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Boys Town Self-Government: Citizenship in Action

April 24th, 2015     By Tom Lynch, Director of Community Programs and the Boys Town Hall of History

Boys Town History, Father Flanagan, Village of Boys Town

Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan once described his work as “building good Americans.” He believed that being a good citizen required active participation in the political process and voting. To give his boys a chance to experience and experiment with these activities, he set up a system of self-government at Boys Town.

In 1935, Boys Town residents went to the polls to elect their very first mayor and Village commissioners. The elections allowed all the boys to have a voice in running the Village. That year, Tony Villone was elected by his “brothers” to serve as Boys Town’s first mayor.

Like a city council, the commissioners were responsible for different aspects of the Village’s operation. Father Flanagan wanted the mayor and the commissioners to learn how to work together as a family and respect the voices of all the residents.

In the mayoral elections that followed, the residents created political parties, held debates and had campaign rallies. The elections drew national attention, and Boys Town became famous for having the youngest “voters” in the country.

The mayor’s duties included welcoming special guests to the Village and representing Boys Town and its young residents at official ceremonies. In the late 1930s, Mayor Dan Kampen made an official visit to the Big Apple. New York newspaper headlines screamed, “The youngest Mayor in America visits New York!”

The self-government system also included a court system that helped enforce Village rules. Misbehaving boys were brought before the court, which was comprised of the mayor and the commissioners. In this “court of peers,” a boy who was found to be guilty learned his punishment, such as having to sit with his back to the screen during movie night. Father Flanagan always attended the court proceedings to ensure the judgments and punishments were fair and appropriate.

The Boys Town approach to self-government was so successful that more than 750,000 German children participated in a similar program following World War II. The Allies believed a system like the one used at Boys Town offered these children the best opportunity to learn about democracy, equality and freedom for all citizens.

A version of Father Flanagan’s self-government system continues today at Boys Town. Every May, the boys and girls go to the polls to elect a mayor who serves as their representative and as an ambassador of Boys Town. In 1991, residents elected Sarah Williamson as Boys Town’s first female mayor.

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