Omaha, Nebraska has received recognition for several quality attractions. In 1938, the MGM Studio’s movie Boys Town starring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy brought worldwide attention to Father Edward Flanagan’s Boys Town. Today, it’s one of the largest nonprofit child and family care organizations in the country. Their belief is that every child deserves a future, every family deserves to stay together, and every community deserves to thrive.
In 1917, Father Edward Flanagan, a young Irish immigrant, became discouraged with helping Omaha’s homeless men. He decided he could prevent the damage he saw in these men by helping boys who were living on the streets and occupying juvenile detention halls.
He strongly believed “There are no bad boys.” Their problems were due instead to a bad environment, bad training, bad examples, and bad thinking. He believed the boys would be successful if they learned a trade, received unconditional love, and had solid educations.
He borrowed $90 from a friend, rented a run-down boardinghouse at 25th and Dodge Streets in Omaha, and started Boys Town that December with five boys. Three were from the juvenile justice system while two were homeless newsboys.
By the end of the month, 20 more boys had arrived. All were welcomed regardless of their culture, race, or religion. By spring, a hundred needy, orphaned, and delinquent youths were living at the home. They soon outgrew this and leased the German American Home for about three years. In 1921, Father Flanagan borrowed money and moved Boys Town to 160 acres on Overlook Farm located ten miles west of Omaha. The farm was renamed Boys Town in 1926.
Throughout the Dust Bowl era, the youngsters frequently had to use bucket brigades to irrigate the farm’s gardens and crops. During the Depression, there was scarcely enough food for meals. At times, for all three meals, they only had radishes and eggplants. Funds were very tight, but Father Flanagan always managed to rally the public to cover Boys Town’s expenses.
Despite these rough times, a school, dormitory, and administration buildings were erected. In 1936, Boys Town became an incorporated village of Nebraska complete with its own post office, police department, and fire department. The boys elected their first government in 1935 - a mayor, a council, and commissioners.
In 1938, much of Boys Town was filmed at Boys Town with many of the youngsters serving as extras. Father Flanagan reviewed the script daily. The movie won Best Screenplay. Spencer Tracy, who portrayed Father Flanagan, won an Oscar for his role. This Oscar and part of the script are seen today at Boys Town’s Hall of History. Unfortunately, Boys Town was only given $5,000 from MGM with no residual rights. The 1941 movie Salute to Men of Boys Town did not have the same popularity.
After World War II, President Harry Truman asked Father Flanagan to travel to Asia and Europe to visit war orphans and to advise government leaders on how to care for displaced children. While in Berlin on May 15, 1948, Father Flanagan died of a heart attack. His body was brought home and now lies in a tomb in the campus’s Dowd Memorial Chapel.
Monsignor Nicholas H. Wegner shortly became the Home’s Executive Director after Father Flanagan’s death, serving until 1973. Under his leadership, Boys Town doubled in population, housing more than 900 boys while establishing solid financial footing.
In 1950, a 13 million-dollar expansion for doubling the facilities was finished under Monsignor Wegner. It consisted of adding 34 new buildings including an administration building, a high school, 25 cottages, a visitor center, a dining hall, a field house, a music hall, and a vocational career center.
Monsignor Robert P. Hupp became director for twelve years upon Monsignor Wegner’s retirement. It was under his leadership that the Family Home Program replaced the dormitories. The program had been part of Father Flanagan’s vision and became a necessity when youngsters started coming to Boys Town with problems like abuse, neglect, and drug and alcohol use.
Currently six to eight youngsters live in 60 cottages. Each is under the direction of a married couple called Family Teachers who act as parents, teachers, and counselors. The purpose is to provide family life.
In 1979, girls were admitted for the first time to Boys Town. Their first graduation class from Boys Town High School was in 1983.
The opening of the Boys Town National Research Hospital® in 1977 was another significant development. The hospital is a center for boys and girls with hearing and speech problems as well as other communication disorders. It has two sites. One is in downtown Omaha while the other is on the campus.
Father Valentine J. Peter became director upon Father Hupp’s retirement in 1985. He expanded Boys Town’s national presence as sites were established across the country. New research-based outcomes focusing on child and family care served a skyrocketing number of children and families.
In 1985, the village of Boys Town was named a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is Nebraska’s only National Historic Landmark District. Boys Town has won the America’s Promise Alliance “100 Best Communities for Young People” award multiple times.
In 1989, a 24/7 National Hotline was established to provide support and guidance to parents and children with problems ranging from child discipline issues, drug and sexual abuse, depression, bullying, and threats of suicide. Contact them at 1-800-448-3000. They can be reached by email, texting, or live chatting. Godfather Pizza is a corporate sponsor.
