Posts Tagged ‘Boys Town’

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town: Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography provided by Boys Town

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine 



Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.


The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin

Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime


Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and

e-mail correspondence.)

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.”

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away.

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind.

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944


James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns.

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese.

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi

Visit for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944

Nebraska Screen Gems – “Boys Town” (1938)

September 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Screening-Discussion of 1938 Movie Classic “Boys Town” on Wednesday, October 10.

The first in the Nebraska Screen Gems class series held Wednesday evenings this fall. 

Offered by Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education. 


Join me for our first Screen Gems Made In Nebraska class at MCC’s North Express in the Highlander Accelerator. We’ll be screening and discussing the classic 1938 movie “Boys Town.” It represents the biggest movie event in our state’s history considering the major studio that made it, the mega stars who appeared in it,  the huge crowds that turned out for the world premiere in downtown Omaha, the business it did at the box office and the Oscar that Spencer Tracy won for his portrayal of Father Flanagan. Then there’s the priceless promotion the film gave the boys home.


Boys Town


MCC Continuing Education - Nebraska's photo.


Nebraska Screen Gems – Boys Town


Date: October 10, 2018

Meets: Wednesday from 5:45 PM to 8:45 PM

Location: MCC North Express 311, Highlander Accelerator

Registration Fee: $29.00


Register at:…/ShowSchedule.awp?&…for…‎


For the entire Screen Gems Nebraska class series schedule, visit:…Title…


More information at:


Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education

May 17, 2012 3 comments

This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby.  Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America.  Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents.  Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him.  The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests.  It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.



©photo by Marlon Wright,



Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (


By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.

The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”

His transformation began in the U.S. Navy, where he earned his GED. At Temple University a professor encouraged his talent as a comic writer, reading his work aloud in class to appreciative laughter.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.

He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.

Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.

To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.

So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”

“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach –  and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’

“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”

Cosby was just getting started.

“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.

“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.

“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”



©photo by Marlon Wright,



Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.

“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”

A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.

“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children'” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.

He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.

Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”

“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.

“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.

Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”

“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”

Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.

“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”

Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.

“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”

Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”

“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.

Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.

Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”

Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”

Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the octogenarian founded and still runs

December 5, 2011 2 comments

Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance.  Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is.  This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down.  This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog.  While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical.  My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the ocotgenarian founded and still runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.

The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.

Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.

Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.

There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.

More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.

“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”

“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”

“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”

Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”

“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”

On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.

She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.

A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”

It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”

She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.

It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.

“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”

With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”

By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.


Louise Abrahamson, second from left, and family




Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”

She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.

“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”

She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”

Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”

Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”

Louise and her family

Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”

The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.

Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.

“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”

So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.

Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”

She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.





Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”

When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”

He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”

Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”

Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.

Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.

Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.

Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.

Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for  the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”

Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”

“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

April 28, 2011 15 comments

I remember when the Omaha Sun Newspapers’ investigative report of Boys Town’s finances came out in 1972 my very Catholic mother and my similarly persuaded maternal aunts took it as a low down, dirty attack against “our Boys Town.”  The Father Flanagan established youth care center has always been synonymous with the Catholic Church or at least seen as a Catholic institution, which in fact it has been for its entire life, always with a Catholic priest at its head and traditionally with the local archdiocese and archbishop as its ultimate authority. The story‘s major revelation was that Boys Town still portrayed itself as a poor, humble, perpetually in debt, and on the verge of closing home for boys when in fact it had accumulated a vast fortune through a systematic fundraising apparatus that kept right on churning out teary letters asking for donations — by the tens of million a year –and  taking in millions of dollars above and beyond what it cost to operate the place. Boys Town did not share this bounty with anyone and didn’t want anyone to know about it.  There’s no doubt the story spurred changes at Boys Town, just as there’s no doubt Boys Town is a very different organization today than it was then — now boasting multiple locations around the country and doing business in a very transparent manner.  As for the weekly Sun, which was owned by Warren Buffett at the time, it went out of business a little more than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Boys Town investigative report.  The following piece I wrote for The Reader ( takes a look at that report and, in effect, the story behind the story.

NOTE: Also on this blog see my profile of Stan Lipsey titled “Buffett’s Newspaper Man.”   Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.




Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.


Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in the The Reader (


When readers picked up their March 30, 1972 issue of the weekly Sun Newspaper, they could hardly believe their eyes.

The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood editions had called out a venerable Omaha institution, Boys Town, in crusading journalistic fashion terms. No crime was alleged, but rather the violation of a public trust.

A front page headline asked accusingly, “Whatever happened to Father Flanagan’s dream?” That was followed by the stark declaration, “Boys Town: 700 boys with $209 million.” Thus the Sun set the incredulous tone and exploited the shocking results of a special eight-page report inside provocatively titled, “Boys Town, America’s wealthiest city?”

The subhead, “Give an account of thy stewardship,” was a Biblical admonition for a quasi-Catholic organization that cried poverty in syrupy mass donation appeals each Christmas, while hoarding a fortune no one was supposed to know about or, if they did, question.

Some movers and shakers were prominent characters in the story and in the story behind the story. Sun owner Warren Buffett pointed to the records that revealed Boys Town’s “hidden” assets. Publisher Stan Lipsey supported the investigation. Managing editor Paul Williams masterminded and ran it.

The power behind Boys Town lay with Monsignor Nicholas Wegner and Omaha Archbishop Daniel Sheehan. Aged civic-social leaders comprised a rubber-stamp board.

The Sun’s ambitious owner and brash newspaper took to task an organization grown fat, smug and out of touch with the times and its constituencies. Wegner, who succeeded Boys Town’s iconic founder, was still steeped in Depression-era thinking. During much of Fr. Flanagan’s tenure the home did struggle, but after the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town, donations sharply increased, particularly after fundraising pioneer Ted Miller designed a massive, frighteningly effective direct mail campaign.

Pleas for money continued even as fortunes swelled. Making matters worse, Boys Town did little with its wealth after a 1948 building project. It shelved new initiatives and rejected best practices, effectively standing still, stuck in time.

The Sun implied Boys Town betrayed Flanagan’s mission by staying mired in outdated attitudes and methods. Buffett would later write, “We reported the extraordinary contrast between decreasing services and mounting wealth.”

The story won the Sun seven national awards, including a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, the same year the Washington Post’s Watergate series took the Pulitzer for Public Service. The papers earlier swapped in the same categories at the national journalism society, Sigma Delta Chi, awards.

More importantly, the Sun’s probing coverage compelled an organization that after Flanagan’s death in 1948 behaved like an imperious empire, paralyzed in what Williams termed “institutional inertia,” to enact long overdue reforms.

Today’s Boys Town hardly resembles that fossilized institution. Its entire methodology of youth care has been transformed. Boys Town is now recognized as a national leader in parenting and child speech-hearing impairment research and treatment.

The Sun was the liberal, plucky alternative to the conservative, timid Omaha World-Herald. Under Williams, the paper previously won awards for covering Omaha environmental issues and Omaha Transit Company irregularities. Boys Town, however, was a bigger target. While the report did the Sun no harm financially, the paper lost its edge when Williams left a couple years later. In 1980, Buffett sold it to a Chicago publisher. After an anti-trust suit against the World-Herald, the Sun disbanded in 1983.

Nearly 40 years since the story shook Boys Town’s foundation, The Reader spoke to key players who worked on the project.

Doug Smith, the youngest, least experienced member of the reporting team Williams assembled, says the irascible editor was the driving force behind “Project B.”

“Paul wanted that big recognition, he wanted that big prize … and he really went after it.

“I think he knew this was going to be the biggest story of his career, or not. I thought, maybe we all thought — he’s obsessed with this thing. When we got the announcement we won the Pulitzer one of the guys said, ‘Ahab has his whale.’ Paul was a great leader on this project. He did bring it home.”

“The story was really there for the taking by somebody with energy and enterprise, and that’s what Paul Williams had,” says Randy Brown, hired as associate managing editor just as the Sun launched the investigation. “He was the brains.”

As the team dug into the reality behind the carefully cultivated Boys Town facade, it became clear the wary institution was paranoid for a reason.

“I felt the story was really justified,” says Smith.

He and his colleagues knew the heart-tugging letters Boys Town sent out suggesting the boys would go hungry without donations were pure hokum.

“I’d say an unethical appeal considering they were sitting on a lot of money,” he says.

Team member Wes Iversen, the Sun business editor, was dismayed Boys Town made it appear “as though the wolf were at the door when they had a big pile of money they were doing nothing with.”

In the end, Boys Town was its own worst enemy.

“It was a case of they had lost their way, their mission,” says Smith. “It was the story of an American institution that had gone off track.”

When Smith asked Boys Town post office officials how much mail went through to try and gauge the scope of fundraising efforts, a reluctant staffer was quoted saying: “The reason they won’t let me give out the amount of postal receipts is because people will get everything misconstrued.”

It turned out up to 50 million appeal letters went out per year. The volume suggested a cash cow system returning huge revenues.

Boys Town officials repeatedly made ill-advised statements that came back to haunt them. In classic investigative fashion Smith and photographer Len Cook burst in on its secret direct mail apparatus, housed in a downtown building, to find 125 women typing the appeal letters and a flustered fundraising director trying to hush it up.

The Sun quoted the director as saying, “Please don’t mention this in your article. It’s so easy for the public to get the wrong idea. People will think we’re rich.”

Smith recalls Boys Town as remarkably unsavvy then in handling press inquiries. “At that time they were not equipped to handle this kind of assault by journalists,” he says.

Ironically, Flanagan had been a genius at promotion. He invited Hollywood to make two feature films on Boys Town. He cooperated with newsreels, he did national radio broadcasts, he toured the home’s band and football team nationwide, he made speaking appearances across the country and he welcomed celebrities to the campus.

By the early ’‘70s the cautious Wegner isolated Boys Town, making it an island cut-off from the world.

Bulldog reporter Mick Rood interviewed Wegner and caught him in several untruths, including the assertion Boys Town was in debt. Even when confronted by the facts, Wegner and, in a separate interview, Sheehan indicated the fundraising would continue unabated. Business as usual. The arrogant dismissal of serious questions, such as when would enough money be enough, made everything Boys Town said suspect.

“When you as a reporter or newspaper discover that,” says Rood, “that makes you want to dig. It makes you forget for a little while that the poor monsignor was in very poor health, it makes you forget that some people wouldn’t like the story because people don’t need to be deceived like that. That’s the motivation right there.”

For that interview, Rood was armed with sensitive, though public record documents that delineated the true picture of Boys Town’s finances. Buffett had informed the Sun team of a federal tax statement, Form 990, that nonprofits were required to file. He had to file one for his own foundation and it dawned on him Boys Town did, too. It took much wrangling and waiting to pry a copy from the Internal Revenue Service. When all 100 pages arrived the scope of the holdings stunned the team. Boys Town stocks, bonds, properties, though undervalued, gave it a net worth exceeding Omaha’s largest bank, and an endowment surpassing all but a few universities nationwide.

“I didn’t know quite what to think of it because the numbers were enormous,” says Brown. “It was jaw dropping.”

Iversen says it was “a money machine.”

Until those documents were secured, the team had only been able to speculate about Boy’s Town’s riches. With the hard numbers in hand, all was exposed.

“This was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Rood.

The surviving team members readily credit Buffett with giving them the golden egg that pushed the project over the top.

“Without that it would have been a good story, but not a Pulitzer story,” says Lipsey.


Omaha Sun Newspapers newsroom ©Provided by Randy Brown


Buffet also helped the Sun analyze the Boys Town treasure chest.

