Posts Tagged ‘Father Flanagan’

When Boys Town became the center of the film world

Boys Town (film)

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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.

Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled

May 31, 2010 37 comments

I remember as a kid learning about the rich sports legacy at Boys Town, the youth development center founded by Father Edward Flanagan and forever immortalized in the MGM movie classic. When I looked into that athletic history a few years ago for a story I was struck by the amazing success Boys Town teams enjoyed for several decades and by how the football team in particular became a national powerhouse that actually traveled coast to cosat to play games against elite prep teams before big crowds in college and professional stadiums.  Flanagan and his immediate successor seized upon athletics as a healthy outlet and socialization model for residents and as a promotional tool for the campus.  The story of the football team’s many triumphs and travels would make a good movie itself.  Football was the school’s poster sport, but Boys Town enjoyed tremendous success and followings in basketball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field as well.  All the changes that came down at Boys Town beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in the athletic program suffering several lean years.  It’s only in the last decade that there’s been a resurgence in Boys Town sports, not to the heights of its former glory perhaps, but enough to link this era to that earlier Golden Age.

If you’re interested in another Boys Town sports story, then check out my story, “A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops” on this blog.  More o f my Boys Town stories on this site cover various topics, including the classic 1938 MGM film Boys Town, the friendship of Fr. Edward Flanagan and Jewish attorney Henry Monsky, and the 1972 Sun Newspapers Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Boys Town finances.

The following story originally appeared in Nebraska Life Magazine. Look for more Boys Town stories in future posts.


Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine


“I didn’t know a jock strap from a toothbrush,” said alumnus George Pfeifer of his arrival at Boys Town from a Kansas farm in 1939. Like some of the finest athletes at Rev. Edward Flanagan’s home for “lost” boys, the future coach had never played organized sports before coming there. Most of the boys were either poor inner city or rural kids who’d played only sandlot ball or street ball. They came from all parts of the country, boys with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and on their shoulders was built an athletic dynasty that became the envy of the nation.

From the Great Depression through the 1960s, the Boys Town football team played elite Catholic prep schools and military academies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Miami and other cites. The games attracted dignitaries and made headlines. Playing against the nation’s toughest competition in large stadiums before tens of thousands of fans, the Cowboys won more than twice as often as they lost.

During the same era, Boys Town won multiple state championships in football and basketball, and produced scores of all-state athletes and individual champions, even some high school All-Americans. Its great track-and-field athletes include two-time Olympian Charles “Deacon” Jones (1956 and 1960) and quarter-miler Jimmy Johnson, who won the Pan Am Games only a few years after graduating.

It began with the dream of Boys Town’s founder, Father Flanagan, who was a fair soccer and handball player in his day, and a vocal champion of sports. He made sports an integral, even compulsory part of residents’ experience at Boys Town. Intramural athletics became a big deal. In those days, the boys lived in dorms and staged competitions between their respective buildings to see who were kings of the field or the court. By the mid-1930s, Flanagan hired a coach and pushed for Boys Town to compete in sanctioned interscholastic events.

Born and raised in Ireland, Flanagan made his long-held dream for Boys Town a reality through conviction, blarney and bluff. With his silver-tongued brogue and big sad eyes, he elicited sympathy and loosened purse strings for the plight of America’s orphaned. With his politician’s ability to build consensus, he got people of all persuasions and faiths to contribute to the home.

It didn’t hurt that Flanagan harbored a bit of P.T. Barnum in his soul. Almost from the start of the home in 1917, he made use of the media to further the cause of children’s care and rights. In the 1920s he hosted a nationally syndicated Sunday radio program, “Links of Love,” broadcast from the old WOW studios in Omaha. On a larger scale, there was the 1938 MGM box office smash “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flanagan.

The movie made Flanagan and BT household names. He used his and the home’s growing reputation to bring national figures, including sports stars, to “the city of little men.” The BT archives detail visits by such sports icons as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Hollywood celebrities were also frequent visitors. “Deacon” Jones, then learning the barber trade at BT, recalls being summoned with his clippers to the quarters of Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner, where he found Spencer Tracy in need of a haircut. Jones complied.


The coach had a great influence on the start of Boys Town's famous sports teams.

Coach Skip Palrang had a great influence on the start of Boys Town’s famous sports teams


Just as Flanagan earlier made the school band and choir ambassadors for BT, so he did with football. The same year the movie “Boys Town” was released, the football squad boarded the Challenger super liner at Omaha’s Union Station for a trip west, where they played a benefit game against Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles. The film’s producer, John Considine, Jr., made it happen. Among the 10,000 or so in attendance at Gilmore Stadium were numerous Hollywood stars. Boys Town won, 20-12.