Father Steven E. Boes became the current director in July 2005. He has maintained the national scope, continuing nine sites in seven states. Boys Town youth, family, and community as well as health services now touch the lives of two million people nationwide annually. Youngsters, with the average age being ten to sixteen, continue to come because of court cases, being wards of the state, and private placement.
Father Boes espouses Integrated Continuum of Care® focusing on helping more children and families in their own homes while providing out-of-home care for youngsters who have greater needs. Currently, nearly 95% of the children receive care while living with parents or caregivers. The goal is to return the remaining children to their families.
He believes that it’s wise to send trained consultants into homes so families in crisis can stay together. Boys Town also distributes valuable advice through websites, books, and other resources. Its hotline remains important.
In 2012, Boys Town launched its state-of-the art Center for Neurobehavioral Research. This Center is known for its study of the connection between biology and children’s behavioral and mental health problems so new treatments can be developed. The two Boys Town National Research Hospitals are leaders in ensuring quality health care particularly when it comes to hearing, vision, speech, and other communication disorders.
The Visitors Center was established as a Greyhound Bus Station under Father Flanagan. It contains a café, gift shop, and the Leon Myers Stamp Center, a small museum. It’s also where you start a tour or pick up a map directing you to all of the attractions around the campus.
The highlight of the Stamp Center is the gigantic stamp ball. In 1955, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not column called it the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps. In 1953, the Boys Town Stamp Collecting Club began pasting stamps around a golf ball. It weighs 600 pounds, contains 4,655,000 postage stamps, and is 32 inches in diameter.
The wall exhibits include stamps designed by youngsters as well as pictures of youngsters and children’s fairy tales on stamps. You will also find a rotating exhibit. The display we saw was on 1950's baseball cards with such recognizable ones as Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, and Rocco (Rocky) Colavito. Children will appreciate the “penny bin” where they can buy a stamp for one cent.
The café, with food served cafeteria style, is ideal for lunch or breakfast. The fried grill cheese sandwich is a favorite of Nebraskans. Hours here are breakfast 6:45 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. and lunch 11:00 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. This location is also where new youngsters become citizens of the Village of Boys Town in a ceremony held every Friday. The ritual is open to the public. Boys and girls must swear to study hard, play fair, and pray well all of their days at Boys Town.
The gift shop has excellent books on Boys Town’s history and on Father Flanagan. You can also purchase a DVD of the Boys Town movie, apparel, collectibles, and souvenirs. These items are also available on line.
DRIVE AROUND THE VILLAGE
The Music Hall, completed in 1948, with a 1,200 seat auditorium and orchestra pit, is the venue for all music and drama productions, school assemblies, and May’s high school graduation. The sandstone sculpture on the building’s facade tells a story. It relates a homeless boy being told about Boys Town. The boy is then welcomed by Father Flanagan. It further tells of his education and his work as a productive citizen. The panel says in Latin, Father Flanagan’s famous saying “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” This building is only open to the public for special events.
All youngsters receive an academic evaluation to assess their needs. Boys Town High School has grades nine to twelve while the Wegner Middle School serves grades four to eight. The middle school’s gym is the same as the one featured in the 1938 movie Boys Town. School takes place year round with half sessions in the summer. Both schools are accredited by the state of Nebraska.
The Great Hall is the campus dining hall. Before the Family Homes, the boys ate three meals a day here. Today, the girls and boys eat only lunch at the Hall since they join their “families” for the other two meals.
Prior to the construction of Family Homes, each of four dormitories housed up to 125 boys. During 1946 to 1948, 25 cottages were built to house the high school youths. The younger boys remained in the dormitories until 1976 when they moved to their newly built homes. The dormitories were remodeled in the 1980's and now house the girls in Family Home apartments.
Each Family Home is headed by a married couple called Family Teachers. In addition to the six or eight resident youth (either all boys or all girls), they are allowed three children of their own. They are responsible for their youths’ daily care, teaching household responsibilities, and educating youngsters in life skills. Youth have a voice in nightly family meetings, have chore schedules and study times, and go on family outings. Some have off-campus jobs.
A motivation system is employed. Youngsters receive positive points for positive behaviors and negative points for negative behaviors. Upon accumulating a set of positive points, they can exchange them for such privileges as snacks, free time, and special activities.
In front of each of the 60 cottages, you’ll spot posts. These state the name of the Family Teachers who head the household. Each post’s circle medallion reveals the length of time the household heads have been Certified Family Teachers at Boys Town. You will also often spot a van which enables the whole family to enjoy going places both on and off the campus. These can range from shopping to going on an outing. During the summer, the families go to camp in Iowa.