“I worked with Warren compiling the numbers, making sure they added up, getting all the details straight, ready for publication,” says Brown. “And he insisted on double checking everything. We knew we were taking on an institution that’s beloved in the community and he didn’t want any mistakes — not 25 cents in the wrong column.”

Rood says Williams was methodical planning assignments and supervising their execution: “He made very thorough outlines … very detailed things, so we were all well aware of what we were supposed to be doing. It was also a way to make you accountable. I mean, if it was written down there you better have done it. There was no excuse. You had to have made that call you said you were going to make.

“We worked separately most all of the time. We had periodic meetings to compare notes. It was a very disciplined operation — one you wouldn’t expect from such a small paper. He was the best editor I ever worked for, ever will work for, and a good friend.”

Brown says, “everything was reread and reedited,” adding, “It was a grind.”

Iversen recalls months of slogging away, interspersed by occasional euphoria.

“A lot of it is just hard, heavy-duty grunt work,” he says. “At that time we had no easy way to check things. It’s just a lot of legwork, a lot of looking things up in books in libraries and county offices and you name it, running around checking various places and trying to piece things together. At times it could seem like drudgery, at other times when we would get a major insight everybody would say, Ah-ha, now we see where this is headed and we’ve made a breakthrough here.

“It was really heady times.”

Some intrigue did attend the story. Though the stakes were much different from the Post’s Watergate coverage, the Sun had its own Deep Throat in Claude Organ, a reform-minded Boys Town board member. Buffett met with Dr. Organ about the project and the surgeon-educator steered the Sun in the right direction.

“Everything was closely held,” says Rood. “We were more than sworn to secrecy.”

Warren Buffett

During the investigation’s last few weeks Williams took the precaution of the team working out of his home’s basement rec room for fear of losing the story to the Herald. Rood says a defensive Boys Town came to suspect the story was more than the routine historical piece the Sun painted it as. When the report broke, no one at Boys Town was prepared for its all-encompassing depth. The expose laid Boys Town bare.

Much more could have been published, team members say.

The Sun did many follow-ups over the next year and beyond as Boys Town changed its administration and board, opened the campus to consultants, replaced its warehousing of youth with a home-family model and developed new facilities and programs.

In 1974 a desperate Boys Town, still reeling from the fallout from the story, which went national and spawned new stories, hired Omaha PR man Bill Ramsey to help repair its tarnished image. It took time, but things turned around by the late 1970s-early 1980s.

Current Boys Town spokesperson Kara Neuverth says the institution did act on the reported misalignment of net worth and youth services:

“We listened to that feedback regarding some fund raising practices. What I can tell you about this organization today is that we are transparent and we pride ourselves on our experience. For an organization to remain at the forefront it must adjust its practices to stakeholder input, changing times, and new knowledge — just as we did 40 years ago. That is the lesson learned.”

The Sun investigative team scattered to the far winds. The shared Pulitzer opened doors for Rood, Iversen, Brown and Smith. Paul Williams left to teach at Ohio State. He also co-founded IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and wrote a book before his untimely death. Publisher Stan Lipsey went on to head the Buffalo News for Buffett.

The story solidified Buffet’s long-held interest in newspapers — he soon acquired a major share of the Washington Post — and confirmed for him their vital role in a free society. In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders he wrote the Sun’s achievement “vividly illustrated that size need not be equated with significance in publishing.”

The Changing Face of Boys Town and its Finances

The following sidebar appears in the print edition of The Reader but not in the Web edition:

©by Leo Adam Biga

In 1972 you had to be a member of the Boys Town inner circle to see its balance sheet. Or, as in the case of the Sun Newspapers, you had to know about a new and therefore obscure tax form filing that required nonprofits to report their financials. Even then, it took the Sun time and expense to obtain the public records, documents and figures Boys Town dearly wanted to suppress.

Today, due in part to the Sun’s disclosures of Boys Town’s worth, the law requires nonprofits to be much more transparent about their assets.  The same information the Sun had to go to some lengths to get 40 years ago, anyone with access to a computer can easily and freely obtain today with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks.

In 2009, Boys Town, which now has a national reach, reported $1 billion in assets, $810 million in the Father Flanagan’s Fund for Needy Children (the institution’s endowment) and $122 million in liabilities for a net worth of $903 million. Five to six percent of the endowment supports annual operations.

Boys Town reports nearly 90 percent of every dollar received is spent on child care.

Charity Navigator awarded it a four-star rating for sound fiscal management. Boys Town’s accountability has earned it recognition as a Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance accredited charity. These are all signs of how the organization does business very differently now compared to when the Sun rattled its cage.

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Tyrice Ellebb Finds His Way

July 6, 2010 5 comments

Go! Victory

Image via Wikipedia

When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much.  He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title.  He was also a very good football player.  He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner.  I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football.  This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.


Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly


As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.

At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).

Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.



Mike Denney


Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.

To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.

“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.

It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”

When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”

Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.

According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”

Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.

During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”

In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”

To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.

As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”

Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey

June 2, 2010 1 comment

Another native Omahan who has achieved great things is Stanford Lipsey.  This publishing scion has enjoyed a full career in journalism.  A good deal of his newspapering life has been associated with billionaire investor Warren Buffett.  The two men are good friends. Lipsey retains strong ties to Omaha, where Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are based.  This story appeared in The Reader ( on the eve of the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, which draws tens of thousands to Omaha for what’s been described as a Wooodstock for capitalists. Lispey and Buffett made journalistic history back in the early 1970s with the Omaha Sun Newspapers, when an investigative report into Boys Town’s vast financial holdings and wealth ended up winning the paper and its publishing team a Pulitzer Prize.  Buffett later hired Lipsey as publisher of the Buffalo News, a position he continues in today.

NOTE: See my new story on this blog about the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer winning report on Boys Town during Lipsey’s reign as publisher.  The story is titled “Sun Reflection.”  Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO.  He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.


Stanford Lipsey at The Buffalo News in 2012. Its owner, Warren E. Buffett, hired him. 

©Credit Brendan Bannon for The New York Times




Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Omaha native and veteran newspaper publisher Stanford Lipsey has seen and done it all in a six-decade journalism career that’s closely allied him to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.

Lipsey climbed the ranks at the now defunct Sun Newspapers in Omaha to become owner-publisher. In 1969 he sold the Sun to Buffett, but remained as publisher. In 1972 Lipsey was at the helm when the Sun, acting on a lead from Buffett, poked into the finances of Boys Town. The Sun’s probing led to sweeping changes at the charitable organization and earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

Buffett later appointed Lipsey publisher of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News. Lipsey is still its publisher today. In 1988 he was named a Berkshire vice president. The old friends, inducted in the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame in 2008, may or may not get together this weekend at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha.

Lipsey, who got his start as a photojournalist, came out with a photography book, Affinity of Form (2009, powerHouse Books), that can be purchased at the Qwest Center exhibition hall during the May 1 meeting or at the Bookworm. He still shoots, only with digital equipment, not the Brownie or Speed Graphic he began with. Instead of snapping news pics, he makes fine art images for galleries and books.

His life as a news hound has spanned hot type, clattering typewriters, digital off-set presses, computerized newsrooms and newspaper web sites. His training began at Omaha Central High and the University of Michigan. While in the U.S. Air Force he served as editor of the Offutt Air Force Base publication Air Pulse.

He began working at the Sun in 1952, learning the business inside and out. Lipsey said the Sun “was small enough so I could do it all.” He considers a well-rounded newspapering experience an “invaluable” education most publishers “don’t have” today. “In the large daily business hardly anybody has it. They come from one field. They were either an editor or an advertising manager or a business manager, but they don’t have the crossover background between news and advertising,” he said.

Buffett said, “He’s a real journalist but he understands every aspect of the business, and that was one of the considerations why we wanted him up in Buffalo.”

Under Lipsey’s watch, managing editor Paul Williams guided the Sun expose of Boys Town when the still single-campus, dormitory-style, boys-only home used weepy mass mail appeals to portray itself as destitute. The Sun revealed Boys Town sat on a $162 million endowment dwarfing that of many national institutions. Property and building assets created a total net value in excess of $200 million.

“We knew there was a story there, but we didn’t know how to get it,” said Buffett. “I was sitting at home doing the tax return for my own tiny little foundation and there was something in the instructions that said my tax return would be public. All of a sudden it dawned on me if a tax-free institution such as this foundation of mine had to make the return public, Boys Town probably did.”

The story goes Buffett called on a well-placed source who sat on the Boys Town board to verify Sun suspicions the nonprofit had accumulated a fortune. Public records confirmed the rest. Public indignation was strong.

“It’s a helluva story,” Lipsey said by phone. “It was so well done.”

He said breaking the exclusive, which major news outlets picked up, was what the Sun needed to do to stay relevant opposite the Omaha World-Herald.

In Buffett, the paper had deep pockets and considerable clout. In Williams, who went on to help found Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a solid newsman. In Lipsey, a crusading publisher.

“See, we didn’t have the advantage of being a daily, so when we came out we had to have something fresh, so we did investigative reports, enterprise reports,” said Lipsey. “Warren, Paul Williams and I would sit down and brainstorm — what’s the story, what should we go after, and then this thing came along — it actually came along on a tip from Warren. It made for a great story.”

Like Lipsey, Buffett still feels a sense of pride about what they did.

“That was a watershed. It didn’t do us any good commercially as a paper, but that was probably as interesting a month or two of my life as has ever occurred,” said Buffett.

The report upset the Catholic community. Defensive Boys Town officials attacked the Sun as “a yellow rag.” The gutsy coverage earned the Sun the first Pulitzer given to a weekly for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting. It’s the last Pulitzer, period, won by any Nebraska newspaper. The award also recognized the reforms the story instigated. A chastened, more transparent Boys Town embarked on a course serving at-risk youth in new, home-like environs across the nation. Boys Town also built the first of its major research facilities.

When Buffett acquired the Buffalo News in 1977 he asked Lipsey for help. “When I was in trouble up in Buffalo with the paper I called him,” said Buffett. At first Lipsey served as a consultant, commuting between Omaha and Buffalo, before accepting the role of publisher in 1983. The two men share an abiding mutual respect. “I admire Warren. I would say he’s someone who has taught me a lot. He’s a steady hand. He makes decisions that are totally moral, totally wise, and for the right reasons, and they’re not always necessarily for profit,” said Lipsey. “He won’t buy a company where the management isn’t in place. The only exception to that is me.”



Warren Buffett



The book The Warren Buffett CEO, Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers, devotes a chapter to “the turnaround” Lipsey engineered in Buffalo.

“You see a newspaper doesn’t really match what Warren buys in companies because this paper was losing money when he bought it but he always had enormous respect and love for newspapers. But then he was short — we had a very good editor but we didn’t have a good publisher here. He had to get one to come in, and he tapped me,” said Lipsey. “There was a daily newspaper here in competition called the Courier Express. It became one of these fights to the death type thing. I got very interested in that. That was an enormous challenge, and I wanted to make sure we survived.”

Buffett said Lipsey was well qualified coming from a small paper to oversee a big paper because he knew all phases of newspaper operations: “Stan knew the press room, he knew circulation, he knew ad sales, he knew the newsroom. Stan’’s been a terrific friend and business associate. He’s over 80 now and he goes to work every day with the same zest as always. There’s no one I trust more.”

