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Father Flanagan, the man from Boys Town

This article is written by Walt Sehnert. It was published on mccookgazette.com on October 31, 2016.

Each year, when I get my reminder for my contribution to Boys Town, I am reminded of that time, so long ago, when Hollywood came to Nebraska. In the summer of 1938, during the Great Depression, and a very hot dry growing season, the entire state of Nebraska was in a tizzie. MGM was shooting a major movie on location in Omaha. (At that time shooting a movie on location, away from Hollywood, was something of a rarity.) The movie, Boys Town, starred Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, two of the brightest stars in Hollywood, and it seemed that the entire state embraced the project. Each day the World- Herald had multiple stories about the movie and its stars. Curious fans climbed trees and trampled flower beds in order to see what the film crew was shooting that day at the Boys Town campus, several miles west of Omaha on Highway #275. The film crew and its stars stayed at the Fontenelle Hotel, at the time the premier hostelry in downtown Omaha, and folks lined the street to see Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy come and go. It was all a huge event and Nebraskans wanted to be a part of it.

Father Flanagan, whose dream is portrayed in the film, came from ​Ireland. His first parish was in O'Neill, Nebraska, before coming to Omaha to be the assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Church. Flanagan had a dream of establishing a home for homeless boys. In 1917, in spite of misgivings from his Bishop, he started the first home in somewhat dilapidated quarters in downtown Omaha. Those facilities were always inadequate, and by 1921 the movement had gained enough that they were able to begin to build a facility on a farm some 10 miles west of the city. Boys Town gradually grew to be quite a large community, with its own Boy Mayor, schools, chapel, post office, gymnasium and other facilities, where boys between the ages of 10 and 16 would be safe and could get an education, raise a good bit of their own food, and learn a trade. Father Flanagan did not believe in the reform school model for troubled youth, which was very much the norm in the 1920s, and was steadfast in his belief, "There is no such thing as a bad boy."

Several years ago, Ray Search, McCook historian and the longtime manager of both the Fox and Temple Theaters, recalled the first time that he met the kindly priest and some of the residents of Boys Town.

Sometime during the 20's a Catholic priest from Omaha, Father Flanagan, made contact with Joe Tuller, who at the time was the manager of the Temple Theater. He was bringing a choir of boys to McCook and requested that the Temple Theater provide a stage for them to perform on a Sunday afternoon. Mr. Tuller was receptive to the idea but chose not to get involved himself. Instead, he turned over the entire project to his assistant, Ray.

Early on the morning of the concert, Father Flanagan came to the theater to work out the details of setting up the stage for the concert. Afterward, while they waited for the boys to arrive to rehearse, Father Flanagan and Ray visited in the office. Father Flanagan shared some of his hopes and dreams for a Home for Boys. He did not think small. His idea was to provide a home for boys who were orphaned, or from dysfunctional homes. He would bring boys from all over the country, to a place where they would be safe, and loved. They would have an opportunity to get an education and learn a trade. He could envision the time when there would be many boys, and that place of refuge would have its own school and church, and the boys would learn about government, and responsibility, and what it takes to become a good citizen. The boys would learn by doing things for themselves.

At the moment, he admitted, things were not going too well, and the boys were living in a large old house near downtown Omaha. Money was always scarce, and now they were on a tour of the state, providing choral concerts and passing the hat, to raise enough money to keep the venture afloat. He was sure that his idea was sound. With God's help they would succeed.

Father Flanagan was a very congenial man. Ray liked him immediately. His determination was apparent. Ray was sure that he would be successful in his dream.

Finally, the boys, ranging in age from not more than seven or so to high school age, and their choir leader arrived for the rehearsal. From the moment they arrived, Ray began to have doubts about the success of any venture involving "these" boys. It was like releasing a sack full of gerbils into the theater. They scattered in all directions, to the restrooms, to the balconies, to the stage, whooping and hollering. It was bedlam. The poor choir director and Father Flanagan and some of the older boys did their best to get the boys together on the stage to run through their numbers. It was not an easy task. But at last, they seemed to be getting them in place, when from high above they heard a terrifying scream.

One of the smaller boys had scaled a ladder on stage, which led to the electrical platform, filled with dangerous open switches. It certainly was no place for a small boy. But from that platform, the boy had gone up another ladder leading to some of the stage scenery. And from there he had climbed yet another ladder leading to a catwalk some 55 feet above the theater stage. At that point, he must have looked down and panicked. He was clutching the protective railing of the catwalk, frozen with fear, alternately screaming and sobbing. Suddenly, all the shouting and roughhousing ceased. The theater was absolutely quiet, the only sounds coming from the boy, whimpering high overhead.

Since Ray was the one who was in charge of the theater, he started the climb to the catwalk, proceeding cautiously, all the time calling softly to the boy to sit where he was and hang on. Everything would be all right.

Ray had to force the boy's hands from the railing, then instructed him to wrap his arms around Ray's neck, and in this manner, the two made their way down from the catwalk, down the ladder to the electrical platform, and finally to the stage. Once the pair reached the floor safely, Father Flanagan rushed the little boy into his arms and held him tight, for long moments, both of them sobbing with relief, while the rest of the choir cheered.

The concert was a huge success. The boys sang beautifully, and the McCook audience was very appreciative of their efforts. Father Flanagan was pleased that the concert had raised over $250 for their new home, which would become the site of the present Boys Town.

Several times over the years after that event Father Flanagan had occasion to be in McCook, either working with the local Catholic Church or on the way to a speaking engagement on behalf of the Boys Town project. He always made it a point to look up Ray for a little visit. In later years, when the screams had faded a bit from their minds, the two finally came to the point where they could laugh over the rescue of the little boy from the Temple Theater catwalk. But that trip to McCook was something neither of the two ever forgot.

Source: from "Ray Search Remembers McCook", by Walt Sehnert​