Boys Town alumnus reflects on founder’s impact

| April 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

Bob Stewart holds a keepsake of Father Edward Flanagan, who founded Boys Town in 1917. Stewart was there from 1958-63. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Bob Stewart of Minneapolis has personal reasons for promoting the sainthood cause of Father Edward Flanagan, who founded Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917 to help poor, orphaned and at-risk teenage boys.

Stewart, 74, lived there for five years starting in 1958, and graduated from high school there. He believes he might not be alive today if it weren’t for Boys Town. He said that’s true of many others. His older brother spent one year there, then left shortly before Stewart arrived. His brother died at age 42 after going “on a different path,” he said.

Though Father Flanagan died 10 years before his arrival, Stewart said it was clearly the priest’s legacy that rescued him from his own troubled path.

Stewart’s life was rough from the start. Born in 1943 in Minneapolis, neither of his parents took an interest in him, he said. He spent much of his childhood on the streets and got into trouble for things like petty theft. He once stole a bike, and the police caught him.

His first stop was Catholic Boys Home in 1953 (now St. Joseph’s Home for Children) in Minneapolis. He stayed through eighth grade, then had to return home. That summer, he witnessed what he described as many “drunken parties” at the house, and he remembered a comment made by Father Tom Maher, who ran both the Catholic Boys Home and Catholic Charities. He told Stewart to call him if he was ever in trouble.

Stewart made the call, and Father Maher arranged for him to go to Boys Town. Stewart said that move changed his life.

“I just remember the bus dropping me off,” Stewart said. “And boys were walking in from across the country.”

Literally. He said some actually walked to Boys Town from where they were living. He even heard of one boy walking all the way from Texas, all because of the environment created by Father Flanagan, who accepted boys of all races, faiths and backgrounds. (Boys Town began accepting girls in 1979.) The priest is said to have taken heat for accepting people of color; death threats were even reported. But, he never wavered in his commitment to be accepting of everyone.

With a black father and white mother, Stewart himself is biracial, but he noted there were other boys of color in his group of 20, all of whom shared living quarters. He thrived there, joining both the basketball and wrestling teams. Success came in wrestling, with him advancing to the state tournament twice.

It’s not hard to spot Stewart in any of the pictures from his days at Boys Town — he’s the one with the biggest smile. He still flashes it today, until he starts talking about his desire to see Father Flanagan canonized. Then, his passion flows in the form of tears.

“There’s no reason that he shouldn’t be a saint,” Stewart said, his voice choking with emotion. “He saved lives and affected everybody [who lived at Boys Town]. … That’s why we want Father Flanagan to be a saint.”

Born in Ireland, Father Flanagan immigrated to America in 1904 and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Omaha in 1912. While ministering to homeless and jobless men, he realized that few had known a loving family. Boys Town was his solution to help wayward boys find the care and consistency they didn’t have at home, and to grow into responsible citizens. The home expanded to include a school, and the rural property became incorporated as its own village, a suburb of Omaha. Before his death in 1948, he cared for more than 6,000 youths, inspiring the 1938 film “Boys Town,” in which Spencer Tracy played Father Flanagan. The organization marked its 100th anniversary last year, and it continues to be a national leader in helping youths and families.

The Archdiocese of Omaha opened a cause for Father Flanagan’s canonization in 2012; last year, the Vatican determined that the archdiocese’s initial investigation was complete and demonstrated that Father Flanagan had a reputation for holiness, allowing investigation into the cause to advance. Father Flanagan is currently known as a “servant of God,” and his cause is before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican.

If Father Flanagan does get canonized? “That would be fantastic for all of us that are really recipients of what happened because … a lot of these guys would have been dead — all of us. [There’s] no telling where we would have been [without Boys Town],” said Stewart, a non-denominational Protestant who has attended Mass at St. Bridget in Minneapolis after befriending the senior associate pastor, Father Paul Jarvis.

After leaving Boys Town, Stewart worked for a while, then enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving from 1964-68. After being discharged, he went back to work, but, he said, also started drinking and partying. The result was three failed marriages and the realization that he needed to get back on track. He has returned to the virtues he learned at Boys Town, and he discovered that they remained deeply rooted in him.

After working in the restaurant industry for many years, he retired, but he continued working as a driver for children with special needs.

For him, the children resemble the boys with whom he spent five years in a dormitory in Omaha. Those relationships have forged love, compassion and loyalty, which he directs to his passengers. He has driven for 30 years, with no plans to stop.

“I do it because God must have a plan that I should be there,” he said. “Boys Town teaches us about everybody being equal, and showing empathy towards other people. … And these are kids that need somebody in their life like that.”

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