The length of a stay for a youngster depends upon their progress and needs. A stay of 12 to 18 months is optimal. Those youngsters who leave before graduating from high school can have their credits transferred to their new school.
The Palrang Memorial Field House is named after Boys Town’s highly successful football and basketball coach and athletic director Maurice “Skip” Palrang. He led basketball teams to state championships in 1965 and 1966. It’s home to an indoor track; a swimming pool; basketball, volleyball, and handball courts; weight room; conference centers; and the village’s JROTC program.
At the Vocational Career Center, youngsters learn trades. The original center opened in 1921 as a broom-making shop. That year, carpentry and print shops opened as well. Over the years, training expanded to barbering, woodwork, sheet metal, radio and television, auto mechanics, ceramics, and printing. Today the emphasis is on learning business and basic computer skills. Some complete their studies for a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant). Others concentrate on welding, auto mechanics, small engine repair, woodworking, building construction, drafting, carpentry, and culinary arts. This building is also home to the art program.
THE TWO CHAPELS
In 1938, Mary Dowd of New York City was so enthralled by the movie Boys Town, she asked Father Flanagan how she could help. He advised her that they needed a church since all the boys couldn’t fit in the church at one time as it was held in the wing of a dormitory. Her gift was to build the Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. It was started in 1939 and completed in 1941. It’s the place of worship for the Catholic youth.
The building’s architecture is that of a 15th century Gothic church in a typical cross formation. Beauty is added by the use of Indiana Bedford limestone for the interior and exterior. Strong buttresses line the nave and support a simple timber ceiling inside and an English tile roof outside. Each of the chapel’s stained glass windows was selected by Father Flanagan. They display child saints or those that worked with children. All were imported from Belgium. There are five on each side. Visitors can attend Mass at Dowd Chapel throughout the year. Mass times are Monday through Friday at 11:40 a.m. and Sunday at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Adjacent to the nave on the west side is Father Flanagan’s tomb. He is entombed in a bronze vault set on limestone depicting eight scenes of his life.
The Herbert B. Chambers Protestant Chapel of the Nativity of Our Lord provides services for protestant youth. Terra cotta tiles designed by Boys Town children decorate the Chapel’s altar. The church also features cast-bronze gargoyles and stained glass windows. Its exterior complements Dowd Chapel. Visitors attend services throughout the year on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. It was built in 1991.
Youngsters who practice other religious are taken into town to such places as the local synagogue or a mosque. Prayer is also encouraged for all religions at home such as before meals. Father Flanagan believed that “Every boy must learn to pray; how he prays is up to him.” He also believed that besides physical strength, the boys also needed spiritual and emotional strength.
The two chapels are linked by the three-acre Garden of the Bible. It includes more than 150 plant species mentioned in the Bible. These include rose bushes, lilies, the rose of Sharon, and a burning bush. Visitors also find fountains, benches, and olive, fig, pomegranate, and cedar trees. The garden’s brick path forms a Gothic window design complementing the two chapels. It’s maintained by the Boys Town youngsters.
FATHER FLANAGAN’S HOME
Constructed in 1927, this structure was the priest’s home until 1941 when he moved to the rectory of Dowd Memorial Chapel. His sister, Nellie, was the housekeeper. It’s open to the public.
The home’s front half is original while the back half, which was added on, is now a museum. Up front are the parlor, living room, kitchen, Nellie’s bedroom, and the dining room. Back rooms downstairs represent the Omaha Building, the Dowd Chapel with original pews, and his study.
Upstairs in the rear are recreations of the dormitory, a tribute to the Sewing Guild, a reproduction of the classroom, an example of the Nuns simply furnished living quarters, and the Christmas Room. Up front are Father Flanagan’s bedroom, his nephew, Patrick Norton’s bedroom, and a guest bedroom. Norton was the first postmaster in Boys Town.
Though it houses mostly period furnishings reflecting the year 1929, many of Father Flanagan's personal belongings are on display in his bedroom and study. The study’s centerpiece is the desk made for him by 20 boys in secret. It was a Christmas present for him which took three years to make. It consists of more than 250,000 inlaid pieces of wood from 39 different varieties.
In front of the house is a life-sized statue of Father Flanagan. Created by Nebraska artist Fred Hoppe, it was dedicated in 2002. Memorial bricks, honoring Boys Town alumni, surround the statue. In October 2001, an identical version of the statue was unveiled in Ballymoe County Galway, Ireland - Father Flanagan’s birthplace.
