Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 5:43 pm | Fair 55º


Judy Crowell: From Humble Beginnings, the Spirit of Omaha’s Boys Town Lives On

The holidays are reminiscent of the work of Father Edward Flanagan, who opened his heart and door to burdened children

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery of Boys Town.]

Mention Boys Town and chances are someone will reply, “Oh yes, that movie about the priest. Didn’t Spencer Tracy win the Academy Award for best actor that year?” The answer, of course, is yes. But there’s so much more to the story.

In 1917, amid the tumultuous aftermath of World War I, a tall and lanky young priest living in Omaha, Neb., saw homeless boys in trouble and made a vow to dedicate his life to these aimless, despairing boys. An anonymous gift of $90, a "loan" from the archbishop of two nuns, and a drafty Victorian mansion for rent were the beginnings of Boys Town.

“There are no bad boys,” Father Edward Flanagan said. “There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example and bad thinking.”

For the next 30 years, he battled the courts, the community, the odds and, often, the boys themselves to keep his dream alive.

Despite a shoestring budget, the front door was always open, and boys continued to come for shelter, food and the feel of a family, as well as an education, love, patience and understanding.

In 1921, a "miraculous" real estate deal concluded for a 160-acre farm, a house and several barns — the future of Boys Town. Omaha citizens were actively supportive and involved, raising funds to build a school, a dormitory, a gym and a workshop.

Financial struggles were unceasing, but Father Flanagan met each one with dignity, tenacity and inventiveness, including the creation of the famed Boys Town Choir. He remained a "father" to all of his boys, causing many concerns that his work would die with him. Not Father Flanagan.

“The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not, because it is God’s work, not mine,” he often said.

And continue it has, expanding to 14 states and the District of Columbia, serving thousands of boys and girls (yes, girls) since its humble beginnings. His first real home has been restored and is open to the public. With no fences and no gates, Boys Town today is open for all to visit. Graduates return to reminisce over Christmases celebrated with paper ornaments in the dining room, handmade quilts in the dormitory rooms and meals set at the table with Irish linen and red candles. All of this from a $90 donation, one man who opened his heart and door to all burdened children and a giving Nebraska community.

The flyover city of Omaha has much more to offer. Too bad it’s often flown over. Hiltons, Hamptons and Holidays abound, all predictably nice — especially the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel downtown. Skip down the alphabet for a more stylish stay at the Magnolia Hotel, a neo-classical 1920s building with fireplaces in the rooms.

On Thanksgiving, this birthplace of Warren Buffett and TV dinners flips a switch in Old Town, beginning holiday celebrations of ice skating, old-fashioned carolers, dancing Santas at the Symphony and, most popular, the lighting of a spectacular Christmas tree at the fabulous Union Station, home to the Durham Museum. Santa and Mrs. Claus greet young and old alike in this cherished tradition, begun in 1930 when Union Pacific would decorate a large evergreen for Union Station travelers.

The city has come a long way since TV dinners, offering a multitude of excellent dining in Old Town: M’s Pub, an always busy brasserie; The Boiler Room, located in the 120-year-old Bemis Bag Building, a work of art serving fresh cuisine in a patina setting; V. Mertz, for contemporary American fare; and the 801 Chophouse, a local favorite, like stepping into a late 1920s NYC steakhouse. For suburban options: Wave Bistro for Asian-Fusion delicacies; Piccolo Pete’s, an Italian steakhouse specializing in making people (including Buffett) full; and Kona Grill, for a great happy hour and sushi alongside a colorful and active aquarium.

Omaha — a city that knows how to celebrate, honoring and keeping the spirit of Christmas.

— Judy Crowell is a Noozhawk contributing writer, author, freelance travel writer and part-time Santa Barbara resident. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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