Depression inspirational stories of triumph over hard times were in vogue. The uplifting message of Flanagan — “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” — resonated with the New Deal’s optimism. The self-governing boys home appealed to the democratic ideals of a nation warily eying communism’s and facism’s hold around the world.
Lynch said the movie also came at a crossroads moment in the village’s history: “When the movie project began the home had just barely survived the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. The home had no money and the offer of a movie was a dream come true. Just a few years before the movie Boys Town was on the verge of closing and just a few years later it was an American institution.”
Everything about the project aligned to make it front page news in 1938.
For starters, the movie told the sentimental story of one of Nebraska’s own beloved institutions. Further heightening interest was the fact the movie was partially shot on location at Boys Town. The production used the campus buildings and green spaces, along with the rural backdrop and adjoining highway, as local color. Most authentically, the film utilized several resident boys as extras.
Adding luster were the principals behind the production. The company making Boys Town, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ruled the Hollywood roost as the biggest studio with the most prestigious pictures and the greatest roster of stars under contract.
Two of MGM’s hottest actors, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, headlined the cast. Tracy was not only an A-list matinee idol and sure-fire box office draw but perhaps the most respected screen actor of his generation. He started Boys Town mere months after winning the Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in Captains Courageous. One of Tracy’s co-stars in that picture was Rooney, a fast-rising juvenile star thanks to the popular Andy Hardy series he appeared in opposite Judy Garland. Boys Town director Norman Taurog brought solid credits behind him, especially helming children’s fare (Skippy, Tom Sawyer).
Spencer Tracy’s Best Actor Oscar at the Boys Town Hall of History
The company of actors and crew of technicians spent two weeks on location in Omaha. Tracy was a boozer then and Rooney a carouser but reportedly each stayed on his best behavior.
The presence of Hollywood royalty made the company’s base headquarters at the Fontenelle Hotel and the film’s location on the Boys Town campus popular destination stops for hordes of fans and the merely curious.
The hoopla started long before the cameras rolled or the movie premiered.
MGM script writers J.C. Dull, Eleanor Griffin, William Rankin, John Meehan and Dore Schary, who all contributed to various drafts of the screenplay, visited Boys Town on research trips. The director originally assigned the pic, J. Walter Ruben, also visited. The only way these artists could get a real feel for Flanagan and his boys was to spend time with them. The scenarists soaked up the atmosphere, took stills, interviewed residents, all of which helped give the film a sense of verismilitude.
Flanagan was hardly a passive figure in the script process. He nixed several drafts before one finally suited him to his satisfaction. Even after giving his blessing to the final draft he received script updates right up to and through the film’s making.
Early drafts took an odd slant, even positing British child actor Freddie Bartholomew as the lead. The original emphasis on wayward boys and their misadventures transitioned into a story focusing on the priest and his methods.
Flanagan made clear he didn’t want a sentimental “Oliver Twist orphanage picture.” He pushed instead for a picture that showed in clear-eyed terms his way of handling boys, which was to treat each as “a definite individual”…He chafed at any representation of Boys Town as a reformatory:
“Boys Town is NOT an institution. It is a township where fine little men live and work, study and play, govern themselves and mold…the strength of character essential to a good life.”
MGM went out of its way to please him. Flanagan wrote a critic: “I was surprised at the great amount of pains exerted to get authentic facts, to be accurate…”
Norman Taurog replaced Ruben as director after Ruben was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Taurog had the disadvantage of having never been to Boys Town but he was able to draw on a mountain of research.
By the time production began Flanagan was convinced that Schary and Meehan, who shared the script credit and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, “captured the feel of the township, its spirit, ends and aims.”
Flanagan considered the movie “a real welfare picture” whose “results will be far-reaching in the amount of good it will do throughout the country for youth.”
Throughout the preproduction phase Boys Town’s founder kept up a steady correspondence with several MGM figures, particularly producer Considine, but also with studio chief Louis B. Mayer and fixer Eddie Mannix.
The monsignor visited Hollywood, where he was accorded special attention. His correspondence mentions meeting Clark Gable, Wallace Berry, Maureen O’Sullivan and other stars. He also met with Mayer himself.
Fr. Flanagan with Mickey Rooney
In an article Flanagan wrote entitled “I Meet Myself” he described an encounter with his screen alter-ego:
“I have just returned from Hollywood where I enjoyed a unique experience — that of meeting myself. It is a strange feeling to meet, face to face and for the first time, the man who is to play the part of one’s self…my alter ego, my screen personality…Spencer Tracy. Yes, I sat across the table from him on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot at Culver City the other day and did just that…”
Tracy apparently expressed qualms about playing the priest. To reassure Tracy Flanagan wrote him: “Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town…and every boy here and all of our alumni are talking about you, thinking about you and praying for you…You should feel happy that you have decided to be cast in a role of such a picture and Boys Town feels honored that it has such a noble representative.”
On that same trip the priest met Rooney, well-cast as Whitey Marsh, the hard-case who softens under Flanagan’s gentle but firm hand. Flanagan noted:
“Mickey, who incidentally reminded me strongly of one of our young city commissioners at Boys Town, gave me my most lasting impression of Hollywood, a town where — to borrow a journalistic phrase — a ‘man might bite a dog’ without creating a scene…Mickey astonished me by asking for, of all things, my autograph immediately after we were introduced.”
“I think everybody was impressed by this wonderful Irish gentleman,” Rooney said by phone from his Calif. home. “He was a gentle, kind Irishman.”
Attention and accolades followed Flanagan wherever he went after the movie.
Flanagan, as prone as anyone to being starstruck, found Hollywood “not the city of idleness and riotous living contained in so many reports but…a hard-working, sincere group of actors, actresses, directors and working men creating in a new but powerfully effective medium…” He referred to “my most interesting trip” in a letter to Considine thanking him for the hospitality the studio extended.
He was also pleased to find “much enthusiasm all over the Metro-Goldwyn lot about Boys Town.” He received frequent progress reports from MGM.
Before the main company arrived in Omaha MGM producer Frank Whitbeck came in the spring to film a March of Time newsreel-style short, The City of Little Men, as a promotional-educational teaser for the feature. The one-reeler was a key part in the studio’s exhaustive exploitation campaign.
Flanagan and Jacobs were themselves not above looking for angles. They lobbied MGM to test a pair of residents, brothers Jimmy and Andy Cain, for speaking parts in the feature. MGM did. Flanagan wanted the younger of the two, Andy, to play the part of Pee Wee that Bobs Watson eventually landed.
In letters to MGM brass Flanagan flatly pointed out “publicity possibilities” News of the film netted Boys Town a steady stream of positive press and goodwill. In a letter to Schary Flanagan noted “people here are very enthusiastic over it and every mail brings questions about it.”
The film began production in Hollywood June 6. Tracy and Rooney were hard at work. Then Rooney left for a couple weeks to complete a new Andy Hardy picture. He rejoined the Boys Town company in late June on the train caravan to Omaha.
Considine wrote Flanagan the company sent to Nebraska “believed the largest and most important motion picture group ever sent to Middle West for location work.”