Adjacent to the home is the Rose Garden. It dates to the 1930s when the village’s youth were encouraged to garden as a positive outdoor activity.
STATUES AND MEMORIALS
Driving around the campus, you will spot statues and memorials. The large stone pylon at the village’s entrance could be seen by people from several miles away. It served as a beacon to the boys who were coming to Boys Town and was part of the 1940s building expansion.
Many Boys Town youth have served in the armed forces with nearly 90 paying the ultimate sacrifice. The Armed Services Memorial was originally dedicated in July 1991 to honor Boys Town alumni who served, particularly those who lost their lives in battle. It was expanded in 2011. During World War II, Father Flanagan was named “America’s Number One War Dad.” Hundreds of his kids listed him as their next of kin when they enlisted.
The Variety Club Statue was gifted to Boys Town in 1948 by Variety Club International. It consists of four boys surrounding Father Flanagan representing four different races. It depicts that Boys Town has always accepted children of any race, color, or creed.
HALL OF HISTORY
The Hall of History traces by artifacts, documentaries, statues, photos, and signboards the entire history of Boys Town and its programs, what life is like there today, and how each director met the challenges of his time. Plan on spending a minimum of two to three hours here to see everything. Start by watching a seven minute introductory film covering the 100-year history of Boys Town and its various programs. An option is watching the 30-minute centennial documentary shown throughout the day upon request.
Take time to read about and see photographs of the two homes that Boys Town first occupied. Then learn about the 160-acre Overlook Farm that Father Flanagan purchased for $250,000. It was named Overlook because it was located at one of the county’s highest spots. A windmill that stood on the farm is displayed.
The Sewing Club and Mother’s Guild were organized by Father Flanagan’s mother, Nora, and his sisters, Nellie and Theresa. The Mother’s Guild still exists today. They accumulated quilts, linens, and donations of food and clothing for the boys. On display is the beautiful quilt made by the current Mother’s Guild for Boys Town’s 100th anniversary in 2017.
You’ll see photographs of the boys in their daily lives during the 1920s through the 1940s. Observe how they passed around pans of food at their table and slept in dormitories. Each building housed about 150 boys, who had their own bunk and a quilt made by the Mother’s Guild.
In 1923, the Omaha building, the first brick structure in the village, was completed. The five-story structure contained the school, chapel, dining hall, and boys’ dormitory. You can see this building in the movie Boys Town. After it was torn down, it became the playground of Wegner Middle School.
Father Flanagan always sought publicity for Boys Town. Due to his interest in letting children know it existed, he contacted cartoonists. He featured his facility in the Captain Marvel and Joe Palooka cartoons. He also had a radio program “Links of Love” aimed at families who wanted encouragement or who were having difficulties. Listeners could write him, and he would dispense parenting advice on his show. On it, he also advocated an end to child labor in America.
Look for the statues portraying marble shooters. Marbles was the most popular game in the 1920s and functioned as a substitute for toys. Circles for the game can still be found in front of the Hall of History. In the 1940s, Boys Town hosted national marble tournaments.
Another sculpture portrays Father Flanagan. The face and hands were made from actual life masks. Real clothing painted white was used on the sculpture.
Read the clipping about the first Boys Town mayoral elections. Joe Renteria arrived in 1933 at the age of sixteen. He was the losing candidate in the first election for mayor in 1935. He does hold the honor of being one of Boys Town’s oldest alumni and will celebrate his 102nd birthday on July 17, 2019.
Play was important in the boys’ lives. Father Flanagan, a boxer in his youth, saw that all boys ages seven to thirteen received boxing lessons. Other sports were also considered important as one goal was to keep all of the boys active.
You can enter the Flexible Flyer Bus that transported the boys to their games at other schools around the city and state. The teams became part of the Omaha Metropolitan League in 1964 winning numerous Class A state championships in football, basketball, swimming, track, and wrestling. Look for the stadium on your drive around the village.
Before joining the league, few area teams were willing to play them since the Boys Town squads were interracial. They played exhibition games in 21 states and the District of Columbia instead. In 1946, at Burdines Stadium, later called the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, only the white boys were allowed to play. One black youngster was booed for going on the field to give water to his teammates.
Boys Town became known nationally for its choir, “The Voices of Boys Town.” The choir performed in Cuba, Canada, and Japan and cut a record in 1962 with the Everly Brothers. It also appeared at Disneyland, the White House, the Ed Sullivan Show, and Carnegie Hall.
