The Orphan Chronicles

Dallas' own tribe of Oliver Twists can teach us much about the places they've been, and where we're all going

As far as I could tell from the nursing home, that particular aspect of Nurse Lillico's character had not changed. But she did reach out to me. She had helped my mother until her death six months earlier. She must have seen the signs that my father was close. I think I found the same reflex in several of the Buckner alumni with whom I spoke and whose writings I read: Beneath a tough exterior, they feel an empathy with others who find themselves suddenly outside the circle.

Vernon Horsley graduated from Buckner in 1950, went to college on a football scholarship and became an elementary-school principal in Mesquite. He is now retired. Over lunch at Black-eyed Pea he told me how he used to hide smart minority kids from the Special Education program, because he knew the program was used to segregate them. I got the feeling Horsley knew what it was to be a bright poor kid playing against a stacked deck.

His father was mentally ill and couldn't hold a job. His mother took him and his brother to Buckner and agreed to work for the orphanage in exchange for care for her children. He said when he and his brother entered Buckner, it seemed too good to be true.

Lois Lillico, now a nurse, was orphaned at 12, when her father died, and virtually grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home, bottom, after that.
Mark Graham
Lois Lillico, now a nurse, was orphaned at 12, when her father died, and virtually grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home, bottom, after that.
Jerre Graves Simmons, orphaned by a murder-suicide, grew up at Buckner, returned later as a teacher and edited a book of Buckner reminiscences.
Mark Graham
Jerre Graves Simmons, orphaned by a murder-suicide, grew up at Buckner, returned later as a teacher and edited a book of Buckner reminiscences.

"We were getting three meals a day. We had inside bathrooms, electric lights, all of those things that we didn't have when we lived outside Dublin, Texas. Man, it was fantastic."

Like all the orphans, Horsley remembers the stern discipline at Buckner and remembers the ingenuity of the orphans in getting around it. But when he and other Buckner alumni talked about orphan tricks, I detected remnants of a strict code of secrecy. I found that Horsley, these many years later, was still a bit obfuscatory in discussing certain details.

"There were tunnels that connected some of the dormitories," he said, "so some of the kids would sneak out and head for the girls' buildings, I guess."

I asked if they were able to actually enter the buildings. Lois Lillico, who was at lunch with us, exchanged a look with Horsley. "Well, the door was locked, but somebody had the keys," she said.

"They'd steal the keys," Horsley said with a sober shake of the head. "They'd get keys to the place where they had all the clothes, for example. Some of the kids were always real neat, because they always had new clothes."

After lunch when I returned to my office, I went back through The Orphan Chronicles and discovered in one of several short essays contributed by Horsley that it was he, in fact, who had been the master of the bootleg key operation during his years at Buckner.

In his essay he describes how, entrusted with keys for various chores, he dropped by the school bakery and pressed bread-dough impressions of them. Later, on rare trips into town, he managed to drop by a place where he was able to purchase key blanks. Working with a file and by eye, he crafted working counterfeit keys from the outlines he made in wads of dough.

You can see how a man might keep some of that under his hat in later years. Not everyone would understand why an elementary-school principal possessed those particular skills. In the essay he wrote: "I was successful and able to sneak into the commissary to get clothes for myself whenever I needed them."

I thought he looked fairly natty at lunch.

By far the most frequently repeated anecdote of the Buckner orphans is the story of the fly bank. A certain matron punished orphans by ordering them to kill large numbers of flies and then present their bodies to be counted. Apparently there were times when fly-hunting was fairly easy and times when it was not. The ingenious orphans killed flies when they were plentiful and then stored their carcasses in a hiding place to be parceled out later in time of need.

I visited the headquarters of Buckner Baptist Benevolences, the modern corporate descendant of the Buckner orphanage, in a gleaming office tower in downtown Dallas. Buckner's large reception area, open to the bank of elevators, would work well for a major law firm or advertising agency. At a long conference table with the skyline framed behind them, officials of the charity explained to me that Buckner, with $277 million in assets and an annual budget of $54 million, is a vast international organization operating family shelters, maternity services, nursing homes and also orphan-care facilities in Dallas, China, Romania, Russia and Kenya.

They discussed the fact that harsh corporal punishment was a social artifact of the 1950s, common in most families as a matter of fact, but it certainly has no place in any legitimate program for orphans today. The Buckner Home today is a campus of small modern cottages tended by group "parents," housing a total of as many as 500 over the course of a year but for much shorter periods of time than in the old days when children virtually grew up at Buckner. Buckner operates a state-of-the-art "assessment center" used by TDPRS and many local agencies to measure the level of need of children who must be removed from their parents.

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I came to Buckner Jan 1958 and graduated May 1960.  Buckner was not an easy place to live, but it was certainly far better than what I had been doing for the last several months and that was being on my own, traveling around the country, trying to stay out of the way of the police since I was basically a vagrant.  I left my "family" in May 1956 and roamed from Kansas to Washington to Ohio to Texas.  I was picked up in west Texas for not being in school, and since the state didn't now what else to do with me, contacted Buckner Home and  they took me in.   In my situation, Buckner was a port in the storm.  It was a place to "relax" as I was able to sleep in the same bed for those years, got 3 meals a day, worked in the radio station, and finished my education... well, it put me on the track to go to college, which I had never dreamed possible for a kid like me.   Every kid who lived at the Home campus has a different story, but one thing is for sure... they all learned something while they were there.  Some of us learned quickly and others were slow to learn, but those lessons carried us forward into adulthood and I believe all of us became better people due to those lessons. 


I hv a friend of 25 years that has been searchn for her two smaller siblings since the 70s leslie porter johnson and shana marie johnson. My friend tobye johnson simmons, and five siblins were placed at bucknersbuckners