Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Founded in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917, as a residence for young homeless males, Boys Town today is a youth care network with multiple services and locations. It originated with the work of Father Edward Flanagan, an Irishborn Catholic priest who aided unemployed men in Omaha. Flanagan soon turned his attention to the young boys who arrived at his Workingmen's Hotel, many of whom were referred there by local social agencies and legal authorities. Flanagan was determined to provide the home he was certain these boys deserved and required, and his operation quickly outgrew two consecutive houses in Omaha. In 1921 he acquired Overlook Farm on the western outskirts of the city, where Boys Town grew and stands today as an incorporated village.

Father Flanagan's often-quoted motto, "There are no bad boys," was evident in the development and operation of Boys Town. The nonsectarian home was open to boys of all races and religions. There were no fences surrounding the grounds, the premise being that only those who wanted to be there should be. There was no physical punishment for misdeeds; rather, education and guidance were the hallmarks of the institution. There was also hard work, as each resident had regular chores in addition to studies, participation in athletic events, and attendance at religious services. Experience in citizenship was provided through election of a mayor, council, and commissioners among the residents.

Father Flanagan sought funds and recognition for Boys Town through several public enterprises. A traveling show with the boys, billed as the "World's Greatest Juvenile Entertainers," toured the Great Plains. Flanagan himself hosted a nationally syndicated radio program. The Boys Town choir was organized in the 1930s, performed around the nation, and made several recordings. The Boys Town football team also became a respected athletic power. Great attention came to Boys Town in 1938 with the film Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal of Father Flanagan. His Oscar is displayed today in the Boys Town Hall of History.

Since Flanagan's death in 1948, Boys Town has continued his basic philosophy. In 1979 it expanded its services to include girls. And in 2000 seven out of ten residents voted to change the name to Girls and Boys Town. Today approximately 500 young people are in residence at any given time, receiving schooling and services until they can return to their families. The original dormitories have been replaced with seventy-six homestyle residences, each with six to ten youths living with a married couple. The campus (now a National Historic Landmark) covers approximately 900 acres, including a working farm, Catholic and Protestant chapels, Father Flanagan's home, middle, high, and vocational schools, a post office, and meeting facilities. Also headquartered in Omaha are child care and training programs and the Boys Town National Research Hospital, which specializes in children with communication disorders.

Boys Town's services and programs extend far beyond its Great Plains origins, with facilities in thirteen states and Washington DC as well as a national hotline serving all of North America. Boys Town administrators estimate that in one year they provide direct or indirect care to approximately 1.1 million children. This influence helps make Boys Town one of Nebraska's leading tourist attractions, where visitors are greeted with one of the famous statues of one boy carrying a smaller one on his back with the caption, "He ain't heavy, Father . . . he's m' brother."

Boys Town website.

Susan K. Wunder University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Hickey, Donald R. Nebraska Moments: Glimpses of Nebraska's Past. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992: 197–205.

Oursler, Fulton, and Will Oursler. Father Flanagan of Boys Town. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1949.

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