I suppose I could say that my relationship with the Waco State Home began when, at three years old, I watched my three older brothers being taken away to live at the Home.
Six long years went by before they were able to return, and as a child, I traveled to Waco from East Texas to visit them with my mother. The family tragedies that sent them to the Home are not part of this collection of stories. My one surviving brother, Bing, says he remembers his time in the Home as the most miserable years of his life and has no story to tell.
For several years, though, Bing invited me to attend the annual Waco State Home reunions held on the last Saturday in June. I hesitated to go, for the Home was a painful memory for our family. I finally decided to go with my brother in the summer of 2004, more than fifty years after I had last visited the Home.
Even after so many years, the Home was strangely familiar to me as Bing and I drove past the gate and onto the sprawling grounds. No longer the Waco State Home for "dependent and neglected" children, the facilities had been turned into a psychiatric residential treatment center for youth. We joined other alumni and the host assigned to conduct the tour. The stately, two-story brick buildings, trimmed in slightly yellowing white wood, were spaced generously over the tree-covered lawns, and the entire facility resembled a college campus.
I had never been inside the buildings. Most of them had been built by the 1930s, with dormitory-style cottages added in the 1960s. Perhaps five or six of the original buildings remained, and of those, only a few were still in use. One was the baby cottage. My brother wanted me to see where he had lived when he first arrived, so our host took us inside. Bing said little as we walked through the rooms, except that the cottage had changed considerably from how he remembered it.
I then asked whether we could see the boys' dormitory where my other brothers, Donald and Jack, had lived. The building was still standing, though it had been condemned and the doors padlocked. Windowpanes were broken and held together with tape, plaster drooped from the ceilings, and the peeling walls revealed their many colorful layers of paint.
I learned that Donald had had his own private space, a small windowed alcove adjacent to the large, dormitory-style bedroom where about thirty other boys slept. Donald received special treatment because he was "the artist," and his interest in art and music was apparently encouraged.
Some of the alumni expressed dismay that Donald's last remaining mural for one of the dorms had been painted over. There was much speculation about who had taken his paintings that years ago hung on the walls of the dining room and many of the dorms.
Most of the once-handsome old buildings were padlocked and empty. Security escorts, quiet and subdued, almost as if they were ushering at a funeral, arrived to open each abandoned building on the tour to allow those attending the reunion to revisit their pasts.
Former residents eagerly took their families into the dilapidated buildings, climbing the dirty, crumbling stairs to show off their old rooms to their children and grandchildren. They posed for photos beside the windows where their beds had been, and more than one tilted their heads and tucked a cheek into their cradled hands to mimic a child's sleep. They conducted their own minitours of their childhoods for their families and reminisced with one another about what had happened in this building or beneath that tree.
They remembered their dorm parents, the ones who were nice, the ones who were mean. They laughed as they shared memories of homemade rolls and fresh dairy ice cream on Sunday, of beloved teachers who inspired them to write poetry, of learning how to make a bed that could pass military inspection, of sneaking out of the dorms at night to meet a sweetheart down by the creek. Some wanted to see the creek down by the woods but were told it was off-limits.
I admired a woman whose slightly graying hair was swept into an elegant circular braid atop her head. She told me that after she left the Home, she had let her hair grow long because of an incident that occurred when she first arrived.
"When I got here, I had never cut my hair, so it was hanging past my waist. Every night I brushed it before I went to bed. One night I saw the dorm mother watching me, and the next day she came in and told me that I was spending too much time on my hair. Before I realized what was happening, she took a pair of scissors and whacked off all my hair above my ears in this ugly, jagged cut. I was devastated."
The woman, now a college professor, had worked hard as a student at the Home, and with both private scholarships and tuition paid by the state, she had earned her doctorate.
There were similar stories, "secret stories" that were whispered to me in almost childlike fashion, as though the matron or the warden might still hear them.
Most of the stories shared with me that day were, however, surprisingly positive. Many told me that the Waco State Home was the best thing that had ever happened to them. They spoke of a good education, bountiful supplies of food, square dancing and piano lessons that won them national honors, and athletic programs that took them to state championships.
