Boys Town – Historical Perspective


On November 11, 2010 my grandfather, John B. Cahill Jr., passed away. He was born in 1934. At a young age he ran away from home in Texas and hitchhiked, walked, and stowed away on trains until he arrived at Boys Town located outside of Omaha, Nebraska. He never spoke to me about why he went there. I know that he was leaving a home-life that was anything but hospitable and his decision to leave was one born more of a survival instinct than rebellion. When he did speak of Boys Town it was with succinct fondness and respect for what it provided to him. There is little doubt in my mind that without Boys Town my father would not have been born, and therefore I, would never have been born. Boys Town continues to operate today.

The following is an excerpt of Boys Town history:

In 1917, a young, immigrant priest from Ireland had grown discouraged in his work with transient, homeless men in Omaha, Nebraska. So in December of that year, Father Edward J. Flanagan borrowed $90 from a friend to pay the rent on a drafty, downtown Victorian boardinghouse that became his first home for boys. Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys welcomed all boys, regardless of their race or religion, and youngsters from all over Omaha and beyond began showing up at the doorstep.

Father Flanagan and his boys faced hard times. World War I was raging in Europe, and food and money were in short supply. There was no shortage of boys, however, and by spring, one hundred needy, delinquent or orphaned boys were living at the Home.

In 1921, again using borrowed money, Father Flanagan purchased Overlook Farm outside Omaha. This became the permanent site of his Boys’ Home, and soon would be known as the Village of Boys Town. While the Home continued to struggle financially, especially during the Great Depression, Father Flanagan somehow was always able to rally public support and raise the funds needed to keep the doors open.

Boys Town continued to grow, and by the 1930s, hundreds of boys called the village their home. By this time, a school, dormitories and administration buildings had been constructed for the boys. They also elected their own government – a mayor, a council and commissioners. In 1936, the community became an official village of the State of Nebraska.

Shortly after this point in time my grandfather arrived. Herein lies the crux of the story for me. An immigrant priest decides to abandon his work to date and open a home for boys on his own. My grandfather was not born until 1934. A decision made in 1917 by an Irish priest provided sanctuary for a young boy not far removed from his own Irish immigrant roots. 93 years later I find myself spending a Saturday morning with my daughter considering my grandfather’s life and the impact that Father Flanagan’s decision has had on me. Father Flanagan died in 1948, twelve years before my father was even born. That decisions we make will have an impact on future generations is the essence of having a historical perspective. If you are like me you often trivialize the impact your decisions will have because you do not maintain a historical perspective. This is a grave, selfish error. A historical perspective on one’s decisions should not result in an overly developed sense of self aggrandizement but a sense of obligation to make the correct decisions. Often times we will never know the impact of our decisions just as Father Flanagan could never have known me and my daughter. Where we can identify and appreciate historical perspective  is through a retrospective view of previous generations and how their decisions impact us today. His reason for founding Boys Town was simple and plain in it’s conception but substantial in it’s impact.

“I know when the idea of a boys’ home grew in my mind, I never thought of anything remarkable about taking in all of the races and all of the creeds. To me, they are all God’s children. They are my brothers. They are children of God. I must protect them to the best of my ability.” – Father Flanagan

He realized it was his obligation and, I have to imagine, hoped it would be beneficial. But he never received the personal satisfaction of seeing how his decision in 1917 has impacted me today, on a Saturday morning in 2010. Therein lies the irony of historical perspective; I am the one who has the opportunity to appreciate the historical perspective of his decision.

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