The good turnout seems to have convinced Flanagan to take his football team on the road as a gypsy, bring-on-all-comers sideshow featuring orphans from the world-famous Boys Town. The bigger the stage, the tougher the opponent, the more Flanagan liked it.

He would often wend his way to wherever the football team appeared, posing for photos, making pre-game or halftime on-the-field speeches, and generally getting the Boys Town name in the press. A big banquet, often in his honor, usually preceded or followed the game, giving Flanagan another chance to spread the gospel.

BT alum Ed Novotny of Omaha, who played for Boys Town in the early 1940s, recalls the time Flanagan was on the field during pre-game festivities in New Jersey. Novotny says a press photographer asked to snap a few pictures of the famous priest doing a mock kickoff. Sensing a good photo op, Flanagan obliged. As he lined up for the kick, Novotny turned to an opposing player and said, “He’s in a bad spot” – meaning the photographer crouched in front of the ball, holding a Speed Graphic camera overhead.

“What do you mean?” the other player said.

“Father Flanagan can kick. He’ll blast that thing right over the goal post.”

“Really? A priest?”

Novotny will never forget what happened next. “No sooner did I say, ‘Yeah,’ than he kicked that ball and knocked that camera right out of the guy’s hands.”

Novotny recalls Flanagan as an enthusiastic presence on the sideline or in the locker room. The priest stood in the players’ circle to lead pre-game prayers. At basketball games he sat on the end of the bench with players and coaches. He greeted guys by name or with his favorite terms of endearment, “Dear” or “Laddie.”

To compete with the nation’s best, Flanagan hired Maurice “Skip” Palrang, who came to Boys Town after successful stints at Omaha Creighton Prep and Creighton University. Over his 29-year career at Boys Town, he led Cowboy teams to football, basketball and baseball titles. He won National Coach of the Year honors from the Pop Warner Foundation of Philadelphia, Pa., and Nebraska High School coaching plaudits from the Omaha World-Herald.

As athletic director, Palrang oversaw construction of a mammoth field house, modeled after those at Purdue and Michigan State. Its classic brick facade features sculpted panels of Greek-like figures in various athletic poses, stained glass windows and a vast arched metal roof that spans the length of a football field. Great facilities like these helped set BT apart.

Palrang hired coaches to carry BT’s dominance into other sports, but it was best known for football. “It wasn’t like Boys Town would play the weakest teams we could find – we’d play the baddest teams we could find,” said ’50s star halfback “Deacon” Jones. “We knew we played the best teams Skip could get to play. A lot of the players we played against went on to make All-American in college. Some went to the pros. We traveled to play Aquinas in Rochester, N.Y. That was like a Notre Dame prep school. And, whew, they had some tough players.”


Boys Town Bus Travels to Florida for exhibition game

Boys Town Bus Travels to Florida for exhibition game


Under Palrang, the Cowboys went 75-33-6 in these intersectional matchups. BT also participated in intersectional basketball and baseball contests, but on a far more limited basis.

Jones said players got “five dollars per trip for eating and fun money.” For some, like him, it was their first time on a train, a big deal for “kids that didn’t have anything,” he added. Seeing the sights was part of the experience – Chicago’s Field Museum, New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. But the road trips, which lasted up to three weeks, were not all fun and games. An instructor traveled with the team and made sure they kept up on their schoolwork.

Lessons of another kind came on the few road trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We would go to some areas where they wouldn’t allow the black kids on our team to stay in the same hotel as the whites,” Pfeifer said. “A few times we had to arrange for those kids to stay with some people in the community. It was a terrible blow to Fr. Flanagan. That’s probably why we didn’t play that much in the South.”

Wilburn Hollis was among a black contingent denied access to a hotel. Although from the Jim Crow South, he’d been shielded from the worst of segregation – the same at color-blind Boys Town. “We were buddies, but even more than that we felt like we were brothers and we just lived like that,” said Hollis, a Possum Trot, Miss. native who became a high school All America quarterback at Boys Town and a signal caller for an Iowa University team that won a share of the Big 10 title. “I never heard anything racial.”

“At Boys Town I never thought about ethnicity or race,” said Ken Geddes, who grew up in Florida and went on to play for Nebraska and in the National Football League. “…We were all part of a family.”

Within that family of athletes, Palrang was the unchallenged head of household. “He was about six-four and probably 220 pounds and he was mean as a goat,” Hollis said. “But he was a wonderful coach. He loved the kids, he loved Boys Town….”