With the dynamic pair behind it, the Buffalo News won out. Lipsey’s still in charge, but the shrinking place of printed newspapers in this digital age concerns him

“Certainly right now the newspaper business is challenging. We’re doing better than most papers, but we’re not doing well. All our numbers are way down. Circulation, advertising, profit, volume, everything, and I think you’ve seen the same thing with the World-Herald, and they were enormously profitable. The trouble with newspapers is they’re extraordinarily costly, so when you have a sharp fall off in revenue it’s hard to cut as much as you’re losing, because you have to so many people in the newsroom, so many people running the presses, so many people driving the delivery trucks. That’s the problem.”

When Boys Town became the center of the film world

Boys Town (film)

Image via Wikipedia

TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is asking viewers to write in and tell stories about when Hollywood came to their hometown. In that spirit, I am reminded of perhaps the biggest film event in the history of my hometown, Omaha, Neb., and for that matter in the history of  this state.

In my opinion Omaha and Nebraska have never embraced or claimed their film heritage to the extent that they should. Many Hollywood greats have come from here. Some significant films have been made here. One of those pictures was Boys Town (1938), the MGM classic that while hardly a great film was a great success for its studio and for its subject, Boys Town, and for the home’s founder Father Edward Flanagan.  Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flangan and he donated the statuette to Boys Town, where it’s on display in the Hall of History. There can be no overstating what a big deal it was for Hollywood’s top studio, MGM, to come to Omaha to make a major motion picture starring two of its biggest stars, Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The picture has to be one of the most powerful marketing tools that’s ever been produced in terms of drawing attention to an organization, in this case a home for boys.

The following story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons in conjunction with the film’s 70th anniversary, details just what a phenomenon the film’s production was in Omaha and then what a spectacle its world premiere became here, too.  I trust you’ll find the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding it all as fascinating as I did.


When Boys Town became the center of the film world

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


Hollywood rarely comes to Nebraska. On those infrequent occasions when Tinsel Town ventures far afield to shoot a movie here it naturally creates a stir. Alexander Payne’s first three features made in his hometown of Omaha caused a sensation, especially when Jack Nicholson came to star in About Schmidt. Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner had the same effect on Plattsmouth. Terms of Endearment earlier turned Lincoln upside down.

A handful of major Hollywood productions set up shop in state over the years. Some others, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 Union Pacific, premiered here.

But no picture became a phenomenon the way 1938’s Boys Town did. For a solid year the real life subject of the title — Father Edward Flanagan’s haven for homeless youths in Nebraska — became the center of the film world.

When the movie ended up a popular moneymaker, critical hit and Oscar-winner, Boys Town enjoyed a publicity boon and Flanagan turned icon. Always a savvy marketer, Flanagan had faith the film would pay off far beyond the small rights fee MGM paid the home. In a letter he wrote:

“The picture has given us wonderful publicity and while we receive no direct aid from the picture, other than the $5,000 paid us for the use of our name and the grounds, I feel that eventually we will benefit from it because of the many friends we will make.”

Before the movie Boys Town was little known outside the Midwest. The same was true of Flanagan. The movie’s success changed all that.

“The movie had the impact of making Father Flanagan the authority on child care in the world. His child care philosophy were soon very much in demand. He began to consult numerous private and government agencies,” said Boys Town archivist Tom Lynch. “Demands for him to speak across the country poured in and soon he would be gone several weeks at a time…

“The name Boys Town was soon known throughout the world as the movie was shown in various countries. It inspired people in these countries to start their own Boys Towns. Also, the number of boys wanting to live at Boys Town exploded. Every week hundreds of letters arrived from people wishing to place a boy at the home.”

So how did Hollywood get wind of Boys Town?

The studios aggressively searched for source material, scouring newspapers, magazines, reading galleys of new books, catching all the Broadway shows. The story goes that MGM producer John Considine Jr. happened upon a small item in an L.A. paper about the 1936 “city” election at Boys Town. Apparently he was intrigued by an incorporated village of 200 boys who elected a mayor and six commissioners from their own ranks.

The home already operated a well-oiled publicity machine courtesy Flanagan and three Omaha PR men, Byron Reed, Morris Jacobs and Frank Miller. In a letter to Considine prior to the movie being made Flanagan referred to how Boys Town “has developed important publicity contacts” covering practically every newspaper or magazine of consequence in the U.S. Boys Town also sent out its choir and band as ambassadors for the home, netting much press wherever they performed. Flanagan had already taken to inviting prominent figures to Boys Town. When celebrities like Will Rogers and Admiral Richard Byrd visited it made national news. Pathe News featured Boys Town in 1933.

That foundation paid dividends when the movie blew up. Story after story in print and on radio detailed the film and the real life village and priest it depicted. Lynch said the movie made Boys Town and Flanagan “household names.”

The enduring popularity of this classic has introduced Boys Town and Flanagan, who died in 1948, to succeeding generations of viewers. The film provides Boys Town exposure it could never afford to buy. With the passage of time the movie only further reinforces and embellishes the legacy of that place and the man who started it, making Boys Town the stuff of legend.

In its time Boys Town was the rare motion picture that not only chronicled an actual institution still in operation but the leader who still ran it. The timing of the movie was perfect. With America still reeling from the Great Depression inspirational stories of triumph over hard times were in vogue. The uplifting message of Flanagan — “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” — resonated with the New Deal’s optimism. The self-governing boys home appealed to the democratic ideals of a nation warily eying communism’s and fascism’s hold around the world.

Lynch said the movie also came at a crossroads moment in the village’s history: “When the movie project began the home had just barely survived the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. The home had no money and the offer of a movie was a dream come true. Just a few years before the movie Boys Town was on the verge of closing and just a few years later it was an American institution.”

Everything about the project aligned to make it front page news in 1938.

For starters, the movie told the sentimental story of one of Nebraska’s own beloved institutions. Further heightening interest was the fact the movie was partially shot on location at Boys Town. The production used the campus buildings and green spaces, along with the rural backdrop and adjoining highway, as local color. Most authentically, the film utilized several resident boys as extras.

Adding luster were the principals behind the production. The company making Boys Town, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ruled the Hollywood roost as the biggest studio with the most prestigious pictures and the greatest roster of stars under contract.

Two of MGM’s hottest actors, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, headlined the cast. Tracy was not only an A-list matinee idol and sure-fire box office draw but perhaps the most respected screen actor of his generation. He started Boys Town mere months after winning the Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in Captains Courageous. One of Tracy’s co-stars in that picture was Rooney, a fast-rising juvenile star thanks to the popular Andy Hardy series he appeared in opposite Judy Garland. Boys Town director Norman Taurog brought solid credits behind him, especially helming children’s fare (Skippy, Tom Sawyer).



Spencer Tracy’s Best Actor Oscar at the Boys Town Hall of History



The company of actors and crew of technicians spent two weeks on location in Omaha. Tracy was a boozer then and Rooney a carouser but reportedly each stayed on his best behavior.

The presence of Hollywood royalty made the company’s base headquarters at the Fontenelle Hotel and the film’s location on the Boys Town campus popular destination stops for hordes of fans and the merely curious.

The hoopla started long before the cameras rolled or the movie premiered.

MGM script writers J.C. Dull, Eleanor Griffin, William Rankin, John Meehan and Dore Schary, who all contributed to various drafts of the screenplay, visited Boys Town on research trips. The director originally assigned the pic, J. Walter Ruben, also visited. The only way these artists could get a real feel for Flanagan and his boys was to spend time with them. The scenarists soaked up the atmosphere, took stills, interviewed residents, all of which helped give the film a sense of verisimilitude.

Flanagan was hardly a passive figure in the script process. He nixed several drafts before one finally suited him to his satisfaction. Even after giving his blessing to the final draft he received script updates right up to and through the film’s making.

Early drafts took an odd slant, even positing British child actor Freddie Bartholomew as the lead. The original emphasis on wayward boys and their misadventures transitioned into a story focusing on the priest and his methods.

Flanagan made clear he didn’t want a sentimental “Oliver Twist orphanage picture.” He pushed instead for a picture that showed in clear-eyed terms his way of handling boys, which was to treat each as “a definite individual”…He chafed at any representation of Boys Town as a reformatory:

“Boys Town is NOT an institution. It is a township where fine little men live and work, study and play, govern themselves and mold…the strength of character essential to a good life.”

MGM went out of its way to please him. Flanagan wrote a critic: “I was surprised at the great amount of pains exerted to get authentic facts, to be accurate…”

Norman Taurog replaced Ruben as director after Ruben was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Taurog had the disadvantage of having never been to Boys Town but he was able to draw on a mountain of research.

By the time production began Flanagan was convinced that Schary and Meehan, who shared the script credit and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, “captured the feel of the township, its spirit, ends and aims.”

Flanagan considered the movie “a real welfare picture” whose “results will be far-reaching in the amount of good it will do throughout the country for youth.”

Throughout the preproduction phase Boys Town’s founder kept up a steady correspondence with several MGM figures, particularly producer Considine, but also with studio chief Louis B. Mayer and fixer Eddie Mannix.

The monsignor visited Hollywood, where he was accorded special attention. His correspondence mentions meeting Clark Gable, Wallace Berry, Maureen O’Sullivan and other stars. He also met with Mayer himself.



Fr. Flanagan with Mickey Rooney




In an article Flanagan wrote entitled “I Meet Myself” he described an encounter with his screen alter-ego:

“I have just returned from Hollywood where I enjoyed a unique experience — that of meeting myself. It is a strange feeling to meet, face to face and for the first time, the man who is to play the part of one’s self…my alter ego, my screen personality…Spencer Tracy. Yes, I sat across the table from him on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot at Culver City the other day and did just that…”

Tracy apparently expressed qualms about playing the priest. To reassure Tracy Flanagan wrote him: “Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town…and every boy here and all of our alumni are talking about you, thinking about you and praying for you…You should feel happy that you have decided to be cast in a role of such a picture and Boys Town feels honored that it has such a noble representative.”

On that same trip the priest met Rooney, well-cast as Whitey Marsh, the hard-case who softens under Flanagan’s gentle but firm hand. Flanagan noted:

“Mickey, who incidentally reminded me strongly of one of our young city commissioners at Boys Town, gave me my most lasting impression of Hollywood, a town where — to borrow a journalistic phrase — a ‘man might bite a dog’ without creating a scene…Mickey astonished me by asking for, of all things, my autograph immediately after we were introduced.”

“I think everybody was impressed by this wonderful Irish gentleman,” Rooney said by phone from his Calif. home. “He was a gentle, kind Irishman.”

Attention and accolades followed Flanagan wherever he went after the movie.

Flanagan, as prone as anyone to being starstruck, found Hollywood “not the city of idleness and riotous living contained in so many reports but…a hard-working, sincere group of actors, actresses, directors and working men creating in a new but powerfully effective medium…” He referred to “my most interesting trip” in a letter to Considine thanking him for the hospitality the studio extended.

He was also pleased to find “much enthusiasm all over the Metro-Goldwyn lot about Boys Town.” He received frequent progress reports from MGM.

Before the main company arrived in Omaha MGM producer Frank Whitbeck came in the spring to film a March of Time newsreel-style short, The City of Little Men, as a promotional-educational teaser for the feature. The one-reeler was a key part in the studio’s exhaustive exploitation campaign.

Flanagan and Jacobs were themselves not above looking for angles. They lobbied MGM to test a pair of residents, brothers Jimmy and Andy Cain, for speaking parts in the feature. MGM did. Flanagan wanted the younger of the two, Andy, to play the part of Pee Wee that Bobs Watson eventually landed.

In letters to MGM brass Flanagan flatly pointed out “publicity possibilities” News of the film netted Boys Town a steady stream of positive press and goodwill. In a letter to Schary Flanagan noted “people here are very enthusiastic over it and every mail brings questions about it.”