Despite a telegram from MGM asking the lid be kept on the cast-crew’s arrival — “so as to keep crowds away” — word leaked out. Press accounts estimate some 7,000 people greeted the stars when they arrived at Omaha’s Union Station on June 23. Once filming commenced crowds daily made the pilgrimage to Boys Town, surrounded by farmland then, just for the chance to glimpse Tracy or Rooney. Smaller but no less excited crowds milled about the Fontenelle Hotel.
Fans not only trekked to the country but braved the harsh elements, as the shoot coincided with a hot spell. Making matters worse, the campus on the former Overbrook Farm was mostly barren of trees, leaving onlookers scant shade to take refuge in. Flanagan and Tracy wore straw hats to ward off the sun.
As filming proceeded on a tight schedule Flanagan took an active interest in events by serving as the defacto technical adviser. Much of the filming took place right outside his residence’s front yard, making his presence, even when not on set, keenly felt. Hollywood was on his turf now. He often had Tracy as his dinner guest.
Most days the crew began setting up the first shot at dawn. Owing to the heat the company usually wrapped by mid-afternoon, when cast and crew packed up and headed back downtown. Each day’s exposed film was air-expressed overnight to Hollywood. The rushes returned the next day for Taurog and Considine to view.
Boys Town alum Ed Novotny was a resident there when, he said, “the movie people came out with all their paraphenelia. It was just a new experience for us. It was quite an exciting time really.” He and buddy John Anthony were impressed by the crew’s efficiency and intrigued by the tricks they used. To simulate the evening in daytime they covered a large building in canvas to block out the sun for Whitey’s nighttime escape down a firescape.
If boys were needed for a group shot they’d be let out of class. “Sometimes we’d stand there an hour-and-a-half before the sun was right” or until crew adjusted lights, laid down dolly tracks, reloaded film, adjusted lenses, Novotny said. Multiple takes might be made. Tracy and Rooney rarely needed more than a single take.
The boys were expected to make up whatever lessons they missed while on set.
They found the stars accessible. “They were always around and so you could visit with them.” Novotny said. “They were very companionable. Of course, Mickey Rooney as young as he was had quite a clientel following him around all the time. Afternoons Spencer Tracy would dish out ice cream at a stand the studio set up. Smoking his pipe. I can still him…” Cast and crew played catch on their down time.
Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh
After 12 days in Nebraska the traveling circus that’s a film unit left to finish the picture on MGM sound stages and back lots. The first inkling Boys Town was something special came in a telegram from Considine to Flanagan in August:
“Happy to report first sneak preview most successful…Audience received picture enthusiastically…We all feel sure we have great entertainment in Boys Town…”
When the studio planned the world premiere for Washington, D.C. Nebraskans protested. Flanagan used his leverage to make Omaha the site. He wrote Frank Whitbeck about the “caustic” comments MGM’s plans were eliciting here: “For example, I have heard that a campaign might be established by the newspapers…in Nebraska denouncing the move…”
He suggested separating the movie from “the mother city of Boys Town” would be unfortunate. He laid on the guilt and the pressure by noting the Bishop of Omaha, Rev. James Ryan, disapproved of a D.C. premiere.
Flanagan added: “I had thought at one time Washington was the place because I was sold on the idea by certain people here but the more I think about it the less I think of the idea. I would favor Omaha than any other place. In reality Omaha gave us our first start and gave us our first building, and paid for it, and it is now our chance to pay back our debt to Omaha by having the premiere here.”
The priest sealed the deal in Calif., where he and Bishop Ryan were invited to attend a sneak preview of the film in Inglewood. It went over like gangbusters.
As soon as word reached town that Flanagan secured the premiere for the Omaha Theatre elaborate arrangements got under way. The preparations befitted what an official with Tri-States Theatre Corporation, operator of the theater, called “an important civic event.” The official assured Flanagan his office was “leaving no stone unturned to make this the outstanding occasion it so richly deserves.”
The crowd that flocked to greet the movie company back in June was dwarfed by the multitude gathered at Union Station on Sept. 6 to witness the arrival of the Los Angeles Limited. En route the train made whistle stops in burgs like Grand Island so that Tracy, Rooney and Flanagan could acknowledge the assembled fans. Once in Omaha the movie party saw a station and downtown festooned with streamers and banners declaring “Home of Boys Town” and Welcome Father Flanagan.”
An even larger turnout filled the streets and sidewalks for the Sept. 7 world premiere at the Omaha Theatre. Reports put the throng at 30,000.
“I never saw so many people in my life,” said Novotny, who had the privilege of being there as a member of Boys Town’s a cappella choir, which performed there. “It was a tremendous welcome. It was a big deal for Omaha.”
The Omaha World-Herald’s Irving Green wrote:
“There was not an inch of standing room on Douglas Street between 15th and 16th outside the theater. The huge crowd overflowed up 15th Street half way to Farnam…It covered another half block toward Dodge Street on 15th. Sidewalks on both sides of Douglas…all the way to 17th were swarming with people who could neither see nor hear, so far were they from the platform where Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Mickey Rooney were introduced.
“Rabid movie fans lined the roofs of buildings across from the theater. They took advantage of every store window fronting on Douglas…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…for more than two hours to see the event strained steel wires holding them back to near the breaking point.”
Green described the gala, pull-out-all-the-stops scene, including a live national radio hookup that broadcast the festivities to listeners from coast to coast:
“A 10,000 candle power searchlight visible for 10 or 12 miles played across the sky in true Hollywood style in front of the theater. The light was shipped in by special freight from Hollywood. As they alighted from limousines, principals mounted a carpeted stairway to a raised platform where they said hello to the huge throng and to listeners over 107 radio stations in a nationwide chain arranged by the Mutual Broadcasting System.”
In his breathless style Green opined:
“It was something Omaha had never experienced before. What’s more, it was something the film stars themselves had never seen in Hollywood.’ He backed up his claim with quotes: “‘This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog, Tracy, who plays the role of Father Flanagan in the picture, said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Miss O’Sullivan said.”
It’s hard to imagine a crowd that size for a movie premiere. But this was the Golden Age of Hollywood, a full decade before TV invaded people’s homes, and Americans flocked to theaters in far greater numbers then now. Besides, movie stars were the closest thing to American royalty and with three stars the magnitude of Tracy, Rooney and O’Sullivan on hand fans queued up the way loyal, adoring subjects do.
The Herald’s Green captured how far the adoration went:
“The crowd began collecting outside the theater before 6 p.m. although the first celebrities were not due to arrive until 7:45 p.m. All traffic was routed away from the theater except cars bearing those with tickets for the show. At 7:15 the doors of the theater were thrown open and a steady stream of ticketholders continued until 8:30 p.m. Formal attire was rare among early arrivals but when the elite began coming in limousines just before 8 p.m. formal dress appeared the rule.
“In two cars came the mayor of Boys Town, Jack Farrald; his chief of police, Bobby Paradise, and Boys Town’s five commissioners, John Waskiewicz, Jesse Ruiz, Clinton Simmons, Tom McGuire and Sam Turner. ‘I want to thank the people of Omaha for this splendid welcome,’ the Mayor said. ‘It is a recognition of and a tribute to a great humanitarian, Father Flanagan.’”