Hollis told of an incident involving Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner. (Flanagan died in 1948 on a goodwill mission in Berlin, Germany). Like his predecessor, Wegner was a sports booster, but apparently didn’t share Skip Palrang’s competitive philosophy. Once when BT was losing a football game, the priest tried to deliver a halftime pep talk. Wegner advised the team to do their best, Hollis recalls, “and honestly he used that old cliché, ‘It’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’ Well, Skip was pretty hot and he said, ‘Bulls__t. We’re going to win this game.’ Monsignor was like, Oh-oh. And we went out and won the game.”

But Palrang’s success was based on more than force of will. Stern but fair, he was known for his precise preparation, a quality that fit his favorite hobby of watch repair. Ex-sportscaster Jack Payne of Omaha recalls Palrang in his field house office “hovered over a well-lighted table…wearing an eye shade, jeweler’s glasses, meticulously at work on a watch.”

An innovator, Palrang used his vast contacts to learn new offensive and defensive schemes from college and professional colleagues, often implementing packages years before anyone else at the prep level. He’d get reels of game or practice film with the latest sets to study. Sought out for his expertise, he often conducted clinics around the country. Pfeifer said that once, at the request of an old buddy, Palrang sent BT quarterback Jimmy Mitchell to Kansas State to help Wildcat signal callers learn the T-formation Skip helped initiate in high school.

The Cowboys often played far from home, so Palrang sent an assistant ahead to scout. Palrang’s protégé, George Pfeifer, inherited the thankless job. In order to see distant teams, he traveled by plane, train, automobile or any available mode of transport. He once flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport on his way to see an opponent that night in Wisconsin. In Chicago he was bumped from the last connecting flight north. With only a few hours until game time and hundreds of miles between him and the stadium, he was stuck. Desperate, he asked, “Is there any other way?” He was directed to a helicopter pad. For $15 and a slight case of nausea, he arrived “just about the time they were kicking off.”


Boys Town graduate Charles “Deacon” Jones competes in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, finishing ninth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Four years later, he would finish seventh in the same event in the Rome Olympics.

Boys Town graduate Charles “Deacon” Jones competes in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, finishing ninth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Four years later, he would finish seventh in the same event in the Rome Olympics.


Skip Palrang’s physician son, Art, who played for his father one year at BT, said besides the advantage Palrang got by scouting opponents “the Boys Town kids in those days… were really tough, tough boys. They weren’t very big but they were tough… There weren’t a lot of distractions out there, like girls. He had kind of a captive audience.”

Palrang also had the advantage of working with kids who came out of BT pee-wee, freshman and junior varsity programs imbued with his coaching systems. By the time they made varsity, kids were well-schooled in the Palrang way. It led to potent team chemistry.

Despite offers to leave, Palrang remained loyal to Boys Town. Art Palrang believes this allegiance stemmed from Skip being an orphan himself. “His mother died when he was two and left his father with three boys and three girls,” he said. “He was always sympathetic to the Boys Town kids, although he was typical Irish in that he would not show his emotions.”

Today, Palrang’s accomplishments are commemorated in a big memorial just inside the field house dedicated in his honor. The memorial is next to a long row of display cases reserved for trophies and plaques won by Boys Town coaches, athletes and teams. There are hundreds of items. There’d be more, except Palrang made a habit of giving them away to kids.

By the time Palrang retired in 1972, he was only coaching his main passion, football. Years earlier, he’d entrusted the basketball program to Pfeifer, another coach often described as a “no-nonsense father figure.” Pfeifer’s basketball teams went 202-45 (two state titles), and his track teams (two titles) were always a threat. He recently joined his mentor in the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Like his predecessor, Pfeifer encountered racist attitudes toward his players, as when he started five black players on his state championship basketball teams of 1965 and 1966. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n_____s?”

“Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied.

Boys Town’s barnstorming era was prompted by publicity and the guaranteed payoff for its football games. But BT was also compelled to travel for another reason. Once it became a winner, it could find only a handful of area schools willing to schedule games.

Despite many attempts, BT was long denied membership in the Omaha Inter-City League, comprised of large Omaha area schools. Pfeifer said Wegner reportedly had to threaten to withdraw funds from local banks to gain admittance. It finally happened when the Inter-City League was disbanded and the new Metropolitan High School Activities Association was created in 1964.