The film began production in Hollywood June 6. Tracy and Rooney were hard at work. Then Rooney left for a couple weeks to complete a new Andy Hardy picture. He rejoined the Boys Town company in late June on the train caravan to Omaha.

Considine wrote Flanagan the company sent to Nebraska “believed the largest and most important motion picture group ever sent to Middle West for location work.”

Despite a telegram from MGM asking the lid be kept on the cast-crew’s arrival — “so as to keep crowds away” — word leaked out. Press accounts estimate some 7,000 people greeted the stars when they arrived at Omaha’s Union Station on June 23. Once filming commenced crowds daily made the pilgrimage to Boys Town, surrounded by farmland then, just for the chance to glimpse Tracy or Rooney. Smaller but no less excited crowds milled about the Fontenelle Hotel.

Fans not only trekked to the country but braved the harsh elements, as the shoot coincided with a hot spell. Making matters worse, the campus on the former Overbrook Farm was mostly barren of trees, leaving onlookers scant shade to take refuge in. Flanagan and Tracy wore straw hats to ward off the sun.

As filming proceeded on a tight schedule Flanagan took an active interest in events by serving as the defacto technical adviser. Much of the filming took place right outside his residence’s front yard, making his presence, even when not on set, keenly felt. Hollywood was on his turf now. He often had Tracy as his dinner guest.

Most days the crew began setting up the first shot at dawn. Owing to the heat the company usually wrapped by mid-afternoon, when cast and crew packed up and headed back downtown. Each day’s exposed film was air-expressed overnight to Hollywood. The rushes returned the next day for Taurog and Considine to view.

Boys Town alum Ed Novotny was a resident there when, he said, “the movie people came out with all their paraphernalia. It was just a new experience for us. It was quite an exciting time really.” He and buddy John Anthony were impressed by the crew’s efficiency and intrigued by the tricks they used. To simulate the evening in daytime they covered a large building in canvas to block out the sun for Whitey’s nighttime escape down a fire escape.

If boys were needed for a group shot they’d be let out of class. “Sometimes we’d stand there an hour-and-a-half before the sun was right” or until crew adjusted lights, laid down dolly tracks, reloaded film, adjusted lenses, Novotny said. Multiple takes might be made. Tracy and Rooney rarely needed more than a single take.

The boys were expected to make up whatever lessons they missed while on set.

They found the stars accessible. “They were always around and so you could visit with them.” Novotny said. “They were very companionable. Of course, Mickey Rooney as young as he was had quite a clientele following him around all the time. Afternoons Spencer Tracy would dish out ice cream at a stand the studio set up. Smoking his pipe. I can still him…” Cast and crew played catch on their down time.


Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh



After 12 days in Nebraska the traveling circus that’s a film unit left to finish the picture on MGM sound stages and back lots. The first inkling Boys Town was something special came in a telegram from Considine to Flanagan in August:

“Happy to report first sneak preview most successful…Audience received picture enthusiastically…We all feel sure we have great entertainment in Boys Town…”

When the studio planned the world premiere for Washington, D.C. Nebraskans protested. Flanagan used his leverage to make Omaha the site. He wrote Frank Whitbeck about the “caustic” comments MGM’s plans were eliciting here: “For example, I have heard that a campaign might be established by the newspapers…in Nebraska denouncing the move…”

He suggested separating the movie from “the mother city of Boys Town” would be unfortunate. He laid on the guilt and the pressure by noting the Bishop of Omaha, Rev. James Ryan, disapproved of a D.C. premiere.

Flanagan added: “I had thought at one time Washington was the place because I was sold on the idea by certain people here but the more I think about it the less I think of the idea. I would favor Omaha than any other place. In reality Omaha gave us our first start and gave us our first building, and paid for it, and it is now our chance to pay back our debt to Omaha by having the premiere here.”

The priest sealed the deal in Calif., where he and Bishop Ryan were invited to attend a sneak preview of the film in Inglewood. It went over like gangbusters.

As soon as word reached town that Flanagan secured the premiere for the Omaha Theatre elaborate arrangements got under way. The preparations befitted what an official with Tri-States Theatre Corporation, operator of the theater, called “an important civic event.” The official assured Flanagan his office was “leaving no stone unturned to make this the outstanding occasion it so richly deserves.”

The crowd that flocked to greet the movie company back in June was dwarfed by the multitude gathered at Union Station on Sept. 6 to witness the arrival of the Los Angeles Limited. En route the train made whistle stops in burgs like Grand Island so that Tracy, Rooney and Flanagan could acknowledge the assembled fans. Once in Omaha the movie party saw a station and downtown festooned with streamers and banners declaring “Home of Boys Town” and Welcome Father Flanagan.”

An even larger turnout filled the streets and sidewalks for the Sept. 7 world premiere at the Omaha Theatre. Reports put the throng at 30,000.

“I never saw so many people in my life,” said Novotny, who had the privilege of being there as a member of Boys Town’s a cappella choir, which performed there. “It was a tremendous welcome. It was a big deal for Omaha.”

The Omaha World-Herald’s Irving Green wrote:

“There was not an inch of standing room on Douglas Street between 15th and 16th outside the theater. The huge crowd overflowed up 15th Street half way to Farnam…It covered another half block toward Dodge Street on 15th. Sidewalks on both sides of Douglas…all the way to 17th were swarming with people who could neither see nor hear, so far were they from the platform where Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Mickey Rooney were introduced.

“Rabid movie fans lined the roofs of buildings across from the theater. They took advantage of every store window fronting on Douglas…While 110 policemen and 40 firemen worked strenuously but efficiently to keep the crowd in check, impatient persons who had stood in the middle of Douglas…for more than two hours to see the event strained steel wires holding them back to near the breaking point.”





Green described the gala, pull-out-all-the-stops scene, including a live national radio hookup that broadcast the festivities to listeners from coast to coast:

“A 10,000 candle power searchlight visible for 10 or 12 miles played across the sky in true Hollywood style in front of the theater. The light was shipped in by special freight from Hollywood. As they alighted from limousines, principals mounted a carpeted stairway to a raised platform where they said hello to the huge throng and to listeners over 107 radio stations in a nationwide chain arranged by the Mutual Broadcasting System.”

In his breathless style Green opined:

“It was something Omaha had never experienced before. What’s more, it was something the film stars themselves had never seen in Hollywood.’ He backed up his claim with quotes: “‘This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog, Tracy, who plays the role of Father Flanagan in the picture, said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Miss O’Sullivan said.”

It’s hard to imagine a crowd that size for a movie premiere. But this was the Golden Age of Hollywood, a full decade before TV invaded people’s homes, and Americans flocked to theaters in far greater numbers then now. Besides, movie stars were the closest thing to American royalty and with three stars the magnitude of Tracy, Rooney and O’Sullivan on hand fans queued up the way loyal, adoring subjects do.

The Herald’s Green captured how far the adoration went:

“The crowd began collecting outside the theater before 6 p.m. although the first celebrities were not due to arrive until 7:45 p.m. All traffic was routed away from the theater except cars bearing those with tickets for the show. At 7:15 the doors of the theater were thrown open and a steady stream of ticket-holders continued until 8:30 p.m. Formal attire was rare among early arrivals but when the elite began coming in limousines just before 8 p.m. formal dress appeared the rule.

“In two cars came the mayor of Boys Town, Jack Farrald; his chief of police, Bobby Paradise, and Boys Town’s five commissioners, John Waskiewicz, Jesse Ruiz, Clinton Simmons, Tom McGuire and Sam Turner. ‘I want to thank the people of Omaha for this splendid welcome,’ the Mayor said. ‘It is a recognition of and a tribute to a great humanitarian, Father Flanagan.’”

Some overzealous fans caused a minor ruckus, Green noted:

“Candid camera enthusiasts gave police a few busy moments as they broke through the lines to photograph the three stars. Smiling broadly, Miss O’Sullivan, Mickey and Tracy waved greetings in return for the throng’s cheers.”

Nebraska dignitaries turned out en masse, led by the state’s governor, Ed Cochran. “All Nebraska is proud of Father Flanagan,” Cochran told the crowd. Bishop Ryan also addressed the gathering.

MGM officials spoke a few words, including producer John Considine.

Green wrote: “Then came the actors themselves. They were greeted with cheers which drowned out the words of Bishop Ryan who was speaking at the time. Mickey approached the microphone with the grin which has helped make him the fastest rising star in Hollywood. ‘This is the outstanding event of my young life,’ he said, emphasizing the ‘young’ and laughing heartily. ‘This crowd surpasses anything ever done in Hollywood. And, by the way –- if Hollywood is listening in -– hello Ma and Pa. It’s swell here in Nebraska.’”

The scene inside the theater was just as surreal.

“…Mickey’s profuse blushing when he entered with an Omaha girl brought him a hand, and the crowd rose as one in an ovation for Father Flanagan. From the stage, flanked on either side by tall vases of chrysanthemums, Eddie Forester, manager of the theater, welcomed the star-gazing crowd, and introduced J. Francis McDermott, master of ceremonies…McDermott summoned up a red-carpeted ramp to the stage for talks…” by Omaha’s mayor, Nebraska’s governor and Bishop Ryan.

Among the special guests was Henry Monsky, the Omaha attorney whose loan of $90 a quarter century earlier enabled Flanagan to open Boys Town. Monsky remained a loyal friend, board member and legal adviser until his death in 1947. The pawnbroker character of Dave Morris wa loosely based on Monsky, who asked MGM to keep his identity secret. Years later Walter Winchell broke the true story.

“After a brief stage appearance by Miss O’Sullivan, the Boys Town acapella choir sang ‘Vigil’ by Christians, and a new composition, ‘Boys Town,’ by Will J. Harris. A telegram was read from Norman Taurog, director…Then Father Flanagan spoke of the good he hopes the movie production will accomplish, and the film began.

“Applause was frequent during Boys Town, especially when Omaha buildings were recognized and references were made to Omaha…When the film ended Mr. McDermott asked Father Flanagan to escort Tracy and Rooney to the stage. It was their first official appearance to the crowd in the theater. Tracy stood with his arm around Mickey’s neck, a pose made familiar by his use of it in the film. ‘Words fail me for the first time,’ said young Mr. Rooney…He predicted another Academy award for Tracy, for his performance in Boys Town.”

Rooney’s prediction came true six months later.

Novotny gave the film a thumbs up then. He sums it up this way today: “It was a continuation of Father Flanagan’s dream. Boys Town came on the map with that.”

The Herald’s Green completed the opening night scene:

“The most dramatic incident of the entire program…was Tracy’s speech to the idolizing crowd. Despite a hush over the auditorium, his first words were inaudible. ‘You thanked us for coming here,’ exclaimed Hollywood’s outstanding male star. ‘We should get on our knees to you.’ After referring to Mickey as destined to ‘become one of the great actors of his day,’ he continued: ‘I do not like to stand here stripped clean of Father Flanagan,’ adding that if the picture is great, it is because ‘the great goodness and sweetness and beauty of the soul of this man shines even through me to you.’

“Father Flanagan sounded a benediction, ‘Good night, and God bless you,’ and…the crowd filed out into streets.”

The film went on to play equally well across America.

A legend persists that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked confidence in the property. Some suggest he shelved the picture for a time, only releasing it at the urging of Tracy-Rooney. The record doesn’t support the claim. Boys Town fit the MGM program of good clean entertainment to a tee; besides, the film’s strong previews and extensive press build up boded well for its box office.

The studio expected a hit and it got one.

