The April 6 death of Mickey Rooney brought the spotlight back to Boys Town, since one of the actor’s best-known roles was in the movie – released in 1938 — about Father Flanagan and his home for boys.
As young priest was walking through the snowy streets of Omaha in December 1917, Flanagan wondered how much good he was achieving in his work with the alcoholic and addicted. Comforted by thoughts of his recent intervention to keep a 14-year-old newsboy out of reform school, he realized that helping young people should be his life’s work. Afterall, Flanagan believed, “There was no such thing as a bad boy.”
If Flanagan hadn’t been on a bus with Catherine Shields in 1917, there may never have been a Boys Town. Shields overheard Flanagan telling mortician Leo Hoffmann that he had several homeless boys he wanted to help but nowhere to house them. She was an anomaly at that time: a female real estate agent barely out of her teens. She told Flanagan about a house at 25th and Dodge Streets, and soon Boys Town had its first location. She later served as Flanagan’s executive assistant for nearly 30 years.
After the house quickly filled up, Flanagan moved the boys to the old German-American Home on South 13th Street. They stayed there until 1921, when he purchased 160 acres of land 10 miles west of Omaha called “Outlook Farm.” They moved in on Oct. 22. The first permanent building was built in 1922 with room for 200 boys — and the site was named “Boys Town.”
That first Christmas in 1917, the boys and Flanagan shared a dinner made from a barrel of sauerkraut that had been sent by a sympathetic friend. Imagine how much better Christmas 1921, in their first permanent home, was!
Boys Town received much publicity about the good works of its founder and drew many famous visitors.
An Oct. 16, 1927, City Sandlot Championship game between the Omaha Prints and the Brown Park Merchants had over 4,500 spectators. That was because two of the ballplayers were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The New York Yankee teammates were on a barnstorming tour across the United States. Ruth played for the Brown Park team and Gehrig for the Prints. The game was still tied 1-1 after 10 innings when it had to be stopped because of darkness.
Gehrig and Ruth spent two days in Omaha making publicity stops. Flanagan and the Boys Town Band, led by Capt. Joseph Benesch, greeted the two sports heroes when they visited Boys Town.
Some early, undated photos…
In 1938, MGM filmed ”Boys Town,” in part, on the campus west of Omaha. The film starred Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as a young tough who found a home at Boys Town.
Tracy’s performance earned an Academy Award for best actor. He donated it to Boys Town and had it inscribed: “To Father Edward J. Flanagan, whose great human qualities, kindly simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble efforts.”
Of course, the movie helped bring even more attention to Father Flanagan and his home for boys.
Boys Town sent boys off to war, along with the rest of the country. During World War II, Bobby Paradise, a Boys Town alum, spent 44 months as a prisoner of war at Bataan. The Japanese were impressed to learn he was from Boys Town.
This bomber was dubbed The Spirit of Boys Town because of Lt. Col. D.C. Northrup. Although he was not an alum, he loved kids and promised the boys he would name a plane for them. To read more about these stories and others in WWII, check out our book “At War At Home: World War II”
Father Flanagan suffered a heart attack while in Berlin and died on May 15, 1948. Thousands turned out to honor him as his body was returned to Omaha. He was buried in the chapel at Boys Town on May 21, 1948.
The first five girls were admitted into Boys Town in 1979. This 1989 photo shows one of the new homes and its residents. The name was changed to Girls and Boys Town in 2000, but changed back to Boys Town in 2007.
To learn more about the history of Boys Town, visit the main campus at 137th Street and West Dodge Road. There are several points of interest and there is no charge. The Hall of History’s exhibits include Spencer Tracy’s Oscar. The “World’s Largest Ball Stamps” is in the Boys Town post office. The sphere is 32 inches in diameter, weighs 600 pounds and contains a reported 4,655,000 canceled stamps.