Some overzealous fans caused a minor ruckus, Green noted:
“Candid camera enthusiasts gave police a few busy moments as they broke through the lines to photograph the three stars. Smiling broadly, Miss O’Sullivan, Mickey and Tracy waved greetings in return for the throng’s cheers.”
Nebraska dignitaries turned out en masse, led by the state’s governor, Ed Cochran. “All Nebraska is proud of Father Flanagan,” Cochran told the crowd. Bishop Ryan also addressed the gathering.
MGM officials spoke a few words, including producer John Considine.
Green wrote: “Then came the actors themselves. They were greeted with cheers which drowned out the words of Bishop Ryan who was speaking at the time. Mickey approached the microphone with the grin which has helped make him the fastest rising star in Hollywood. ‘This is the outstanding event of my young life,’ he said, emphasizing the ‘young’ and laughing heartily. ‘This crowd surpasses anything ever done in Hollywood. And, by the way –- if Hollywood is listening in -– hello Ma and Pa. It’s swell here in Nebraska.’”
The scene inside the theater was just as surreal.
“…Mickey’s profuse blushing when he entered with an Omaha girl brought him a hand, and the crowd rose as one in an ovation for Father Flanagan. From the stage, flanked on either side by tall vases of chrysanthemums, Eddie Forester, manager of the theater, welcomed the star-gazing crowd, and introduced J. Francis McDermott, master of ceremonies…McDermott summoned up a red-carpeted ramp to the stage for talks…” by Omaha’s mayor, Nebraska’s governor and Bishop Ryan.
Among the special guests was Henry Monsky, the Omaha attorney whose loan of $90 a quarter century earlier enabled Flanagan to open Boys Town. Monsky remained a loyal friend, board member and legal adviser until his death in 1947. The pawnbroker character of Dave Morris wa loosely based on Monsky, who asked MGM to keep his identity secret. Years later Walter Winchell broke the true story.
“After a brief stage appearance by Miss O’Sullivan, the Boys Town acappella choir sang ‘Vigil’ by Christians, and a new composition, ‘Boys Town,’ by Will J. Harris. A telegram was read from Norman Taurog, director…Then Father Flanagan spoke of the good he hopes the movie production will accomplish, and the film began.
“Applause was frequent during Boys Town, especially when Omaha buildings were recognized and references were made to Omaha…When the film ended Mr. McDermott asked Father Flanagan to escort Tracy and Rooney to the stage. It was their first official appearance to the crowd in the theater. Tracy stood with his arm around Mickey’s neck, a pose made familiar by his use of it in the film. ‘Words fail me for the first time,’ said young Mr. Rooney…He predicted another Academy award for Tracy, for his performance in Boys Town.”
Rooney’s prediction came true six months later.
Novotny gave the film a thumbs up then. He sums it up this way today: “It was a continuation of Father Flanagan’s dream. Boys Town came on the map with that.”
The Herald’s Green completed the opening night scene:
“The most dramatic incident of the entire program…was Tracy’s speech to the idolizing crowd. Despite a hush over the auditorium, his first words were inaudible. ‘You thanked us for coming here,’ exclaimed Hollywood’s outstanding male star. ‘We should get on our knees to you.’ After referring to Mickey as destined to ‘become one of the great actors of his day,’ he continued: ‘I do not like to stand here stripped clean of Father Flanagan,’ adding that if the picture is great, it is because ‘the great goodness and sweetness and beauty of the soul of this man shines even through me to you.’
“Father Flanagan sounded a benediction, ‘Good night, and God bless you,’ and…the crowd filed out into streets.”
The film went on to play equally well across America.
A legend persists that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked confidence in the property. Some suggest he shelved the picture for a time, only releasing it at the urging of Tracy-Rooney. The record doesn’t support the claim. Boys Town fit the MGM program of good clean entertainment to a tee; besides, the film’s strong previews and extensive press build up boded well for its box office.
The studio expected a hit and it got one.
The capstone came when Tracy won the Oscar and dedicated it to Flanagan. MGM publicity head Howard Strickling cabled Flanagan, “You would have been very proud as we were to hear the address Spencer made before the Academy in which he told them that all credit for the award was due to you…”
Flanagan, who’d grown close to Tracy, sent along his congratulations and gratitude to the actor, “Everyone at Boys Town rejoices with you today in the great honor that has been conferred on you…I need hardly tell you how happy everyone here is and my only regret is that I am not there to shake your hand…but my heart and spirit is with you — and it will always remain so.”
Tracy added to the lore of the film and his/its association with Flanagan and the village when he gave his Oscar to Boys Town. It just arrived one day via air express in 1939. He inscribed on the statuette: “To Father Edward J. Flanagan, whose great human qualities, kindly simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble efforts, Spencer Tracy.”
Flanagan wrote Tracy, “How can I thank you for this beautiful expression of your consideration of me and Boys Town? From the bottom of my heart I thank you for that magnanimous spirit which you have shown in sending this award to me.”
During an assembly the boys lined up single file to gawk at and touch the Oscar, much like they might a holy relic, Novotny recalled. The Oscar sat in Flanagan’s office for a time. A tradition arose in which boys rubbed it for good luck.
For years now the Oscar’s occupied an honored spot in the Boys Town Hall of History, which features several displays on the film.
The movie’s success had an unintended effect at first. Donations dried up as the public assumed Boys Town made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing of the proceeds. A desperate Flanagan asked MGM and Spencer Tracy, his alter ego, to get the word out that Boys Town needed help. Tracy signed a personal appeal letter sent donors. The money eventually flooded in.
MGM, perhaps feeling guilty for having short-changed Boys Town on the ledger sheet, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.
Boys Town further capitalized on the film when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there. The Hollywood contacts Boys Town made led to the school’s football team playing the Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles in a 1939 benefit game at L.A.’s Gilmore Stadium attended by 10,000. Numerous Hollywood stars turned out. Boys Town won 20-12. That began a tradition of Boys Town’s gridiron gang traveling the country.
The film’s success led to a sequel, MGM’s 1941 Men of Boys Town, with Tracy and Rooney reprising their roles and Considine producing. It was not as well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel.
When Considine broached the idea for a third pic, Flanagan shot it down, writing, “Men of Boys Town fell far below the standard of Boys Town.” Unless a strong script could be crafted Flanagan preferred another film not be made. It wasn’t.
Mickey Rooney returned to Boys Town in 1988 for the 1938 original’s 50th anniversary. He recently said of the film: “It’s real. Anything that’s real is worth doing. And I’m certainly happy that I was fortunate enough to be associated with a great company (MGM) and a great outlet for children (Boys Town). Boys Town’s very dear to my heart.” The actor is the home’s honorary mayor for life.
Inquiries about a new movie on the modern Boys Town sometimes surface. But as time’s shown, the original’s tough to beat. “The movie Boys Town had a major impact on the home. Still today many visitors comment on their memories of watching the movie,” said Tom Lynch. “On TCM the movie’s still shown each holiday season. Many people are still introduced to the home by watching the movie. All new residents of the home watch Boys Town as part of their orientation.”