The capstone came when Tracy won the Oscar and dedicated it to Flanagan. MGM publicity head Howard Strickling cabled Flanagan, “You would have been very proud as we were to hear the address Spencer made before the Academy in which he told them that all credit for the award was due to you…”

Flanagan, who’d grown close to Tracy, sent along his congratulations and gratitude to the actor, “Everyone at Boys Town rejoices with you today in the great honor that has been conferred on you…I need hardly tell you how happy everyone here is and my only regret is that I am not there to shake your hand…but my heart and spirit is with you — and it will always remain so.”





Tracy added to the lore of the film and his/its association with Flanagan and the village when he gave his Oscar to Boys Town. It just arrived one day via air express in 1939. He inscribed on the statuette: “To Father Edward J. Flanagan, whose great human qualities, kindly simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble efforts, Spencer Tracy.”

Flanagan wrote Tracy, “How can I thank you for this beautiful expression of your consideration of me and Boys Town? From the bottom of my heart I thank you for that magnanimous spirit which you have shown in sending this award to me.”

During an assembly the boys lined up single file to gawk at and touch the Oscar, much like they might a holy relic, Novotny recalled. The Oscar sat in Flanagan’s office for a time. A tradition arose in which boys rubbed it for good luck.

For years now the Oscar’s occupied an honored spot in the Boys Town Hall of History, which features several displays on the film.

The movie’s success had an unintended effect at first. Donations dried up as the public assumed Boys Town made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing of the proceeds. A desperate Flanagan asked MGM and Spencer Tracy, his alter ego, to get the word out that Boys Town needed help. Tracy signed a personal appeal letter sent donors. The money eventually flooded in.

MGM, perhaps feeling guilty for having short-changed Boys Town on the ledger sheet, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.

Boys Town further capitalized on the film when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there. The Hollywood contacts Boys Town made led to the school’s football team playing the Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles in a 1939 benefit game at L.A.’s Gilmore Stadium attended by 10,000. Numerous Hollywood stars turned out. Boys Town won 20-12. That began a tradition of Boys Town’s gridiron gang traveling the country.

The film’s success led to a sequel, MGM’s 1941 Men of Boys Town, with Tracy and Rooney reprising their roles and Considine producing. It was not as well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel.

When Considine broached the idea for a third pic, Flanagan shot it down, writing, “Men of Boys Town fell far below the standard of Boys Town.” Unless a strong script could be crafted Flanagan preferred another film not be made. It wasn’t.

Mickey Rooney returned to Boys Town in 1988 for the 1938 original’s 50th anniversary. He recently said of the film: “It’s real. Anything that’s real is worth doing. And I’m certainly happy that I was fortunate enough to be associated with a great company (MGM) and a great outlet for children (Boys Town). Boys Town’s very dear to my heart.” The actor is the home’s honorary mayor for life.

Inquiries about a new movie on the modern Boys Town sometimes surface. But as time’s shown, the original’s tough to beat. “The movie Boys Town had a major impact on the home. Still today many visitors comment on their memories of watching the movie,” said Tom Lynch. “On TCM the movie’s still shown each holiday season. Many people are still introduced to the home by watching the movie. All new residents of the home watch Boys Town as part of their orientation.”

For more on the film visit


Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later

May 31, 2010 9 comments

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When I became aware of the fact that Father Edward Flanagan, the Catholic priest and Boys Town founder whom Spencer Tracy won an Oscar portraying in the classic MGM movie, was close friends with prominent American Jewish leader Henry Monsky, I was intrigued. Then when I discovered that Monsky was a key figure in the formation, survival, and growth of Boys Town, I knew there was a story to be told.   I like how men of two different faiths found enough common ground to work together for the greater good. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

It’s interesting to me that this interfaith bond should happen in Omaha, a decidedly Catholic and Protestant communnity.  At the time when Flanagan and Monsky forged their solidarity, the local Jewish population was much larger than it is today.  But as my story points out, the relationship between Boys Town and the Omaha Jewish community remains strong all these decades later. And Omaha is receiving national attention these days for its ambitious Project Interfaith, a union of the local Episcopal, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities that is trying to lay the groundwork for a planned tri-faith campus.  One can only think that Flanagan and Monsky would be pleased.

You can find more stories by me about Boys Town on this blog, including one that charts the story of the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town (“When Boys Town Bwecame the Center of the Film World”), another that explores its athletic glory years (“Rich Boys Town Sports Legacy Recalled”), and still another that looks at the investigative newspaper reporting that uncovered Boys Town’s hidden wealth (“Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun‘s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town”).



Fr. Edward Flanagan


Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press


Even as the world grows ever flatter and more interconnected, political, religious, ethnic differences still separate people into divisive factions. One need only consult history or today’s news to see how this distrust of the other is the cause of conflict. Inroads to understanding can be made. The efforts of the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Conference for Community and Justice and many other organizations bring disparate groups together in a spirit of cooperation.

Macro alliances can start at the micro level. All it takes is two persons willing to work toward the greater good. Ninety years ago in Omaha two men — a Catholic priest and a Jew — forged an enduring friendship that made famous a haven for homeless boys, shined a light on at-risk youth and demonstrated the power of unified action. Father Edward Flanagan was an Irish immigrant prelate dedicated to rescuing men from the bowery and children from delinquency. He dreamed of a home for wayward boys but lacked funds. Henry Monsky, a Jew from the Orthodox tradition, was a social activist and attorney with a law degree from Jesuit Creighton University, where he graduated top in his class (1912).

As legend has it, Monsky is the mensch who loaned Flanagan $90 to start Boys Town in 1917. For the next 30 years he served, without pay, as Flanagan’s confidante and legal counsel. Monsky also drew his law office of Monsky, Grodinsky, Marer & Cohen into tending to the home’s affairs. One partner, William Grodinsky, joined Monsky in serving on the BT board of trustees.

Like his fellow mensch, the priest, Monsky was involved in assisting children in the juvenile justice system, a cause he “felt deep in his bones, as Flanagan obviously did, too,” said Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. Recognizing they shared a vision for helping lost boys, they formed an association “of legendary proportions,” Pollak writes in his article, “The Education of Henry Monsky,” published in the journal Western States Jewish History. That association is much documented, even dramatized in the 1938 movie “Boys Town.” A Jewish merchant-benefactor in the film, Dave Morris, is based on Monsky, whose desire for anonymity led him to secure a promise from producers that neither his real name nor profession be used. Columnist Walter Winchel later revealed Monsky as the real Dave.

In 1989 the Boys Town Hall of History and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society co-curated an exhibition, “Father Flanagan and Henry Monsky: Men of Vision,” telling these men’s story. The exhibit, which showed at Boys Town and the Jewish Community Center, traveled widely. Boys Town plans to display the exhibit again next fall for the home’s 90th anniversary celebration. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Flanagan’s death. 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of Monsky’s passing.

“The close friendship between Father Flanagan and Mr. Monsky was very unique for its time,” said Boys Town Hall of History director Tom Lynch. “…Father Flanagan had developed an ecumenical outlook on life, especially when it came to helping children in need…Father forged many bonds with like-minded individuals of different races and religions. The first such friendship was with Henry Monsky, who represents the thousands of supporters who have assisted Boys Town…”

The bond of brotherhood these men exemplified lives on today.

“There is a respectful mutuality in the relationship between the Jewish community and Boys Town,” said Father Steve Boes, national executive director of Boys Town. At the 2005 ceremony introducing Boes as BT’s new leader “Rabbi Jonathon Gross of the Beth Israel Synagogue offered a prayer for our kids, our organization and for me. Since that day and in the spirit of Henry Monsky and Father Flanagan, we have developed a friendship meet monthly.

“Our discussions range from the social problems that affect our community to personal issues like family, exercise and prayer. I have come to value our time together and see it as a great extension of Father Flanagan’s legacy. We also have a relationship with Beth Israel Synagogue. Members have helped serve Christmas dinner to our kids who can’t return home at the holidays.”

Just as Boes and Gross make an intriguing contrast today, so did Flanagan and Monsky. Flanagan, the pale, soft-spoken, bespectaled Irish priest. Monsky, the dark-complexioned, loud, lion-headed, larger-than-life Jew.

Just as having a top flight attorney and lay Jewish leader in his corner was a coup for Flanagan and BT, having a preeminent child welfare advocate and Catholic priest on his side was a boon for Monsky and convergent Jewish interests. Each was a Great Man in his own right. Flanagan owned the ear of powerful figures on the national-international stages, traveling the globe on speaking, goodwill and fact-finding tours. He commanded large audiences through personal appearances he made, including many addresses before Jewish crowds, and interviews he gave. He openly supported interfaith alliances and Zionist causes. At the time of his death he was acting at the behest of President Harry S. Truman in appraising the war orphan situation in Europe, a mission he made the year before to Korea and Japan.

Monsky served on many civic and charitable boards and from 1938 to 1947 presided as international president of B’nai B’rith, the largest Jewish service club, at a crucible time in history. As an ardent Zionist he implored U.S. and world leaders to intervene on behalf of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He helped form the American Jewish Conference (Congress), served as editor of the National Jewish Monthly and consulted the U.S. delegation at the formation of the United Nations.

He and Omahan Sam Beber also established the AZA, the world’s largest Jewish youth organization.

Like Flanagan, Monsky was in high demand as a public speaker, addressing audiences of all persuasions, and enjoyed entree into halls of power. He, too, encouraged interfaith collaboration and served on many Catholic boards.





Henry Monsky, Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive



No one knows precisely when or how they met but there’s no question they saw each other as kindred souls working to save endangered or abandoned youth. The fact one was Jewish and the other Catholic seemed to matter little to them.

Monsky’s widow, Daisy (Hirsch) Monsky, makes these points in the book she co-authored with Maurice Bisgyer, “Henry Monsky: The Man and His Work”:

“The profound friendship and loyal devotion between Henry and Father Flanagan was based on the fact that, despite the vast difference in their formal religion, both believed in social justice and both were willing to work to achieve it. There are innumerable stories of the bond between them…Father Flanagan always knew that Henry could be depended upon to act for the benefit of the underprivileged.”

In her book Daisy recounts the time Flanagan borrowed $25,000 from a board member in order to post bail for a boy charged with murder in Iowa. The priest learned of extenuating circumstances in the case and decided the lad would be better served at BT rather than in a youth detention center while awaiting trial. In a letter Flanagan asked Monsky to smooth over the legalities of it all:

“…Henry, this home is for saving boys, and we cannot let that boy stay in jail over there…I hope you will present the matter properly at the next meeting of the board, and explain what has been done.”

Always the trusted servant, Monsky persuaded the board to approve the loan and its repayment. Up until his trial the boy remained at Boys Town.

The story illustrates how the men shared an implicit understanding of how BT matters should be handled. The symbiotic way they operated is not surprising when you consider the two knew each from the time they were young men.

Ireland born and reared, Flanagan first came to America in 1904. That year or the next he arrived in Omaha on the coattails of older brother Patrick, a priest who started Holy Angels Church on the north side. It’s then that Edward may have first met Henry, who lived nearby. When Edward expressed interest in the priesthood, the Omaha bishop — a fellow Irishman named Harty — accepted him as a seminarian and sent him off to study in Rome. Ordained in 1912, Flanagan was assigned to Omaha, where he celebrated his first mass at Holy Angels. Monsky was studying law at nearby Creighton. After a stint in O’Neill, Neb. Flanagan returned to Omaha in 1913 at St. Patrick Catholic Church. He and Monsky soon worked together — to establish a Boy Scouts of America council and to advocate for youth with juvenile justice system judges and social workers.