Starting during the summer of 1922, Father Flanagan organized an entertainment troupe of his boys that traveled across the Midwest in brightly colored, second-hand, horse-drawn circus wagons. Communities sometimes rescinded their invitations when they saw the group of interracial boys. Sometimes homeless boys, along the route, would be picked up and taken back to Boys Town. Since the venture was not a successful fund-raiser, Father Flanagan’s Boys Shows later traveled by train. You can see one of these circus cars at the Hall of History.
Monsignor Wegner encouraged the boys to work and to save their money at the Boys Town student bank. The youngsters earned “Boys Town Tokens” which could be taken out of their accounts and spent on going to the town store, ice cream shop, or bowling alley. This taught them fiscal responsibility.
They could work at such places as the Town’s barber shop where older boys cut the younger boys’ hair. They could also work at the tailor shop, the dining hall, bakery, or on the farm. The John Deere Company donated two tractors to Boys Town. One of these was cut open so the boys could learn about its mechanical operation and how to repair tractors.
Learn about the contribution of the men who followed Father Flanagan as directors. In the Directors Room, read about the details of Father Flanagan’s trips overseas, and view his last remaining known photograph taken May 14, 1948. You’ll also see his vestment garment as priest. Then view personal effects of Monsignor Wegner and Father Hupp.
Expansion has been a vital part of Boys Town. Currently nine sites, throughout the country, have programs specific to their community. In addition to home assessment services to families, a variety of Foster Family Services, residential treatments, parenting classes, and psychiatric counseling are offered. Discover how Godfather Pizza has the National Hotline number on all of their boxes and is a corporate sponsor. Gain information on the hotline website, a resource for parents and children in crisis.
Find out about Boys Town National Research Hospital which opened in downtown Omaha in 1977 with a second branch built on the main campus in 2005. It has received international acclaim for its genetic research on Usher Syndrome, a disease causing deafness and blindness. The hospital in 2012 started collaborating with Boys Town youth care services to pursue neurobehavioral research of children with behavioral and mental health issues.
Notice the “Two Brothers” statues. They’re modeled after a 1921 Boys Town photo of two residents. Howard Loomis, who couldn’t walk because of polio, was often carried by the older boys on campus such as Reuben Granger. The first was sculpted in 1947 by Ira A. Correll from Indiana limestone. In 1977, the image was sculpted in bronze by Italian sculptor Enzo Plazzotta. The third was done in 2017 when Omaha sculptor Matthew Placzek created “The Work Continues” of an older boy carrying a younger girl. From the original statue came the well known line “He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.”
A room is dedicated to famous alumni. Lloyd Bucher was the commanding officer of the U.S. Pueblo. It was the only ship in U.S. history captured by North Korea. Cecil Stouton served as the White House photographer for President Kennedy. He shot the photograph of President Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination. Shaquil Barrett played linebacker for the NFL Denver Broncos when the team won the Super Bowl in 2016.
Finally, check out the Famous Friends section with photos and artifacts of those who have visited. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig met with Father Flanagan as did Clark Gable, Tom Mix, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello. First ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, President Harry Truman, Bobby Kennedy, and Mother Theresa have also visited the campus.
A FEW DETAILS
Plan on spending a whole day here with your first stop being the visitor center. It’s located at 13628 Flanagan Boulevard in Boys Town. Hours are September 1 through April 30 from Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From May 1 through August 31, the hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. All Saturday hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. while Sundays are 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For information on group and individual tours, call (800) 625-1400.
Where to Obtain Tours of Boy Town, Eat Lunch, and Visit the Gift Shop
Ball Consisting of 4,655,000 Postage Stamps
Close Up of Stamp Ball
Stamps Portraying Stamps of Children and Ones Designed by Children
One of the Dormitories
One of the Family Homes
Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
Interior of the Chapel
One of the Chapel's Stained Glass Windows Selected by Father Flanagan
Father Flanagan's Tomb
Location of Father Flanagan's Tomb
The Herbert B. Chambers Protestant Chapel of the Nativity of Our Lord
Father Flanagan's Home
His Famous Desk
The Work Continues, with a boy and girl, by Matthew Placzek
Variety Club Statue
Exhibits Tracing the Entire History of Boys Town
Quilt Created by the Mother's Guild for Boys Town's 100th Anniversary in 2017
The Movie That Made Boys Town Famous
In the 1940's, Boys Town Hosted National Marble Tournaments.
Flexible Flyer Bus That Transported the Boys to Their Games
"Voices of Boys Town" Performed Internationally.
A Circus Wagon Used in The 1920's to Transport Boys Town's Entertainment Troupe
Portrait of Father Flanagan