Of all the roles Father Edward Flanagan filled as Boys Town's founder – from administrator and fundraiser to teacher and comforter – the most important and most impactful was that of “father figure."
Father Flanagan believed that fathers played a critical role in how children grew and developed. Sadly, so many of the boys he welcomed to Boys Town had either lost their fathers through death or had been lost to their fathers through abuse, neglect or abandonment.
During his lifetime of protecting society's most vulnerable members, Father Flanagan became a “father" to more than 4,000 boys. He understood that these boys were not bad but simply needed a strong male role model to set them on the right path to a successful future.
Even as he struggled to raise money to keep Boys Town open as a refuge for America's forgotten kids or traveled across the country to change laws and practices that were harmful to children, Father Flanagan always had time for his boys.
When a new boy arrived at Boys Town, tired and hungry, Father Flanagan would make sure he got something to eat and a warm bed to sleep in. When one of his boys was feeling down or having problems, the priest would sit down with him for a heart-to-heart talk. When his boys got into trouble, Father Flanagan used firm discipline to correct misbehavior, but always let even the worst offenders know he believed “there is no such thing as a bad boy."
And his boys responded with love and respect. Long after leaving Boys Town, they would remember the priest's kindness and the good lessons and values he instilled in them. They would credit his great influence in their young lives for helping them to grow into productive citizens and fathers who passed on those same values and lessons to their own kids.
A wonderful example of how much the boys looked up to Father Flanagan was the gift they gave him for Christmas in 1939. For months, they labored in secret on their surprise – a large desk constructed from 250,000 pieces of inlaid wood. When the boys presented the desk to the priest, it immediately became the centerpiece of his study and one of his most prized possessions. (The desk is on public display today at the Father Flanagan Historic House in the Village of Boys Town, Nebraska.)
Another example of Father Flanagan's influence occurred during World War II, when a thousand former Boys Town citizens were serving in the armed forces. To them, Father Flanagan was a confidant, an advocate and a friend. But more importantly, to many of them, he was also “Dad," in the most meaningful and profound sense of the word.
So many of these former boys had named Father Flanagan as their next of kin when they enlisted that the American War Dads Association declared him “America's Number One War Dad." Father Flanagan was honored to have that title, and while his boys bravely fought on the frontlines, he tirelessly supported the war effort on the home front.
And when one of his boys was killed in battle, Father Flanagan felt like he had lost a son. He shared his sorrow and heartache in the letters he wrote to family members of his boys who made the ultimate sacrifice.
One such letter read: “My dear Mrs. Buckley… Your letter received telling me the sad news of the death of James Burns… was really a shock to us, as I had such a nice letter from him written on October nine, just four days before he was reported killed in action… It seems that we are losing so many of our boys…, it is hard to realize they will not come back to us."
At Boys Town, Father Flanagan became a father to the fatherless, providing a caring home for every boy who came to Boys Town. His dream was to create an America where children were valued, respected, loved, cared for, educated and guided so they could become good people, productive workers, involved citizens and caring, responsible parents for generations of children to come.
We carry on his dream today in our mission of changing the way America care for children and families.
On this Father's Day, we pray that dads everywhere will embrace the loving relationship they have with their sons and daughters. We ask the same for all those who serve as father figures for children, whether they are grandfathers, uncle, brothers or family friends. We also pray that all of these men continue to dedicate themselves to the awesome responsibility of serving as a positive role model and a teacher of values to children.
Happy Father's Day!
For parenting tips and advice from Boys Town's parenting experts, visit our website at: parenting.org