And they talked about the great affection they had for one another. The people who shared their childhoods became the families they had lost. They claimed deep, lasting friendships that had survived the years and even led to marriages between alumni that have been remarkably successful and enduring.
"I can't think of a single kid I didn't like when I lived at the Home," a man told me. "They were all good kids, and most of them were just grateful for a decent place to live."
From outward appearances, the Waco State Home was a "decent place to live." Originally established by the Texas Legislature in 1919 as the State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children, it occupied the site of the World War I—era Camp MacArthur. Its name was changed in 1937 to the Waco State Home.
In 1979, the facility was transferred to the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, reorganized as a treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, and named the Waco Center for Youth.
Early records indicate that the facility did not operate as, and was not intended to be, an orphanage. This distinction was important, too, for the children who lived there. Even today, alumni are quick to correct anyone who makes the mistake of calling the Waco State Home an orphans' home. "We were not orphans," one of them said. "Many of our parents were living. They just couldn't take care of us."
Some of the children at the Home were eventually adopted, but not many, because parents did not want to lose permanent control of their children or see siblings separated from each other. Admission to the Home meant the state assumed temporary custody of the child, who would remain a ward of the state until age twenty-one or until other arrangements were made.
Most of the children remained at the Home until graduation from high school, though some left early to return to their families or live with other family members. A few were declared juvenile delinquents and sent to the Gatesville or Gainesville correctional facilities. Some simply disappeared and were never heard from again. There is even one newspaper report, from the early seventies, of two teenage boys who ran away from the Home and whose bodies were later found in an empty railroad car near the Home. Their murders were never solved.
The state-owned and operated institution was a self-contained village housing 200 to 300 children. A school was on campus until the mid-1950s, after which the students were bused to public schools in Waco. The Home provided competitive sports, church services, movies, and, in later years, a swimming pool and tennis courts.
Much of the nearly hundred-acre tract was reserved for farm operations, which, over the years, included a working dairy and creamery, a canning plant, sheds and barns, hay fields, cow and sheep pastures, and a slaughterhouse for hogs. Two other farms, called the Bosqueville Farm and the Lake Waco Farm, were located within five miles. The children supplied the labor for the farms, which produced much of the food for the Home. They were kept busy from early in the morning until evening, so there was little unsupervised time.
A Project Is Born
In 2008 my sisters Susan and Nancy joined my brother Bing and me at the annual Waco State Home reunion. I had thought about the richness of the alumni stories and decided to find out if there was any interest in a book collection.
At the reunion, I spoke with Harvey Walker, then president of the Waco State Home Alumni Association, who invited me to make an announcement during the business meeting about my plans for a book. Little did I know at the time of the bravery that quiet, unassuming Harvey had displayed years earlier in a protest to get an abusive 300-pound employee known as "the beater" fired.
I made the announcement about the book project and added that any profits from the book would go to the alumni association for scholarships or for whatever they wished.
I later realized that I had forgotten something very important: they could tell their stories anonymously if they wished. However, in the end, not a single person who submitted a story requested anonymity.
The announcement of the book prompted many more stories that day. The men and women who grew up in the Home were almost philosophical about their experiences. They spoke of disappointments one moment and the healing power of forgiveness the next. Overall, they seemed proud of the Home and their ability to "make the best of the situation." Some even admitted that they had run away from the Waco State Home to go back to their families, only to return, as one man said, "after I saw how bad it really was back home."
Some came from families devastated by alcoholism and both sexual and physical abuse, but often the reason a child was brought to the home was a simple lack of food or money to pay for the basics.
One woman described her husband, an alumnus of the Home, as a very happy, optimistic man who had attended college and "just feels that no matter what happens to him now, it can't be as bad as his childhood." "Nothing fazes him at all," she said. "He's the most positive person I have ever known."
Another woman described what she called "a wonderful generation story": "My mother lived in the Home for twelve years," she said. "Then, when I was ten, my mother brought me here. So we both grew up here at different times, mother and daughter. Now that's a story!"
Even former staff members attended the reunion and shared stories. Florine Belk Powers, whose mother managed the State Home laundry for twenty years, recalled the time two young children from the Home walked all the way across town to visit her mother and got special permission to spend the night.