A 1945 address by Flanagan at a B’nai B’rith tribute for Monsky at the Commodore Hotel in New York City alludes to their longtime friendship:

“…we have come here to honor a great man — a man with a brilliant mind and a loving heart. A man whose outstanding virtue is his love for his fellow man…Unlike most of you here, I have known him as a boy, a student at the university, a young lawyer entering upon a professional career — a fellow worker with whom it was my privilege to engage in charitable and welfare fields. He is a member of the board of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, and my own attorney. He is my personal friend.”

The fondness they felt for each other is seen in their correspondence:

Flanagan to Monsky on the receipt of a gift:

“My dear Henry, I have received your wonderful gift…It is very kind of you, dear Henry, to think of me in this way — I don’t know what other gift would be appreciated as much right now. Wishing you God’s every blessing and success, I remain, dear Henry, Yours most sincerely…”

And on the occasion of Monsky’s marriage to Daisy:

“…I am very happy to hear this good news, for I know it makes you happy, and my whole household joins with me in wishing you both every blessing and happiness that this old world can bring to people of good will…”

Monsky, in appreciation of that note, references an honor conferred on Flanagan:

“…I know how interested you are in my welfare, and I assume that happiness that comes to me gives you the same thrill as I experienced when I witnessed your elevation (to monsignor) in last Sunday’s ceremony. I think I know as much as anyone does how well merited this recognition is. With kindest regards…”

And on the occasion of his election to international B’nai B’rith president:

“I appreciate very much your telegram…It is delightful to know, in undertaking a responsibility of this character, that one has the confidence of those with whom he has been intimately associated for so many years…”

Monsky’s admiration for Flanagan is evident in a speech he gave at a 1942 dinner celebrating BT’s 25th anniversary.

“This is a privilege that I would not like to have missed…Father Flanagan, you can be very proud for what you have contributed in the past 25 years…those of us who have been on the board have enjoyed the great privilege, not only in that we have worked with you, but accepted your philosophy of this unique institution that ‘there is no such thing as a bad boy”…It is perfectly understandable that he has become the outstanding individual in America for his work with boys.”



Fr. Flanagan interviewed by Lyle DeMoss



In 1921 Monsky chaired the speakers bureau for BT’s inaugural capital campaign, which bought the land and erected the first building for the campus.

In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan wrote about his departed friend’s service on behalf of that campaign, which raised some $25,000:

“He spent much of his time then in training our boys who constituted his principal speakers on the public platforms throughout Omaha and its environs for this campaign. He took even more interest in making this campaign a success than he did his own business, but it seems to me he did this with everything he took up…That is why he was a great man, a great friend and a great citizen.”

Perhaps the tug of the home and its mission led Monsky to build a home on 90th Street — on then still undeveloped farm land — to be near his “brother,” the padre.

The home and Flanagan became national icons thanks to savvy marketing and the success of MGM’s 1938 hit Boys Town. Superstar Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his endearing portrayal of Flanagan and popular Mickey Rooney won new legions of fans as the plucky Whitey.

Even before the movie Flanagan and the home gained national exposure via a weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcast he delivered. But the movie brought a whole new level of attention. From its two-week, on-location shoot in Omaha to its September 7, 1938 premiere at the Omaha Theatre downtown, Boys Town was a phenomenon. Thousands of curious onlookers descended on the campus for a glimpse of the stars during the filming, which unfolded in the middle of a July heat wave. There’s some suggestion the Monskys put up Rooney at their home and that Rooney and Henry’s son, Hubert, went out on the town more than once.

At the movie’s world premiere, an estimated 30,000 people filled the streets, sidewalks and roofs around the Omaha Theater. Daisy recalled the excitement of that opening night in her book:

“…the stage setting was irresistible…Klieg lights, loud speakers, all the Hollywood paraphernalia stretched for blocks…as we left the car..the master of ceremonies stopped my husband for a broadcast over the loud speaker…of his speech…In the theater we sat just in front of Father Flanagan, Bishop Ryan, Mickey Rooney and his date and other visiting celebrities. Mickey…wept at all of the touching scenes, including his own. So did Henry, whose emotions were always easily stirred.”

Besides being invited to make remarks for the pre-show program outdoors, Monsky was among the guests introduced inside the theater.

Despite the hoopla, BT officials and MGM big wigs had little confidence in the pic. Flanagan-Monsky gave away the rights to the story for a measly $5,000. The story goes they didn’t think the movie stood a prayer of making money. And they probably weren’t wise to the going rates in Hollywood. Studio files indicate MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked enthusiasm for the property even after it’s completion, shelving it for months before Tracy-Rooney prevailed upon him to release it. The rest is history. When the movie hit big a new problem arose — donations dried up as the public assumed BT made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing from the box office receipts. A desperate Flanagan, perhaps at the urging or with the blessing of Monsky, asked MGM to get the word out that BT needed help. Tracy signed his name to an appeal letter sent donors. The money flooded in. MGM, perhaps feeling guilty, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.

The sequel to Boys Town, 1941’s Men of Boys Town, was not well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel, which proved a shrewd move when the movie bombed.

Boys Town further capitalized on the films when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there.



From the 1938 movie, Boys Town



Up to the time of his death in 1947 Monsky remained a close ally of Flanagan’s and key adviser to Boys Town. He was there for it all: from a fledgling start in an old 10-room house downtown; to the purchase of the Overlook farm for the present site; to an impressive campus build-out that turned corn fields into a “city of little men” with fine educational, vocational, residential and recreational facilities; to the household name status Boys Town gained and parlayed.

The measure of high esteem in which Flanagan held Monsky and his contributions to BT is expressed in this letter to Daisy:

“…Henry was Boys Town…He is as much responsible for the fine things the public sees out there as are my associates and me, for it was through his keen mind and advice that we were able to follow a pattern of prudence and good judgment. Never in all my association with men have I found one who seemed to understand what I wanted to do and who would advise me how best to do it. Over the years we have had many difficult problems…and Henry’s handling of all these matters was one of great satisfaction. I have received from him over the years hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advice for which I paid nothing. It is only within the last few years that I was able to show my appreciation in a small way, and never have I considered anything that I did for Henry a recompense for his legal work…”

The late Hubert Monsky confirmed the selfless nature of his father in an interview for the “Men of Vision” exhibit:

“…when my father passed away, in going through his desk…found a check written to my father for $25,000 by Father Flanagan…and a note attached to it which said, ‘Henry, dear, for years your services have been given to us with no renumeration, and now that we have the funds, you must accept this.’ That check was seven months old — my father would not cash it. That was very typical of the two people. Father Ed recognized what my father had done. He appreciated it deeply and in his fashion he was trying to say…’God bless you, Henry, for a job well done.’ But my father didn’t wish to be compensated for any work that he did for Boys Town because he felt that it was a project for everybody in Omaha.”

Referring to Monsky’s work as a board of trustee member, Flanagan wrote:

“He was one of the most active members of the Board in determining policies, and was constantly concerned with anything which would further the interests of Boys Town. His fine legal mind would shine forth at these Board meetings…and I know that in following his advice we have made very few mistakes.”

Flanagan trusted Monsky’s judgment enough that he involved him in nearly all aspects of the home’s operations and interests. Further testimony of this high regard is found in the following except from a letter the priest wrote to Daisy:

“He was one of the most active members of the Board in the founding of the Boys Town Foundation Fund and in this, as in all other legal matters, resolutions, etc., he personally dictated those and gave much thought and consideration to them.

“Henry’s last and final act was giving advice and counsel in the establishment of the training program in Boys Counseling to be established at the Catholic University of America in cooperation with…Boys Town, which offers a two-year graduate training program leading to a degree, M.A., in Boys Counseling.”

Although neither made a fuss over it, Monsky’s and Flanagan’s nonsectarian brotherhood transcended their vastly different backgrounds. From the start Flanagan opened BT to boys of all races and creeds. While Jewish youths have always accounted for a tiny percentage of residents, one, Daniel Ocanto, was elected mayor of the incorporated village in 2002-2003.

Whatever faith a youth professes, BT facilitates their practice of it. “If you’re a Lutheran, I’m gonna make you a better Lutheran than you are now. If you’re a Jew, I’m gonna make you a better Jew than you are now,”said former Boys Town director Father Val Peter. Current director Father Steve Boes said, “When we admit Jewish students to campus, we work with local synagogues to secure their religious training, and our kids are always welcomed with open arms.”

Monsky’s association with Flanagan modeled his belief in interfaith outreach. That’s why this prominent Jew served on the Catholic Commission on American Citizenship and the National Catholic Welfare Conference and on the boards of other non-Jewish organizations, including the Community Chest, the Boy Scouts, the Nebraska Conference of Social Work, the Church Peace Union and the Urban League.

Even though BT’s not Catholic per se, the fact a Catholic priest has always headed it lends it that church’s imprimatur. That was even more true during Flanagan’s regime. As far as the general public and media were concerned, the priest and BT were synonymous, making it a de facto Catholic ministry. That’s why the identification of a noted Jew like Monsky with BT was a model for how Jewish-Catholic relations could proceed both on a personal level and in regard to issues.

“They were men of different faiths,” writes Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. “Both had faith, particularly faith in the next generation….No doubt exists that Monsky and Flanagan were men of great faith whose concern for troubled youth transcended parochial boundaries.”

Every time Monsky’s involvement with BT made headlines, as it did when at Flanagan’s invitation he gave the commencement speech for the 1942 graduating class, it illustrated the possibility of Jewish-Catholic unity. Monsky’s address to the 90 8th grade and high school grads emphasized sacrifice at a time of war:

“You are, indeed, fortunate to have been taught here at Father Flanagan’s Boys Home…that life has significance, that life is purposeful…Thus conditioned, it is expected that you have the necessary equipment to assume and discharge adequately your share of the greater responsibility which each of us must bear in the present crisis…Not unlike other chapters in our nation’s history, the record of these difficult days will be resplendent with the glorious achievements of youth.”

Ties between the home and the Jewish community were strengthened by the Flanagan-Monsky bond. When elected to the BT board of trustees in ‘29 Monsky replaced another Jewish leader, the late Rabbi Frederick Cohn, of Temple Israel.

Just as Monsky’s link with BT generated Jewish outreach with the Catholic community, Flanagan’s link with Monsky led to a close relationship between B’nai B’rith and BT. Flanagan addressed several B’nai B’rith gatherings, including those in Omaha, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He spoke before the Jewish Ladies Auxiliary of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Detroit. He was the keynote speaker for the Jewish Children’s Home of Rhode Island, the Young Men’s Jewish Council for Boys’ Clubs in Chicago and the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Minneapolis.





Evidence suggests Flanagan and Monsky recommended each other for interfaith engagements and appointments, and took satisfaction in doing so. A 1939 letter from Monsky to Flanagan refers to an invitation for the priest to speak before “a very substantial group of Jewish people in Chicago, which I am sure will give you a very acceptable audience…If acceptance of this invitation is possible, of course, I would appreciate it.” The Monsky letter also mentions “reports” about Flanagan’s appearance before another Jewish group “have pleased me very much. I am happy to note the great demand on the part of my co-religionists, and particularly B’nai B’rith lodges, for the message of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home.”

In another letter to his friend Monsky describes the positive feedback a Flanagan appearance before a B’nai B’rith group in Phillie elicited, adding that members expressed “pleasure in the fact that we appeared to be very good friends.”

The BT-BB relationship is one that continues 60 years after the two friends’ deaths.