For more on the film visit www.boystownmovie.org.
- Top Five Philip French (guardian.co.uk)
- Great dynasties of the world: The Selznicks/Mayers (guardian.co.uk)
- Ryan Kavanaugh: Hollywood’s Newest Studio Mogul (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here’s another Boys Town sports story. It’s about tradition and legacy and giving back, George Pfeifer played for legendary Boys Town coach Skip Palrang when the school‘s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, was still there. After Pfeifer graduated high school and served in World War II he came back to Boys Town to coach under Palrang. Later, he took over as head basketball coach, leading the hoops program to some of its greatest successes. Now, many years into retirement, he’s back again, this time as a kind of unofficial coach and mentor, at the invitation of current head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel. The old coach and the young coach have bonded like father and son and together they’ve helped Boys Town recapture some of the magic that made the school’s athletic teams juggernauts back in the day.
The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
©photo by Daniel James Murphy
A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When George Pfeifer coached the Boys Town varsity basketball team in the 1960s to great success, he used an adage with his players, “Get a good deal,” as a way of impressing upon them the advantage of working the ball to get an open shot.
The 81-year-old is long retired but a special tie he’s forged with current BT head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel finds Pfeifer offering kids young enough to be his grandchildren the same sage advice he gave players decades before. Krehbiel credits the recent turnaround in BT hoops — culminating in a Class C-1 state title last season — to the input of his unofficial assistant. “Coach Pfeifer is, in my mind, the school’s all-time greatest basketball coach. I wanted to get him involved in the program. I reached out to him and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning” once he got involved, said Krehbiel, who previously coached at Omaha Skutt High School.
The association between the men peaked last season when the Cowboys’ won their first state championship in 40 years. Until beating Louisville in the finals, the school hadn’t won a state roundball title since 1966, when Pfeifer was head coach. That ‘66 crown was the second of back-to-back Class A titles won by Pfeifer’s teams, squads considered two of the best ever to play in Nebraska prep history. It was an era of athletic dominance by the Cowboys.
Since the summer before the 2003-2004 season, when he accepted Krehbiel’s invitation, Pfeifer’s worked with BT hoops. When his arthritis isn’t too bad, the tall man with the folksy manner makes his way on campus, over to the Skip Palrang Memorial Field House named after the legendary man he played and coached under and where he toiled away countless hours on drills.
He’ll keenly observe practice from the sideline, noting things he sees need correcting. This recent Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee is still a master diagnostician at breaking down systems and plays. He does the same when he goes to see a Boys Town game or analyzes tape of one, as his sharp mind dissects the action with razor precision.
“He’ll notice little technical things that only someone who knows basketball can detect. He really sees and knows the game. It’s amazing,” Krehbiel said.
Pfeifer shares his insights with the players, kids not unlike the ones he coached years ago — boys full of attitude but hungry for love. Krehbiel said Pfeifer knows just how to prod people to improve. “He doesn’t criticize — he kind of suggests.”
Tremayne Hill, a starting guard from last year’s team whom Pfeifer got close to, said the old coach got the most out of him with his “encouraging” words. “He told us to stay positive and to work hard in trying to overcome adversity. He was a lot like a father figure,” said Hill, adding Pfeifer and Krehbiel are like a father-son team.
It doesn’t surprise Pfeifer he can get through to kids weaned on PlayStation and X-Box, not Fibber Magee and Molly. You see, he was a BT resident himself from 1939 to 1943, giving him a bond he feels makes him forever simpatico with kids there. It’s why his reconnection with the institution is more than a former coach returning to the fold. It’s a son or brother coming home to his family. It’s why the vast age difference doesn’t hamper him in talking to today’s kids.
“I talk their language,” Pfeifer said. “I grew up there, so I know. When I first went back out there I said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old fogy, but I used to be out here. I know all the tricks you guys know, so you can’t trick me on anything. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. I was just like you guys. My heart’s with you guys. I know what you’re going through. I’m here to be a friend of yours.’”
Hill said Pfeifer’s BT roots make a difference as “he knows the type of stuff we go through. He knows how to relate to us. More than another coach would.”
Pfeifer said he and the team developed a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.
When Pfeifer coached in the ‘60s he did something rare then — starting five African Americans. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n______s?” “Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied. Ken Geddes, a member of those teams, said race “was never even an issue.” Lamont McCarty, a teammate, said, “If you didn’t perform, you didn’t play… plain and simple. He was a wonderful coach. Same thing with Skip Palrang.”
As is now a custom, Krehbiel had Pfeifer address the assembled 2006-2007 team at a mid-November practice. It was Pfeifer’s first contact with the team. He’d have been there before if not for tending to his terminally ill wife Jean. Gathered round him were about two dozen players, many of them new faces after the loss of so many off last year’s team to graduation. Pfeifer owned their rapt attention.
He told them he was 13 when his father died. Left unsaid was the Depression was on, and with his widowed mother unable to support the poor Kansas farm family she sent him and a brother to Boys Town. There young George blossomed under iconic founder Rev. Edward Flanagan and star coach Skip Palrang..
Pfeifer also didn’t mention he became BT’s mayor (as did his brother) and excelled in football and basketball. That he developed an itch to give back to youth what he’d received. After serving in the U.S, Navy during World War II he coached at Fort Hays State down in Kansas, before accepting an offer to join Palrang’s BT staff. Intending to stay five years, Pfeifer, by then married with children, made it a 30-year career. He was a coach, a teacher and principal of the elementary school.
“I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of BT students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them –- they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad,’ well, those kind of grab you. Then you know you made a difference.”
The campus holds a dear place in Pfeifer’s heart. It’s home. The people there, his family. He stays in touch with players by phone, letter, e-mail. He’s a regular at school reunions. But until Krehbiel asked him to come back as a consultant, Pfeifer hadn’t really felt welcome by previous coaches.
“I think he had a desire to get back close to the program, to his home and to this community, and so the timing was right,” said Krehbiel, a Burlington, Iowa native with his own ties to the place. His father worked there and as a youngster Krehbiel spent many a summer day on campus, running about and canoeing in the pond. “So I always knew Boys Town,” he said. “I loved it.”
As Pfeifer spoke to the kids that late afternoon in November, he was every inch the coach again, instilling values and commanding respect.
“There’s nobody working here that doesn’t love you, I guarantee you,” he told them in measured tones.” “So listen to your family teachers, listen to your coaches, work hard, study in school. You have great coaches, good facilities. You’ve got everything you need, except you got to do your part. You gotta keep your nose clean. Don’t get in no trouble. Do what you’re told. Coach is going to tell you what he wants you to learn, how you’re going to do this and he’s going to tell you why. Those are three really important parts of your basketball training.
“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be focused. No matter what happens outside, you come here and be ready for basketball.”
Tom Krehbiel coaching up his players, ©photo Rebecca Gratz, Omaha World-Herald
After Pfeifer wished them good luck and some players responded with, “Thanks, coach,” the huddled team charged back into practice.