Jim Myrick, a former coach at the Home in the fifties, proudly told a story about a lost championship. The newspaper had reported a tie, but Myrick and the team learned in the eighties that they had actually won the regional track championship and found the trophy.
On the way back to Austin that day, my sisters and I discussed stories we had heard. Some were almost identical, whispered to us as though the storytellers were sharing a secret. We loved the stories and the people, who seemed eager to share their memories, good or bad.
Soon after we returned home, I learned that the alumni association had more than 250 members, so I sent a letter to every person on the mailing list. All alumni of the Home who signed a release and granted an interview or sent in a written story were promised that their stories would be included.
As we worked with dozens of alumni of the Home, we learned that some were very protective of the Home and its reputation. More than one questioned my motives for publishing their stories, especially since I wasn't seeking financial gain.
One man, who had bitter memories of the Home, asked me, "What is the point of telling my story now? It won't change what happened to me."
Another man warned me early into the project that "if this book is a smear job on the Waco State Home, I want no part of it."
The most protective former resident was Harold "Swede" Larson, who lived at the Home from 1938 to 1944. He organized the alumni association in 1950 and began his lifelong self-appointed job as official archivist. He compiled thousands of binders of historical material on the Home. He finally agreed to an interview and invited me to his home in Waco to review his documents, but before we could meet, he died suddenly on October 13, 2009. His wife, Moray, who also grew up at the Home, had died a year earlier.
Before I was able to contact the family, his volumes of red notebooks and binders were given, as he had requested, to Baylor University (which granted me permission to use the collection). Then I discovered that I knew Larson's niece, Sheryl Scott, who lives near Austin, and she graciously offered us full access to Larson's important private documents, including some from his safe-deposit box.
Privacy rights were always on my mind as we dug through boxes and boxes of documents and photographs, whether in Larson's materials, at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, or in other collections. We carefully protected the privacy of any alumni who did not participate in the book project.
If staff members were no longer alive, we identified them when we could confirm through public documents that they had been employed by the Home. In the instances of abusive staff members who were no longer living, we allowed their names to remain if we could find evidence that supported the claims of abuse.
The Epilogue documents and confirms specific cases of abuse by staff members. When alumni read this book, most will learn for the first time what happened to those employees.
Not included in the book are my own family records, which I obtained last year. Because of my reaction to my family's documents, I provided information to alumni so that they could acquire their Waco State Home records. So even as we finished the book, they were discovering more of their own stories.
The dozens of taped oral interviews, told in the voices of men and women who could recall somber, tragic moments as easily as hilariously funny ones, are priceless beyond words. I don't think that I listened to a single story that did not make me shed a tear or laugh or both.
There are more than fifty finished stories in this book, some less than a page long, few more than three or four pages, and we were careful to retain as much of each original taped interview as possible, merely organizing or editing for clarity or coherence. The tone, the nuances of language, and the colorful descriptions of their most memorable moments are theirs, not the editors'. We added nothing of our own. We didn't have to.
The stories, beginning as early as 1924 and ending in 1976, detail not only the lives of alumni while at the Home but also the circumstances that brought them there and their experiences after they left. The stories reveal their places in history and show how the Great Depression, wars, politics, the economy, and changing attitudes toward the poor and indigent helped shape their lives.
As far as we know, there has been no published history of the Waco State Home, despite Larson's voluminous compilation of material. And we have been unable to find any book that contains such a sizeable collection of original, first-person stories from alumni of any public institution housing children. We who love stories and history should be immensely grateful that these storytellers stepped forward to share pieces of their history.
Memories of the Home are contradictory in many ways. Some people told us that certain incidents repeatedly described by others never happened, or they chose not to revisit these events. Most of our storytellers had fond, happy memories of the Home, and they absolutely refused to dwell on the negative. Some alumni told us they had such bad feelings about the Home that they never attended reunions and did not wish to participate in the book project in any way.
I hope that this book honors the cherished memories of those who shared their lives with such candor. I also hope that those who believed they had no voice as children will discover that they found it here.