Everyone has a theory about the blacklisting. Speculation ranges from envy over BT’s athletic riches to rumors, denied by BT alums, that it practiced off-season, suited older student-athletes, or recruited prospects. An image of BT suiting up juvenile delinquents, true or not, may have also accounted for schools not wanting to schedule the Cowboys. BT athletic equipment manager and head baseball coach Jim Bayly said that when he was a player at Omaha South, “we were afraid of Boys Town.”

Shane Hankins, quarterback for BT this past season, senses that the “jail” or “criminal” perception still haunts BT. But far from intimidating foes, he said it makes them “want to fight us even harder to prove we’re not tougher.” He concedes BT has some rough players, but points out that the Cowboys win sportsmanship awards.

Even without conference membership, Boys Town had a metro rival. “In the middle ’40s, when Boys Town was really taking off,” Art Palrang said, “Creighton Prep was also in its heyday and they played bitter, bitter battles. Rumor has it the archbishop said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t have two Catholic teams fighting each other.’” Adding fuel to the fire was the fact Palrang once coached Prep. There was no one he enjoyed beating more.

Aside from Prep, Palrang said, “Boys Town was obviously cleaning up on everybody and Omaha didn’t want ’em in their league because… Boys Town would have won everything.” By contrast, Prep had long been a conference member. And once let in, BT proved as dominant as feared by soon piling up Metro titles.

Perhaps nothing explains the ostracism better than what one alum called BT being “an island unto itself.” A certain arrogance surely came with all that independence, winning and notoriety. Besides, there was the perception – if not reality – that BT didn’t really need to be in a local athletic league. In fact, cross-country travel was expensive and eventually became cost-prohibitive.


The Cowboys basketball team wins its second straight state basketball championship.

The 1985-1966 Cowboys basketball team wins the school’s second straight state basketball championship.


By the time Boys Town’s reign ended in the mid-1970s, BT had evolved from a place where boys lived in dormitories to a family housing model where residents – girls too – live with teacher parents. Changes in the way BT works with youth lowered the number of residents from a high of about a thousand (elementary and high school combined) to about half that today, and decreased the average stay from six or eight years to about 18 months. The smaller enrollment forced BT to drop from the big school to small school ranks, and the shorter stays gave coaches less time to develop athletes and mold teams. For years, BT athletic prowess declined.

Today’s BT coaches are again turning out winning teams and top athletes, their job complicated by kids who present complex behavioral disorders. BT teams again compete for titles, but in Class C1, not Class A. The football team has its rivals, but a road trip today is an hour by bus, not overnight by train.

Girls and Boys Town (as the institution has been known since 2000) still uses athletics to further its mission of helping at-risk youth develop life skills that prepare them for adulthood. Head football coach Kevin Kush sets a high bar for his players, and makes no exceptions in holding them accountable. By late September 2006, he’d already let a few of his best players go for violating team rules, which brought his varsity squad down to 26. He could have supplemented the varsity by promoting JV players, but he refused, saying, “They haven’t paid the price. I’m not going to change my philosophy. I’m not going to lower my standards. See, these kids have standards lowered for them for their whole lives. We don’t do that. We want our kids to be committed to something and a lot of them have never been committed to anything.”

This past season’s star quarterback, Shane Hankins, said he appreciates that coaches and others care enough to make football special again. “Our goal is to achieve, to shoot for something in our lives some people say is impossible for us to do since we’re here. But we prove them wrong. We want to bring more winning to this campus because before we came here, most of us weren’t recognized as winners.”

All last basketball season, head boys basketball coach Tom Krehbiel relied heavily on an unofficial assistant, the 81-year-old George Pfeifer who, despite health woes, came to practices weekly to distill some of his wisdom to players young enough to be his great-grandchildren. Pfeifer’s championship teams of 1965 and ’66 are still regarded as two of Nebraska’s best high school basketball teams ever.

“I wanted to get him involved in the program,” Krehbiel said of Pfeifer. “I reached out to him. We ate lunch, hit it off and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning since then. Coach has been a great mentor to me and just a great resource for us. For our current players he’s a link to success.”

After last year’s team won Boys Town’s first state basketball championship in 40 years, guard Dwaine Wright dedicated the victory to Pfeifer live on Nebraska Educational Television.

Pfeifer said that after a period of adjustment, he and the team forged 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.

The experience brought him full circle to how as a kid he was welcomed and encouraged by Father Flanagan, Skip Palrang and others, and how he did the same for kids as a BT coach, vocational education teacher and middle school principal. “I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of Boys Town 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’…then you know you made a difference.”

Note:  The Boys Town Hall of History features displays and a film that relive some of BT’s glory years in football.

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