“If they know that you care about them and that you’re there for them, they’ll work for you — they’ll work hard. They appreciate you,” Pfeifer said.
“It’s funny. Kids today are real hip-hop, you know, with this Snoop Dog slang and coach uses old school terminology that I cringe at sometimes, assuming the kids think its kind of corny, but the kids like it. I think too he provides a grandfatherly figure,” Krehbiel said. “These kids, more than any kids I’ve ever been around, they want somebody to take an interest.
“He wants to help…It really comes down to his true interest and love for the kids in the program. He’s trying to give them that last tidbit…to help them on the court and help them in life. I think when he looks at our team and he’s rooting for these kids it’s like rooting for his family, his own kids or his own brothers….He gets emotional when he talks about this place. It’s his home.”
It’s that been there-done that experience Pfeifer brings that Krehbiel wanted for his players. Then there’s the “link to success” Pfeifer represents.
“He laid the foundation 40 years ago for all the nice things that have been said about us the last two or three years,” Krehbiel said. “I think we’re all proud to carry on a rich tradition. It’s just an honor to be associated with him. I was always taught to appreciate the people that came before you…You gotta respect the people who built up the history and this place is just full of history.”
Boys Town Fieldhouse
What Krehbiel got in the figure of Pfeifer was more than he could have imagined.
“Coach has been a great mentor to me and a great resource for us,” he said. “You know he’s having an impact on our kids when after the state championship one of our starting five interviewed on TV” — Dwaine Wright — “spent his whole time on camera referencing coach Pfeifer, saying, ‘He told me in practice to get the good shots.’ We didn’t prompt him to do that. It just came out of his heart. You realize, Wow, this is an 80-some-year-old man having an affect on an 18-19 year-old kid. I was proud of our kids for the respect they showed coach. I’m proud of coach.”
Pfeifer appreciates that Krehbiel sought his counsel, thus allowing him to be a teacher again. “He was so sincere and open about establishing a good relationship. He was willing to receive me and invest in some of my knowledge,” Pfeifer said. “A lot of guys that coach, they think they know it all. But he’s really receptive. And that’s great for me because I didn’t feel that with some of the other people that were out there. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you out anyway I can.’”
When Krehbiel first approached him, he had no clear expectation other than getting some advice on the special demands of being a BT coach.
“This is a unique position,” Krehbiel said, “maybe as unique a position as there is in the country in high school because you’re in a home for boys. There’s not only the athletics parts of it but there’s the home campus part of it, dealing with the troubled youth, the homeless youth, with all the things they present.
“There are very few people who’ve had this position. There’s just a few of us around. There’s even fewer that have had the kind of success coach had.”
Krehbiel did some research in the BT and Omaha World-Herald archives in compiling a school record book and came away duly impressed by just “how successful” Pfeifer was at producing winning teams. In 14 years as head coach — 1959 to 1973 — his teams won 205 games and lost only 82. He led nine teams to the state tourney and guided a pair to state titles. His track and field teams were also a formidable bunch, always a threat at the state meet.
Boys Town players celebrate winning state
For Krehbiel, welcoming back someone like Pfeifer who’d given the best years of his life to BT was a way of honoring the man.
“My initial intention was to just try to give back to him for all the years he gave to Boys Town. My initial thought was to get him up here to one practice at the beginning of the year, and it’s morphed into a great relationship and friendship,” said Krehbiel, whose wife and five daughters all know Pfeifer.
Still, it took some convincing for Pfeifer to meet with Krehbiel that first time.
“I called him up out of the blue and introduced myself. He was real reluctant but I finally got him to agree to go lunch with me at Big Fred’s. He told stories for hours.
That’s when I told him, ‘You are welcome anytime.’ That fall I asked him to come out to practice. I gave him a pad of paper and a pen and said, ‘Watch me coach practice. Watch our kids. Give me some feedback about our team.’ He did that and from that point on he’s been popping in at practices whenever he feels like it.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Pfeifer eased his way in, not wanting to impose himself, less he undermine Krehbiel’s authority.
“When it first started we’d talk maybe once every couple weeks,” Krehbiel said. “He wouldn’t come to practices much. As he and I became closer and he became closer with all the other coaches, there was a comfort level. Last year he was out here about two or three times a week prior to the season opener, and we’d be talking about offenses and defenses and philosophies back and forth.
“I was reaching out initially to find out, ‘How did you handle the job? How did you handle the kids? What are the issues beyond basketball I should know about?’ Then when he and I started talking I found just how solid his philosophies are in basketball and in life and I really wanted to get to know him more. You just can’t help but sense the way he approached things and did things is probably the best way as well as the right way to have a lot of success. I try to emulate him.”
It doesn’t hurt that the two are cut from the same cloth. “Our personalities are a lot alike, so there’s a bond person-to-person, coach-to-coach,” Krehbiel said. That’s not to say these two see eye to eye on everything.
“He believes in zone defense and I believe in man to man,” Krehbiel said. “But that’s the fun of it — debating the merits of each. But,” he added, “as far as what we demand of our players, how we treat our players,” they’re on the same page.
It wasn’t until Krehbiel watched Pfeifer interact with the players that he understood all that the venerable old coach could bring.
“Then when I saw him around the kids and I saw how he still has a lot of viable, valuable contributions…and I saw the kids take to him, it obviously was a great idea to have him around. It’s just kind of matured into what it is today. He’s around quite a bit. As much as he wants to be. The door is always open.”
Along the way, Pfeifer’s shared some coaching secrets, including a list of offensive- defensive Dos and Donts and his mantra for teaching “technique, technique, technique” he got from coaching great Skip Palrang. Pfeifer’s passed along full-court press and matchup-zone tactics that made his teams so hard to beat. Above all, he’s preached taking the high percentage shot and protecting “the hole.”
“He gave me a file folder of his coaching notes and a card with his pregame preparation notes,” Krehbiel said. “I read through it all and I copied it down in my own words and style. That’s the relationship he and I’ve built up. For him to give that to me, I mean, what do you say? That should tell anyone a lot about his willingness to give. I think he really, really wants this program to be successful and those are the lengths he’s willing to go.”
What Pfeifer does for BT hoops can’t truly be measured.
“He doesn’t come out and design plays and run drills. He’s in the background helping the coaches. He’s really helped me in my preparation for games. He talks to players one one one,” Krehbiel said. “The last couple years he’d take some of our better players aside, real fatherly like, and say, ‘Here’s what I see in your game. Take the good shots, not the bad shots.’”
Wishing to remain in the background, Pfeifer chooses not to sit on the bench, but in the stands during games. He’s always watching, however.
As last year’s team stormed through the season, losing only four times, including twice to Wahoo Neumann, Pfeifer noted a tendency for BT players to settle for three-point shots and to play soft in the middle. With his adjustments the Cowboys avenged Neumann in the first round of the state tourney.
When last year’s star player, starting center and then-BT Mayor Vince Marshall, felt good about a game in which he scored well but recorded few rebounds, Pfeifer had a heart to heart talk with him. “I said, ‘I was mayor when I was at Boys Town. You’re the mayor and you got only three rebounds last game. What the hell were you doing? You’re the mayor, you’re going to make me look bad. Get your ass on the boards.’ That’s the way we talked. We were brothers.”
