In 1917, a young immigrant priest from Ireland had grown discouraged in his work with homeless, destitute men in Omaha. So in December of that year, Father Edward J. Flanagan borrowed $90 from a friend, Omaha attorney and businessman Henry Monsky, and rented a drafty Victorian-style boardinghouse at 25th and Dodge Streets to open his first Home for Boys.
Father Flanagan welcomed all boys, regardless of their race or religion (something that was unheard of in that era), and homeless and delinquent youngsters from all over Omaha and beyond began showing up at the doorstep.
As more boys continued to seek refuge there, the Home quickly outgrew its space. In 1921, again using borrowed money, Father Flanagan purchased Overlook Farm outside Omaha. This became the permanent site of his Home for Boys, and soon would be known as the Village of Boys Town.
Boys Town continued to grow, and by the 1930s, a school, dormitories and administration buildings had been constructed. News of Father Flanagan’s work spread worldwide with the success of the 1938 Academy Award-winning movie, “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.
Father Flanagan took advantage of Boys Town’s fame to advocate for changes in America’s system of care for children. Through his own fiery speeches and in partnerships with other social advocates, he was able to shut down nearly every reform school, where children were often abused and used as free labor. He also shamed faith-based orphanages into adopting his more-compassionate model of care, where youth received an education and enrichment through music, the arts and religion. In doing so, Father Flanagan showed the country that even the most troubled kid could become a good citizen.
After World War II, President Truman called on Father Flanagan to advise government leaders around the world about the care of children who were orphaned during the conflict. Before leaving on such a trip to Europe in 1948, Father Flanagan was asked if anyone was dedicated enough to carry on his work at Boys Town. He replied: “The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not, because it is God’s work, not mine.”
The priest’s words would prove to be prophetic. On May 15, 1948, Father Flanagan died of a heart attack in
Monsignor Nicholas H. Wegner was soon appointed Executive Director of the Home. Under his watch, Boys Town doubled in population; expanded educational, vocational and athletic opportunities for its young residents; and established a solid financial footing. Monsignor Wegner served until 1973, retiring after 25 years of carrying on the critical mission of his predecessor.
Monsignor Robert P. Hupp was named Boys Town’s new Executive Director in 1973. During his 12-year tenure, Boys Town adopted the innovative Family Home Program, introducing family-style treatment to its youth (which is still a cornerstone of Boys Town’s work today). This transition became necessary as children began to come to Boys Town with more serious problems like abuse, neglect, broken families, and drug and alcohol use.
In 1977, Boys Town National Research Hospital opened, quickly growing into a national treatment and research center for boys and girls with hearing and speech problems, and other related communication disorders. Boys Town also began admitting girls to its residential program in 1979.
In 1985, Monsignor Hupp retired and Omaha native Father Valentine “Val” J. Peter became Boys Town’s fourth Executive Director. Under his leadership, Boys Town launched a national expansion that created affiliate sites across the country. The number of children and families served by Boys Town skyrocketed, and new research-based care technology was developed.
Father Steven E. Boes was appointed as Boys Town’s fifth Executive Director in 2005. Under his current leadership, Boys Town has emphasized preventive services that focus on keeping families together while still providing high-quality out-of-home care for kids with greater needs. Today, more than 90 percent of the children Boys Town serves receive care while they are still in their homes.
In 2012, Boys Town took a giant step forward in its research capabilities by launching the state-of-the-art Center for Neurobehavioral Research. With the latest in fMRI technology, the Center seeks to develop improved treatment practices for children with serious behavioral and mental health disorders.
Father Flanagan’s long-ago vision of hope and faith sparked a revolution in child care that echoes today at Boys Town. His simple dream to make the world a better place for children lives on because so many people believe that every child deserves to be loved, and to live a healthy, positive life.
Today, as one of the largest nonprofit child and family care organizations in the country, Boys Town’s research-proven services touch the lives of more than 2 million people every year.