“The B’nai B’rith historically brings its sports banquet speakers to Boys Town to meet our children” and to do media interviews, said John Melingagio, Boys Town director of public relations. “Their members also have individually or collectively done charitable activities ranging from donations of funds, services or needed items to mentoring or creating opportunities for our children in the community,”

“I just can’t shake the feeling when we do that, that the two friends are looking down and smiling at the successful legacy of their dreams,” said Gary Javitch, president of the Omaha B’nai B’rith Henry Monsky Lodge #3306.

Melingagio added its only natural for BT and the Jewish Community Center, where the local B’nai B’rith is headquartered, should be on good terms as the organizations are neighbors. Each extends open invitations to the other for various programs and activities. Boys Town and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society at the JCC work cooperatively to update the Flanagan-Monsky exhibit.

Temple Israel senior Rabbi Aryeh Azriel said Jewish-Catholic relations ebb and flow but the “special relationshp” Flanagan and Monsky exhibited serves as an example of how people of two faith groups can interact in constructive ways. He would like to see more such comradeship and collegiality today in serious interfaith dialogues.

Examples of interfaith work abound locally.

Monsky’s alma mater, Creighton University, has a tradition of being welcoming to Jews and promoting Jewish studies. Monsky was invited to make the 1925 commencement address at Creighton. Jews Rodney Shkolnik and Larry Raful were longtime deans of the Creighton Law School. CU’s legal aid center is named after Milton Abrahams. The university is home to the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, a post held by Leonard Greenspoon. CU’s Kripke Center, named for Rabbi Myer Kripke and his wife Dorothy, promotes understanding between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith communities. Despite its strong WASP roots the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts: the Rabbi Sidney H. Brooks Lecture Series in honor of the late Omaha religious leader who worked for social justice and unity; and the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Human Rights Lecture Series in honor of the Omaha Jewish couple long active in the Free Soviet Jewry movement.

Additionally, Rabbi Azriel of Temple Israel has served on the United Catholic Social Services board and chairs the clergy committee for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), a faith-based social action group. He’s won recognition for his human relations work, including a Black/Jewish Dialogue initiative he led.

These efforts to be inclusive rather than exclusive and to foster fellowship rather than division coincide with the work of Project Interfaith. The Omaha Anti-Defamation League program directed by Beth Katz brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together to share the gifts of their respective faiths. Katz has traveled to the Vatican and to Israel with interfaith groups.

“Fostering healthy interfaith relations…often begins with relationships. Friendships like the one Monsky and Father Flanagan enjoyed help humanize the other, enabling us to identify and appreciate the values common to both faiths while also allowing us to explore and hopefully to respect our differences,” Katz said.

Similarly, Beth Seldin Dotan runs the Institute for Holocaust Education at the Omaha ADL. The institute’s Bearing Witness project trains Catholic educators to teach the Holocaust in their high schools. She works closely with the Archdiocese of Omaha on project curricula. Sam Fried’s Heartland Holocaust Education Fund supports college-university teaching about the Shoah.

Tolerance is at the core of all these exchanges. Rarely have two men demonstrated the tolerance Monsky and Flanagan did. Their relationship grew out of fondness and, more fundamentally, respect.

As leader of B’nai B’rith Monsky emphasized the need for unity — both among Jews and the general American population, a theme that resonated strongly with Flanagan and his ideals for BT and the nation. In his speech at the 1945 B’nai B’rith banquet honoring Monsky, Flanagan said:

“I consider racial and religious prejudice one of the greatest and most insidious of all ills that attack our social life today…This grand and noble organization over which our honored guest is the international president is to be commended for its far-reaching influence toward bringing to public attention…the urgent need for greater unity and amity among the various nationalities and creeds…This is the mission that Mr. Monsky set out to do as a young man…How well he has done this, you and I know…God bless you, Mr. Henry Monsky.”

Wherever their mutual interests intersected each man embraced the other. The welfare of troubled youth was their common meeting ground. And so Monsky involved Flanagan in his work with the National Conference for the Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. A 1946 letter from Monsky to Flanagan outlined the conference’s latest resolutions and activities and requested his feedback.

“Will you please, at your earliest convenience, send me your comments upon the foregoing…It was gratifying to work with you in the formulation of a program which has unlimited potentialities for service to the nation.”

Even as the men’s interests broadened beyond Nebraska’s and America’s borders they remained tethered in a way that only best friends do.

Rose Blumkin Jewish Home resident Esther Schwartz Segel was Monsky’s secretary for his three terms as international B’nai B’rith president. She can attest to the hectic schedule he kept flitting across the U.S. by train and plane for meetings, speeches, et cetera. His travel itinerary and business correspondence were so great, she recalled in 2003, she sometimes worked 18-hour days to keep up with it all. Flanagan’s scheduled was no less hectic.

Monsky was away attending to one of his causes, a meeting of the American Jewish Conference (Congress) in New York City, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 2, 1947. At the time he was speaking about Jewish unity.

“It was such a tragedy that he died so young and with so many plans for the future of Jewish people,” Segel told a reporter in 2003.

News of Monsky’s death reached Flanagan via telegram while abroad on a war orphan mission. In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan described the circumstances of his final meeting with his friend and what the loss meant to him:

“The news of his death coming to me while I was in Tokyo, Japan was a great shock. Before leaving on that trip he prepared my Last Will and Testament. Little did I know…that this was my last business with my friend and legal advisor. His death was one of the great sorrows of my life.”

Flanagan died in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948, almost a year to the day Monsky died. A wire from B’nai B’rith officials to Flanagan’s successor at BT, Father Nicholas Wegner, noted the special regard Jews held for Flanagan:

“His warm friendship with our late President Monsky exemplified (the) spirit of brotherhood which we fervently hope will someday encompass all people. Your loss is ours as well.”

Each was mourned by thousands in services that attracted dignitaries from all fields. Testimonials, dedications and commentaries praised them as great men and leaders. In recognition of the special place BT held in the life and work of Monsky and Flanagan, condolences and memorial contributions poured into the home, including many from B’nai B’rith lodges.

Monsky is remembered today by BT in various ways. A street bears his name (and that of his law partner William Grodinsky), as does a donor recognition level. Then there’s the “Men of Vision” exhibit. Similarly, the Omaha B’nai B’rith lodge is named for Monsky. Photographs, paintings and a bust of Monsky reside at the JCC, where Monsky’s legacy looms large.

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops

Here’s another Boys Town sports story.  It’s about tradition and legacy and giving back, George Pfeifer played for legendary Boys Town coach Skip Palrang when the school‘s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, was still there.  After Pfeifer graduated high school and served in World War II he came back to Boys Town to coach under Palrang.  Later, he took over as head basketball coach, leading the hoops program to some of its greatest successes. Now, many years into retirement, he’s back again, this time as a kind of unofficial coach and mentor, at the invitation of current head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel.  The old coach and the young coach have bonded like father and son and together they’ve helped Boys Town recapture some of the magic that made the school’s athletic teams juggernauts back in the day.

The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.


A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


When George Pfeifer coached the Boys Town varsity basketball team in the 1960s to great success, he used an adage with his players, “Get a good deal,” as a way of impressing upon them the advantage of working the ball to get an open shot.

The 81-year-old is long retired but a special tie he’s forged with current BT head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel finds Pfeifer offering kids young enough to be his grandchildren the same sage advice he gave players decades before. Krehbiel credits the recent turnaround in BT hoops — culminating in a Class C-1 state title last season — to the input of his unofficial assistant. “Coach Pfeifer is, in my mind, the school’s all-time greatest basketball coach. I wanted to get him involved in the program. I reached out to him and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning” once he got involved, said Krehbiel, who previously coached at Omaha Skutt High School.

The association between the men peaked last season when the Cowboys’ won their first state championship in 40 years. Until beating Louisville in the finals, the school hadn’t won a state roundball title since 1966, when Pfeifer was head coach. That ‘66 crown was the second of back-to-back Class A titles won by Pfeifer’s teams, squads considered two of the best ever to play in Nebraska prep history. It was an era of athletic dominance by the Cowboys.

Since the summer before the 2003-2004 season, when he accepted Krehbiel’s invitation, Pfeifer’s worked with BT hoops. When his arthritis isn’t too bad, the tall man with the folksy manner makes his way on campus, over to the Skip Palrang Memorial Field House named after the legendary man he played and coached under and where he toiled away countless hours on drills.

He’ll keenly observe practice from the sideline, noting things he sees need correcting. This recent Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee is still a master diagnostician at breaking down systems and plays. He does the same when he goes to see a Boys Town game or analyzes tape of one, as his sharp mind dissects the action with razor precision.

“He’ll notice little technical things that only someone who knows basketball can detect. He really sees and knows the game. It’s amazing,” Krehbiel said.

Pfeifer shares his insights with the players, kids not unlike the ones he coached years ago — boys full of attitude but hungry for love. Krehbiel said Pfeifer knows just how to prod people to improve. “He doesn’t criticize — he kind of suggests.”

Tremayne Hill, a starting guard from last year’s team whom Pfeifer got close to, said the old coach got the most out of him with his “encouraging” words. “He told us to stay positive and to work hard in trying to overcome adversity. He was a lot like a father figure,” said Hill, adding Pfeifer and Krehbiel are like a father-son team.

It doesn’t surprise Pfeifer he can get through to kids weaned on PlayStation and X-Box, not Fibber Magee and Molly. You see, he was a BT resident himself from 1939 to 1943, giving him a bond he feels makes him forever simpatico with kids there. It’s why his reconnection with the institution is more than a former coach returning to the fold. It’s a son or brother coming home to his family. It’s why the vast age difference doesn’t hamper him in talking to today’s kids.

“I talk their language,” Pfeifer said. “I grew up there, so I know. When I first went back out there I said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old fogy, but I used to be out here. I know all the tricks you guys know, so you can’t trick me on anything. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. I was just like you guys. My heart’s with you guys. I know what you’re going through. I’m here to be a friend of yours.’”

Hill said Pfeifer’s BT roots make a difference as “he knows the type of stuff we go through. He knows how to relate to us. More than another coach would.”

Pfeifer said he and the team developed a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.

When Pfeifer coached in the ‘60s he did something rare then — starting five African AmericansOne morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n______s?” “Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied. Ken Geddes, a member of those teams, said race “was never even an issue.” Lamont McCarty, a teammate, said, “If you didn’t perform, you didn’t play… plain and simple. He was a wonderful coach. Same thing with Skip Palrang.”

As is now a custom, Krehbiel had Pfeifer address the assembled 2006-2007 team at a mid-November practice. It was Pfeifer’s first contact with the team. He’d have been there before if not for tending to his terminally ill wife Jean. Gathered round him were about two dozen players, many of them new faces after the loss of so many off last year’s team to graduation. Pfeifer owned their rapt attention.

He told them he was 13 when his father died. Left unsaid was the Depression was on, and with his widowed mother unable to support the poor Kansas farm family she sent him and a brother to Boys Town. There young George blossomed under iconic founder Rev. Edward Flanagan and star coach Skip Palrang..

Pfeifer also didn’t mention he became BT’s mayor (as did his brother) and excelled in football and basketball. That he developed an itch to give back to youth what he’d received. After serving in the U.S, Navy during World War II he coached at Fort Hays State down in Kansas, before accepting an offer to join Palrang’s BT staff. Intending to stay five years, Pfeifer, by then married with children, made it a 30-year career. He was a coach, a teacher and principal of the elementary school.

“I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of BT students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them –- they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad,’ well, those kind of grab you. Then you know you made a difference.”