Pfeifer’s known to intervene when emotions run over. Once, after a so-so practice on the eve of state, the admittedly “fiery” Krehbiel lost his cool when he noticed a couple players cutting up. “I lose it. I go up one kid and down another. I was furious they wouldn’t take this seriously,” Krehbiel said. “And here comes coach. He gets off his chair and gets right in the middle of us and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ I immediately shut up. He takes over and says something about not getting a big head and keeping yourself together and staying in the moment.
“He was just that calming influence and that’s what he’s been. I’ve really calmed my demeanor in regards to the sidelines and the game-time stuff in my conversations with him. He’s really helped me with the handling of the kids around here. He reminds me they’re always watching you and they’re going to play off your demeanor. He’s a sounding board. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Coach, we’ve had this issue with a young man, how would you handle that?’ He gives me tidbits on how to handle certain situations as head coach.”
Pfeifer can still get fired up, as when he pulled his BT athletic jacket out of moth balls for a school pep rally to show how much he bleeds Big Blue. He told the crowd, “I’ve waited 40 years to wear this thing again.”
There’s the sense of a circle being closed. That what Pfeifer got from Palrang is being handed down to Krehbiel. Lessons from 65 years ago live on, no doubt to be carried on by the young men Krehbiel and Pfeifer work with today.
“The greatest thing for me, bar none, is to have my name linked with coach Pfeifer’s name and coach Palrang’s name in the same sentence. To be linked to that history is overwhelming,” Krehbiel said. When Pfeifer couldn’t get away to Lincoln to accept his Hall of Fame induction, he asked Krehbiel to accept in his place. For Pfeifer, Krehbiel was the natural choice. “I love him,” Pfeifer said of his coaching protege. “What an honor to accept for him. That just fortified our relationship. He’s a good old guy,” a tearful Krehbiel said.
Krehbiel met many athletes Pfeifer coached. They were disappointed he couldn’t make it. “They all love him. Guys came in from both coasts and from all over the country to honor him with this induction, which was long overdue,” Krehbiel said. One of Pfeifer’s favorites, Charles ”Deacon” Jones, a standout BT miler and football player who became a University of Iowa All American and two-time Olympic long distance runner, was inducted into the Hall the same night.
“I know it was killing coach not to be able to go and to be on the stage with Deacon,” Krehbiel said. But Deacon and the rest know Pfeifer was there with them in spirit. Like he always has been and will be. A brother under the skin.
Krehbiel never competed for Pfeifer, but considers it a privilege coaching with him and “seeing all he does around kids.” He said it seems he and the players benefit more from the relationship than Pfeifer does. However, he added, “I hope we’re helping keep him active.” It’s clear when Pfeifer talks hoops it takes his mind off, if only a little while, his wife. Krehbiel’s visited Pfeifer at his house during this hard time. Krehbiel’s daughters say prayers for Jean.
Perhaps the old coach’s greatest joy comes from watching his young protege catch the same passion he caught for Boys Town. Pfeifer said, “I’ve told him, ‘Tom, if you stay there long enough you’re going to get what I got.’ It’s a fever.” Krehbiel said the example of Pfeifer is one reason “why I stay here. It’s why I’ll always be here.”
- It took B.C. hoops stalwart Bill Disbrow a while to glean master’s secret (canada.com)
- Legendary Eathorne Touched Countless Lives (kitsapsun.com)
- Remembering John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood (time.com)
- Legendary basketball coach Wooden dies (cnn.com)
I remember as a kid learning about the rich sports legacy at Boys Town, the youth development center founded by Father Edward Flanagan and forever immortalized in the MGM movie classic. When I looked into that athletic history a few years ago for a story I was struck by the amazing success Boys Town teams enjoyed for several decades and by how the football team in particular became a national powerhouse that actually traveled coast to cosat to play games against elite prep teams before big crowds in college and professional stadiums. Flanagan and his immediate successor seized upon athletics as a healthy outlet and socialization model for residents and as a promotional tool for the campus. The story of the football team’s many triumphs and travels would make a good movie itself. Football was the school’s poster sport, but Boys Town enjoyed tremendous success and followings in basketball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field as well. All the changes that came down at Boys Town beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in the athletic program suffering several lean years. It’s only in the last decade that there’s been a resurgence in Boys Town sports, not to the heights of its former glory perhaps, but enough to link this era to that earlier Golden Age.
If you’re interested in another Boys Town sports story, then check out my story, “A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops” on this blog. More o f my Boys Town stories on this site cover various topics, including the classic 1938 MGM film Boys Town, the friendship of Fr. Edward Flanagan and Jewish attorney Henry Monsky, and the 1972 Sun Newspapers Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Boys Town finances.
The following story originally appeared in Nebraska Life Magazine. Look for more Boys Town stories in future posts.
Rich Boys Town Sports Legacy Recalled
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine
“I didn’t know a jock strap from a toothbrush,” said alumnus George Pfeifer of his arrival at Boys Town from a Kansas farm in 1939. Like some of the finest athletes at Rev. Edward Flanagan’s home for “lost” boys, the future coach had never played organized sports before coming there. Most of the boys were either poor inner city or rural kids who’d played only sandlot ball or street ball. They came from all parts of the country, boys with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and on their shoulders was built an athletic dynasty that became the envy of the nation.
From the Great Depression through the 1960s, the Boys Town football team played elite Catholic prep schools and military academies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Miami and other cites. The games attracted dignitaries and made headlines. Playing against the nation’s toughest competition in large stadiums before tens of thousands of fans, the Cowboys won more than twice as often as they lost.
During the same era, Boys Town won multiple state championships in football and basketball, and produced scores of all-state athletes and individual champions, even some high school All-Americans. Its great track-and-field athletes include two-time Olympian Charles “Deacon” Jones (1956 and 1960) and quarter-miler Jimmy Johnson, who won the Pan Am Games only a few years after graduating.
It began with the dream of Boys Town’s founder, Father Flanagan, who was a fair soccer and handball player in his day, and a vocal champion of sports. He made sports an integral, even compulsory part of residents’ experience at Boys Town. Intramural athletics became a big deal. In those days, the boys lived in dorms and staged competitions between their respective buildings to see who were kings of the field or the court. By the mid-1930s, Flanagan hired a coach and pushed for Boys Town to compete in sanctioned interscholastic events.
Born and raised in Ireland, Flanagan made his long-held dream for Boys Town a reality through conviction, blarney and bluff. With his silver-tongued brogue and big sad eyes, he elicited sympathy and loosened purse strings for the plight of America’s orphaned. With his politician’s ability to build consensus, he got people of all persuasions and faiths to contribute to the home.
It didn’t hurt that Flanagan harbored a bit of P.T. Barnum in his soul. Almost from the start of the home in 1917, he made use of the media to further the cause of children’s care and rights. In the 1920s he hosted a nationally syndicated Sunday radio program, “Links of Love,” broadcast from the old WOW studios in Omaha. On a larger scale, there was the 1938 MGM box office smash “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flanagan.
The movie made Flanagan and BT household names. He used his and the home’s growing reputation to bring national figures, including sports stars, to “the city of little men.” The BT archives detail visits by such sports icons as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Hollywood celebrities were also frequent visitors. “Deacon” Jones, then learning the barber trade at BT, recalls being summoned with his clippers to the quarters of Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner, where he found Spencer Tracy in need of a haircut. Jones complied.
Just as Flanagan earlier made the school band and choir ambassadors for BT, so he did with football. The same year the movie “Boys Town” was released, the football squad boarded the Challenger super liner at Omaha’s Union Station for a trip west, where they played a benefit game against Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles. The film’s producer, John Considine, Jr., made it happen. Among the 10,000 or so in attendance at Gilmore Stadium were numerous Hollywood stars. Boys Town won, 20-12.
The good turnout seems to have convinced Flanagan to take his football team on the road as a gypsy, bring-on-all-comers sideshow featuring orphans from the world-famous Boys Town. The bigger the stage, the tougher the opponent, the more Flanagan liked it.
He would often wend his way to wherever the football team appeared, posing for photos, making pre-game or halftime on-the-field speeches, and generally getting the Boys Town name in the press. A big banquet, often in his honor, usually preceded or followed the game, giving Flanagan another chance to spread the gospel.
BT alum Ed Novotny of Omaha, who played for Boys Town in the early 1940s, recalls the time Flanagan was on the field during pre-game festivities in New Jersey. Novotny says a press photographer asked to snap a few pictures of the famous priest doing a mock kickoff. Sensing a good photo op, Flanagan obliged. As he lined up for the kick, Novotny turned to an opposing player and said, “He’s in a bad spot” – meaning the photographer crouched in front of the ball, holding a Speed Graphic camera overhead.
“What do you mean?” the other player said.
“Father Flanagan can kick. He’ll blast that thing right over the goal post.”
“Really? A priest?”
Novotny will never forget what happened next. “No sooner did I say, ‘Yeah,’ than he kicked that ball and knocked that camera right out of the guy’s hands.”
Novotny recalls Flanagan as an enthusiastic presence on the sideline or in the locker room. The priest stood in the players’ circle to lead pre-game prayers. At basketball games he sat on the end of the bench with players and coaches. He greeted guys by name or with his favorite terms of endearment, “Dear” or “Laddie.”
“When you were in his presence you were the most important person in that room,” Novotny said. The padre fired up the troops and fussed over injured players. “He would tell us, ‘good job’ whether we were winning or losing.” More than a spectator, Novotny said, “he was a participant.”
To compete with the nation’s best, Flanagan hired Maurice “Skip” Palrang, who came to Boys Town after successful stints at Omaha Creighton Prep and Creighton University. Over his 29-year career at Boys Town, he led Cowboy teams to football, basketball and baseball titles. He won National Coach of the Year honors from the Pop Warner Foundation of Philadelphia, Pa., and Nebraska High School coaching plaudits from the Omaha World-Herald.
As athletic director, Palrang oversaw construction of a mammoth field house, modeled after those at Purdue and Michigan State. Its classic brick facade features sculpted panels of Greek-like figures in various athletic poses, stained glass windows and a vast arched metal roof that spans the length of a football field. Great facilities like these helped set BT apart.
Palrang hired coaches to carry BT’s dominance into other sports, but it was best known for football. “It wasn’t like Boys Town would play the weakest teams we could find – we’d play the baddest teams we could find,” said ’50s star halfback “Deacon” Jones. “We knew we played the best teams Skip could get to play. A lot of the players we played against went on to make All-American in college. Some went to the pros. We traveled to play Aquinas in Rochester, N.Y. That was like a Notre Dame prep school. And, whew, they had some tough players.”
Under Palrang, the Cowboys went 75-33-6 in these intersectional matchups. BT also participated in intersectional basketball and baseball contests, but on a far more limited basis.
Jones said players got “five dollars per trip for eating and fun money.” For some, like him, it was their first time on a train, a big deal for “kids that didn’t have anything,” he added. Seeing the sights was part of the experience – Chicago’s Field Museum, New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. But the road trips, which lasted up to three weeks, were not all fun and games. An instructor traveled with the team and made sure they kept up on their schoolwork.
Lessons of another kind came on the few road trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We would go to some areas where they wouldn’t allow the black kids on our team to stay in the same hotel as the whites,” Pfeifer said. “A few times we had to arrange for those kids to stay with some people in the community. It was a terrible blow to Fr. Flanagan. That’s probably why we didn’t play that much in the South.”
Wilburn Hollis was among a black contingent denied access to a hotel. Although from the Jim Crow South, he’d been shielded from the worst of segregation – the same at color-blind Boys Town. “We were buddies, but even more than that we felt like we were brothers and we just lived like that,” said Hollis, a Possum Trot, Miss. native who became a high school All America quarterback at Boys Town and a signal caller for an Iowa University team that won a share of the Big 10 title. “I never heard anything racial.”
Wilburn Hollis, right, receiving honor from Iowa U.
“At Boys Town I never thought about ethnicity or race,” said Ken Geddes, who grew up in Florida and went on to play for Nebraska and in the National Football League. “…We were all part of a family.”
Within that family of athletes, Palrang was the unchallenged head of household. “He was about six-four and probably 220 pounds and he was mean as a goat,” Hollis said. “But he was a wonderful coach. He loved the kids, he loved Boys Town….”
Hollis told of an incident involving Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner. (Flanagan died in 1948 on a goodwill mission in Berlin, Germany). Like his predecessor, Wegner was a sports booster, but apparently didn’t share Skip Palrang’s competitive philosophy. Once when BT was losing a football game, the priest tried to deliver a halftime pep talk. Wegner advised the team to do their best, Hollis recalls, “and honestly he used that old cliché, ‘It’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’ Well, Skip was pretty hot and he said, ‘Bulls__t. We’re going to win this game.’ Monsignor was like, Oh-oh. And we went out and won the game.”
But Palrang’s success was based on more than force of will. Stern but fair, he was known for his precise preparation, a quality that fit his favorite hobby of watch repair. Ex-sportscaster Jack Payne of Omaha recalls Palrang in his field house office “hovered over a well-lighted table…wearing an eye shade, jeweler’s glasses, meticulously at work on a watch.”
An innovator, Palrang used his vast contacts to learn new offensive and defensive schemes from college and professional colleagues, often implementing packages years before anyone else at the prep level. He’d get reels of game or practice film with the latest sets to study. Sought out for his expertise, he often conducted clinics around the country. Pfeifer said that once, at the request of an old buddy, Palrang sent BT quarterback Jimmy Mitchell to Kansas State to help Wildcat signal callers learn the T-formation Skip helped initiate in high school.
The Cowboys often played far from home, so Palrang sent an assistant ahead to scout. Palrang’s protégé, George Pfeifer, inherited the thankless job. In order to see distant teams, he traveled by plane, train, automobile or any available mode of transport. He once flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport on his way to see an opponent that night in Wisconsin. In Chicago he was bumped from the last connecting flight north. With only a few hours until game time and hundreds of miles between him and the stadium, he was stuck. Desperate, he asked, “Is there any other way?” He was directed to a helicopter pad. For $15 and a slight case of nausea, he arrived “just about the time they were kicking off.”