The campus holds a dear place in Pfeifer’s heart. It’s home. The people there, his family. He stays in touch with players by phone, letter, e-mail. He’s a regular at school reunions. But until Krehbiel asked him to come back as a consultant, Pfeifer hadn’t really felt welcome by previous coaches.

“I think he had a desire to get back close to the program, to his home and to this community, and so the timing was right,” said Krehbiel, a Burlington, Iowa native with his own ties to the place. His father worked there and as a youngster Krehbiel spent many a summer day on campus, running about and canoeing in the pond. “So I always knew Boys Town,” he said. “I loved it.”

As Pfeifer spoke to the kids that late afternoon in November, he was every inch the coach again, instilling values and commanding respect.

“There’s nobody working here that doesn’t love you, I guarantee you,” he told them in measured tones.” “So listen to your family teachers, listen to your coaches, work hard, study in school. You have great coaches, good facilities. You’ve got everything you need, except you got to do your part. You gotta keep your nose clean. Don’t get in no trouble. Do what you’re told. Coach is going to tell you what he wants you to learn, how you’re going to do this and he’s going to tell you why. Those are three really important parts of your basketball training.

“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be focused. No matter what happens outside, you come here and be ready for basketball.”

After Pfeifer wished them good luck and some players responded with, “Thanks, coach,” the huddled team charged back into practice.

“If they know that you care about them and that you’re there for them, they’ll work for you — they’ll work hard. They appreciate you,” Pfeifer said.

“It’s funny. Kids today are real hip-hop, you know, with this Snoop Dog slang and coach uses old school terminology that I cringe at sometimes, assuming the kids think its kind of corny, but the kids like it. I think too he provides a grandfatherly figure,” Krehbiel said. “These kids, more than any kids I’ve ever been around, they want somebody to take an interest.

“He wants to help…It really comes down to his true interest and love for the kids in the program. He’s trying to give them that last tidbit…to help them on the court and help them in life. I think when he looks at our team and he’s rooting for these kids it’s like rooting for his family, his own kids or his own brothers….He gets emotional when he talks about this place. It’s his home.”

It’s that been there-done that experience Pfeifer brings that Krehbiel wanted for his players. Then there’s the “link to success” Pfeifer represents.

“He laid the foundation 40 years ago for all the nice things that have been said about us the last two or three years,” Krehbiel said. “I think we’re all proud to carry on a rich tradition. It’s just an honor to be associated with him. I was always taught to appreciate the people that came before you…You gotta respect the people who built up the history and this place is just full of history.”

What Krehbiel got in the figure of Pfeifer was more than he could have imagined.

“Coach has been a great mentor to me and a great resource for us,” he said. “You know he’s having an impact on our kids when after the state championship one of our starting five interviewed on TV” — Dwaine Wright — “spent his whole time on camera referencing coach Pfeifer, saying, ‘He told me in practice to get the good shots.’ We didn’t prompt him to do that. It just came out of his heart. You realize, Wow, this is an 80-some-year-old man having an affect on an 18-19 year-old kid. I was proud of our kids for the respect they showed coach. I’m proud of coach.”

Pfeifer appreciates that Krehbiel sought his counsel, thus allowing him to be a teacher again. “He was so sincere and open about establishing a good relationship. He was willing to receive me and invest in some of my knowledge,” Pfeifer said. “A lot of guys that coach, they think they know it all. But he’s really receptive. And that’s great for me because I didn’t feel that with some of the other people that were out there. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you out anyway I can.’”

When Krehbiel first approached him, he had no clear expectation other than getting some advice on the special demands of being a BT coach.

“This is a unique position,” Krehbiel said, “maybe as unique a position as there is in the country in high school because you’re in a home for boys. There’s not only the athletics parts of it but there’s the home campus part of it, dealing with the troubled youth, the homeless youth, with all the things they present.

“There are very few people who’ve had this position. There’s just a few of us around. There’s even fewer that have had the kind of success coach had.”

Krehbiel did some research in the BT and Omaha World-Herald archives in compiling a school record book and came away duly impressed by just “how successful” Pfeifer was at producing winning teams. In 14 years as head coach — 1959 to 1973 — his teams won 205 games and lost only 82. He led nine teams to the state tourney and guided a pair to state titles. His track and field teams were also a formidable bunch, always a threat at the state meet.

For Krehbiel, welcoming back someone like Pfeifer who’d given the best years of his life to BT was a way of honoring the man.

“My initial intention was to just try to give back to him for all the years he gave to Boys Town. My initial thought was to get him up here to one practice at the beginning of the year, and it’s morphed into a great relationship and friendship,” said Krehbiel, whose wife and five daughters all know Pfeifer.

Still, it took some convincing for Pfeifer to meet with Krehbiel that first time.

“I called him up out of the blue and introduced myself. He was real reluctant but I finally got him to agree to go lunch with me at Big Fred’s. He told stories for hours.
That’s when I told him, ‘You are welcome anytime.’ That fall I asked him to come out to practice. I gave him a pad of paper and a pen and said, ‘Watch me coach practice. Watch our kids. Give me some feedback about our team.’ He did that and from that point on he’s been popping in at practices whenever he feels like it.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Pfeifer eased his way in, not wanting to impose himself, less he undermine Krehbiel’s authority.

“When it first started we’d talk maybe once every couple weeks,” Krehbiel said. “He wouldn’t come to practices much. As he and I became closer and he became closer with all the other coaches, there was a comfort level. Last year he was out here about two or three times a week prior to the season opener, and we’d be talking about offenses and defenses and philosophies back and forth.

“I was reaching out initially to find out, ‘How did you handle the job? How did you handle the kids? What are the issues beyond basketball I should know about?’ Then when he and I started talking I found just how solid his philosophies are in basketball and in life and I really wanted to get to know him more. You just can’t help but sense the way he approached things and did things is probably the best way as well as the right way to have a lot of success. I try to emulate him.”

It doesn’t hurt that the two are cut from the same cloth. “Our personalities are a lot alike, so there’s a bond person-to-person, coach-to-coach,” Krehbiel said. That’s not to say these two see eye to eye on everything.

“He believes in zone defense and I believe in man to man,” Krehbiel said. “But that’s the fun of it — debating the merits of each. But,” he added, “as far as what we demand of our players, how we treat our players,” they’re on the same page.

It wasn’t until Krehbiel watched Pfeifer interact with the players that he understood all that the venerable old coach could bring.

“Then when I saw him around the kids and I saw how he still has a lot of viable, valuable contributions…and I saw the kids take to him, it obviously was a great idea to have him around. It’s just kind of matured into what it is today. He’s around quite a bit. As much as he wants to be. The door is always open.”

Along the way, Pfeifer’s shared some coaching secrets, including a list of offensive- defensive Dos and Donts and his mantra for teaching “technique, technique, technique” he got from coaching great Skip Palrang. Pfeifer’s passed along full-court press and matchup-zone tactics that made his teams so hard to beat. Above all, he’s preached taking the high percentage shot and protecting “the hole.”

“He gave me a file folder of his coaching notes and a card with his pregame preparation notes,” Krehbiel said. “I read through it all and I copied it down in my own words and style. That’s the relationship he and I’ve built up. For him to give that to me, I mean, what do you say? That should tell anyone a lot about his willingness to give. I think he really, really wants this program to be successful and those are the lengths he’s willing to go.”

What Pfeifer does for BT hoops can’t truly be measured.

“He doesn’t come out and design plays and run drills. He’s in the background helping the coaches. He’s really helped me in my preparation for games. He talks to players one one one,” Krehbiel said. “The last couple years he’d take some of our better players aside, real fatherly like, and say, ‘Here’s what I see in your game. Take the good shots, not the bad shots.’”

Wishing to remain in the background, Pfeifer chooses not to sit on the bench, but in the stands during games. He’s always watching, however.




As last year’s team stormed through the season, losing only four times, including twice to Wahoo Neumann, Pfeifer noted a tendency for BT players to settle for three-point shots and to play soft in the middle. With his adjustments the Cowboys avenged Neumann in the first round of the state tourney.

When last year’s star player, starting center and then-BT Mayor Vince Marshall,  felt good about a game in which he scored well but recorded few rebounds, Pfeifer had a heart to heart talk with him. “I said, ‘I was mayor when I was at Boys Town. You’re the mayor and you got only three rebounds last game. What the hell were you doing? You’re the mayor, you’re going to make me look bad. Get your ass on the boards.’ That’s the way we talked. We were brothers.”

Pfeifer’s known to intervene when emotions run over. Once, after a so-so practice on the eve of state, the admittedly “fiery” Krehbiel lost his cool when he noticed a couple players cutting up. “I lose it. I go up one kid and down another. I was furious they wouldn’t take this seriously,” Krehbiel said. “And here comes coach. He gets off his chair and gets right in the middle of us and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ I immediately shut up. He takes over and says something about not getting a big head and keeping yourself together and staying in the moment.

“He was just that calming influence and that’s what he’s been. I’ve really calmed my demeanor in regards to the sidelines and the game-time stuff in my conversations with him. He’s really helped me with the handling of the kids around here. He reminds me they’re always watching you and they’re going to play off your demeanor. He’s a sounding board. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Coach, we’ve had this issue with a young man, how would you handle that?’ He gives me tidbits on how to handle certain situations as head coach.”

Pfeifer can still get fired up, as when he pulled his BT athletic jacket out of moth balls for a school pep rally to show how much he bleeds Big Blue. He told the crowd, “I’ve waited 40 years to wear this thing again.”

There’s the sense of a circle being closed. That what Pfeifer got from Palrang is being handed down to Krehbiel. Lessons from 65 years ago live on, no doubt to be carried on by the young men Krehbiel and Pfeifer work with today.

“The greatest thing for me, bar none, is to have my name linked with coach Pfeifer’s name and coach Palrang’s name in the same sentence. To be linked to that history is overwhelming,” Krehbiel said. When Pfeifer couldn’t get away to Lincoln to accept his Hall of Fame induction, he asked Krehbiel to accept in his place. For Pfeifer, Krehbiel was the natural choice. “I love him,” Pfeifer said of his coaching protege. “What an honor to accept for him. That just fortified our relationship. He’s a good old guy,” a tearful Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel met many athletes Pfeifer coached. They were disappointed he couldn’t make it. “They all love him. Guys came in from both coasts and from all over the country to honor him with this induction, which was long overdue,” Krehbiel said. One of Pfeifer’s favorites, Charles ”Deacon” Jones, a standout BT miler and football player who became a University of Iowa All American and two-time Olympic long distance runner, was inducted into the Hall the same night.

“I know it was killing coach not to be able to go and to be on the stage with Deacon,” Krehbiel said. But Deacon and the rest know Pfeifer was there with them in spirit. Like he always has been and will be. A brother under the skin.

Krehbiel never competed for Pfeifer, but considers it a privilege coaching with him and “seeing all he does around kids.” He said it seems he and the players benefit more from the relationship than Pfeifer does. However, he added, “I hope we’re helping keep him active.” It’s clear when Pfeifer talks hoops it takes his mind off, if only a little while, his wife. Krehbiel’s visited Pfeifer at his house during this hard time. Krehbiel’s daughters say prayers for Jean.

Perhaps the old coach’s greatest joy comes from watching his young protege catch the same passion he caught for Boys Town. Pfeifer said, “I’ve told him, ‘Tom, if you stay there long enough you’re going to get what I got.’ It’s a fever.” Krehbiel said the example of Pfeifer is one reason “why I stay here. It’s why I’ll always be here.”

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