Skip Palrang’s physician son, Art, who played for his father one year at BT, said besides the advantage Palrang got by scouting opponents “the Boys Town kids in those days… were really tough, tough boys. They weren’t very big but they were tough… There weren’t a lot of distractions out there, like girls. He had kind of a captive audience.”
Palrang also had the advantage of working with kids who came out of BT pee-wee, freshman and junior varsity programs imbued with his coaching systems. By the time they made varsity, kids were well-schooled in the Palrang way. It led to potent team chemistry.
Despite offers to leave, Palrang remained loyal to Boys Town. Art Palrang believes this allegiance stemmed from Skip being an orphan himself. “His mother died when he was two and left his father with three boys and three girls,” he said. “He was always sympathetic to the Boys Town kids, although he was typical Irish in that he would not show his emotions.”
Today, Palrang’s accomplishments are commemorated in a big memorial just inside the field house dedicated in his honor. The memorial is next to a long row of display cases reserved for trophies and plaques won by Boys Town coaches, athletes and teams. There are hundreds of items. There’d be more, except Palrang made a habit of giving them away to kids.
By the time Palrang retired in 1972, he was only coaching his main passion, football. Years earlier, he’d entrusted the basketball program to Pfeifer, another coach often described as a “no-nonsense father figure.” Pfeifer’s basketball teams went 202-45 (two state titles), and his track teams (two titles) were always a threat. He recently joined his mentor in the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Like his predecessor, Pfeifer encountered racist attitudes toward his players, as when he started five black players on his state championship basketball teams of 1965 and 1966. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n_____s?”
“Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied.
Boys Town’s barnstorming era was prompted by publicity and the guaranteed payoff for its football games. But BT was also compelled to travel for another reason. Once it became a winner, it could find only a handful of area schools willing to schedule games.
Despite many attempts, BT was long denied membership in the Omaha Inter-City League, comprised of large Omaha area schools. Pfeifer said Wegner reportedly had to threaten to withdraw funds from local banks to gain admittance. It finally happened when the Inter-City League was disbanded and the new Metropolitan High School Activities Association was created in 1964.
Everyone has a theory about the blacklisting. Speculation ranges from envy over BT’s athletic riches to rumors, denied by BT alums, that it practiced off-season, suited older student-athletes, or recruited prospects. An image of BT suiting up juvenile delinquents, true or not, may have also accounted for schools not wanting to schedule the Cowboys. BT athletic equipment manager and head baseball coach Jim Bayly said that when he was a player at Omaha South, “we were afraid of Boys Town.”
Shane Hankins, quarterback for BT this past season, senses that the “jail” or “criminal” perception still haunts BT. But far from intimidating foes, he said it makes them “want to fight us even harder to prove we’re not tougher.” He concedes BT has some rough players, but points out that the Cowboys win sportsmanship awards.
Even without conference membership, Boys Town had a metro rival. “In the middle ’40s, when Boys Town was really taking off,” Art Palrang said, “Creighton Prep was also in its heyday and they played bitter, bitter battles. Rumor has it the archbishop said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t have two Catholic teams fighting each other.’” Adding fuel to the fire was the fact Palrang once coached Prep. There was no one he enjoyed beating more.
Aside from Prep, Palrang said, “Boys Town was obviously cleaning up on everybody and Omaha didn’t want ’em in their league because… Boys Town would have won everything.” By contrast, Prep had long been a conference member. And once let in, BT proved as dominant as feared by soon piling up Metro titles.
Perhaps nothing explains the ostracism better than what one alum called BT being “an island unto itself.” A certain arrogance surely came with all that independence, winning and notoriety. Besides, there was the perception – if not reality – that BT didn’t really need to be in a local athletic league. In fact, cross-country travel was expensive and eventually became cost-prohibitive.
By the time Boys Town’s reign ended in the mid-1970s, BT had evolved from a place where boys lived in dormitories to a family housing model where residents – girls too – live with teacher parents. Changes in the way BT works with youth lowered the number of residents from a high of about a thousand (elementary and high school combined) to about half that today, and decreased the average stay from six or eight years to about 18 months. The smaller enrollment forced BT to drop from the big school to small school ranks, and the shorter stays gave coaches less time to develop athletes and mold teams. For years, BT athletic prowess declined.
Today’s BT coaches are again turning out winning teams and top athletes, their job complicated by kids who present complex behavioral disorders. BT teams again compete for titles, but in Class C1, not Class A. The football team has its rivals, but a road trip today is an hour by bus, not overnight by train.
Girls and Boys Town (as the institution has been known since 2000) still uses athletics to further its mission of helping at-risk youth develop life skills that prepare them for adulthood. Head football coach Kevin Kush sets a high bar for his players, and makes no exceptions in holding them accountable. By late September 2006, he’d already let a few of his best players go for violating team rules, which brought his varsity squad down to 26. He could have supplemented the varsity by promoting JV players, but he refused, saying, “They haven’t paid the price. I’m not going to change my philosophy. I’m not going to lower my standards. See, these kids have standards lowered for them for their whole lives. We don’t do that. We want our kids to be committed to something and a lot of them have never been committed to anything.”
This past season’s star quarterback, Shane Hankins, said he appreciates that coaches and others care enough to make football special again. “Our goal is to achieve, to shoot for something in our lives some people say is impossible for us to do since we’re here. But we prove them wrong. We want to bring more winning to this campus because before we came here, most of us weren’t recognized as winners.”
All last basketball season, head boys basketball coach Tom Krehbiel relied heavily on an unofficial assistant, the 81-year-old George Pfeifer who, despite health woes, came to practices weekly to distill some of his wisdom to players young enough to be his great-grandchildren. Pfeifer’s championship teams of 1965 and ’66 are still regarded as two of Nebraska’s best high school basketball teams ever.
“I wanted to get him involved in the program,” Krehbiel said of Pfeifer. “I reached out to him. We ate lunch, hit it off and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning since then. Coach has been a great mentor to me and just a great resource for us. For our current players he’s a link to success.”
After last year’s team won Boys Town’s first state basketball championship in 40 years, guard Dwaine Wright dedicated the victory to Pfeifer live on Nebraska Educational Television.
Pfeifer said that after a period of adjustment, he and the team forged a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you, Coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.
The experience brought him full circle to how as a kid he was welcomed and encouraged by Father Flanagan, Skip Palrang and others, and how he did the same for kids as a BT coach, vocational education teacher and middle school principal. “I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of Boys Town students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them – they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad’…then you know you made a difference.”
Note: The Boys Town Hall of History features displays and a film that relive some of BT’s glory years in football.
- Valor Christian’s athletic excellence has arrived quickly (denverpost.com)
- Many college football dynasties have roots in strength training (sports.espn.go.com)
- Top 15 Traditions in All of Sports: A Closer Look at the Best of the Best (bleacherreport.com)
- The George Steinbrenner of junior football (theglobeandmail.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)