The Orphan Chronicles
From 1998 until this year when both of my parents died of old age and natural causes, I knew Lois Lillico only from an arm's length as the stern night nurse at the health-care unit of Presbyterian Village North, the retirement community on Forest Lane near Greenville Avenue where they lived their final years.
She was stern. I assumed she was probably a nice person, just very professional. But...I was afraid of her. She had this look. Kind of like, "Do you have business with me, sir? Serious business?" I found that I seldom did have business with her.
Then one evening she lifted away that mask of frosty professionalism and told me, pretty much out of the blue I thought at the time, that she was an old-fashioned orphan, a Little Orphan Annie who grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home near Urbandale in what is now Southeast Dallas. I'm slow on the emotional uptake. Later I realized her reaching out to me had not been out of the blue at all: She knew that my father was within days of his death. He did die. Suddenly, something I had never foreseen, expected or thought about happened to me.
I was an orphan.
By then, because of Lois Lillico, I had this new band of friends, people I had met through her, all of whom had been orphaned the hard way, not in their 50s like me but when they were children. I found that many of them were like Lillico, armored on the outside but with big hearts inside, instinctively aware of others who have been left alone somehow in the world, not just by families but by politics, race, money, health, anything and everything that can orphan a human being.
During my father's final weeks, Lillico brought me artifacts of her childhood, a yearbook from the orphanage, alumni newsletters and finally a wonderful book of reminiscences published by the Buckner alumni association called The Orphan Chronicles. I was fascinated by these touching personal sagas and by the idea that here in our midst--people we see and deal with every day--is a tribe of Texas Oliver Twists. I even looked up my own favorite scene in Dickens' novel: "He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: 'Please, sir, I want some more.'"
Think about it. When was the last time you even heard children here referred to as orphans? Orphans are in China. Not Dallas.
I asked former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson and Juvenile District Court Judge Hal Gaither, two people with vast experience in the warding of children, neither of whom tilts a centimeter toward political correctness, and both of them agreed: It just isn't said.
"We don't use the word 'orphan' in social services," Jackson told me.
Children are "in placement." They are "in foster-care support services." They're something, but they're not orphans.
Whatever they are called, they are many. According to the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS), there are more than 10,000 children in the Dallas region who are not able to live with their parents, either because the parents are dead or because something else is wrong with the family.
Each of those 10,000 children has been placed somewhere by the courts, in temporary custody or in a foster home or with adoptive parents, but never in an Oliver Twist orphanage. It would seem self-evident that the modern system, with its emphasis on keeping kids in family-like settings, is more humane than the way children lived at Buckner in the old days. The scenes the Buckner orphans painted for me often seemed unbearably sad. Heartbreaking.
Tourists sat in a balcony over the huge dining hall, eating their own picnic meals of fried chicken, a delicacy never on the orphan menu. They looked down with tears in their eyes while 800 children marched into the hall single file and silent, ate by bells and whistles, scrubbed their own dishes and marched away. A woman who grew up at Buckner told me, "We would giggle and say, 'They're watching the poor orphans eat.'"
But I'm not sure we can leap to the assumption that the modern system of temporary placements and foster homes is superior or even kinder. For one thing, when children were walked through the huge manned gates of the Buckner orphanage they tended to stay put. Even though the system today has made a valiant effort to achieve what it calls "permanency" for wards of the court, the fact remains that these children move a lot. In the Dallas area, according to TDPRS, barely 4 percent of the children who are removed from their homes wind up being legally adopted. The ones who are never adopted live in an average of six different "placements" before they "age out" of the system at 18.
Buckner had permanency. And the other wrinkle--a surprise to me when I read their stories in The Orphan Chronicles and then began calling some of them--was that many of the orphans have good memories of Buckner. Every year the Buckner orphans come from far and wide, from Alaska and Europe and around the world, to take part in a reunion. They remember each other at Christmas as they were not remembered as children. They attend each other's funerals. Once in a while--as Lois Lillico did when she saw me sitting by my father's bed--they reach out to tell the rest of us something important about themselves and about life.
What was it like to be without parents or family when orphans were still called orphans? Established in 1879 by Robert Cooke Buckner, a legendary leader in the early Baptist Church, the Buckner orphanage was designed to provide a haven for white orphans of the Civil War. During the 1940s and '50s, it housed as many as 800 children at a time on 500 fenced and walled acres, a world apart from the universe of families and firesides.
In 1961 Buckner ceased to be racially segregated. Today most of the old orphanage has been razed to make room for a modern scheme of cottages and group homes on Buckner Road south of Interstate 30. Children stay there temporarily on a path back to what their guardians hope will be permanent homes with families. The Buckner orphanage has transmogrified into Buckner Baptist Benevolences, a major international charity.
There are kids in the foster-care system I could be talking to today, but somehow it was the adult perspective of the older Buckner alumni, looking back from the vantage point of long life, that I found especially fascinating and helpful during the difficult last weeks of my father's life. I kept trying not to be a tourist in the balcony with teary eyes and fried-chicken grease all over my lips. But in their resilience and in the good lives many of them have made, it was the Oliver Twists and the Annies who helped me through.
One of the Buckner alumni Lillico steered me to was Jerre Graves Simmons, the editor of The Orphan Chronicles. A few weeks ago she served me coffee and chocolates at a table in the breakfast nook of her tidy brick home in Duncanville, where she told me her tale of becoming an orphan.
Her father was an alcoholic tenant farmer who beat his wife and children in drunken rages. She remembers cowering with her mother and siblings in a cotton field while he smashed every dish and shredded every article of clothing in their cabin. Later they moved to a tiny apartment on Ewing Avenue near the Dallas Zoo.
The children were washing their hair one day when their father walked in with a gun. Her mother said, "Oh, John, no, no." He shot her to death in front of them. Jerre was 11. As she and the other children fled the house, she heard a second shot and assumed he was finishing her off, but he had killed himself.
The front page of the next day's Dallas Times-Herald carried a photograph of five new orphans, Jerre and her younger brothers and sisters, under a headline: "Home Sought for Children After Slaying."
Simmons is now 70, long and happily married, a mother, famous in Duncanville for her years as an English teacher. (We figured out she had taught in-laws of mine, one of whom is now working on a late doctorate.) She told me about the moment when she and her siblings were taken into the Buckner Orphans Home, then a nation-state of stern brick barracks and vast farms separated from the outside world as if by a moat.
"We didn't have any idea what was happening. It looked to me like a fortified castle. And it was such a change. You understand that we lived in a two-room apartment with five children and a mother and father, and we children slept on quilts on the floor. We were very poor.
"It was such a shock. There were so many children. There were about 600 to 800 of them. It was like a city."
Simmons and her siblings spent two weeks in a special quarantine center with other newly arrived orphans and then were marched out into the orphanage.
"It was so overwhelming that all you could do, when a whistle blew or the bell rang, you looked to see what everyone else was doing, and you tried to follow them. It was a very regular schedule.
"At 6 o'clock in the morning you woke up, made your bed, washed your face, ran downstairs and got in line and marched to the Manna Hall. You got in line from the tallest to the smallest."
I asked her how long it took for the children to get themselves ordered and arranged in line according to height.
"Oh, it didn't take any time at all. The other girls did that. 'Hey, you belong here.' Most of our learning occurred like that. 'Hey, kid, breathe through your nose. Don't breathe through your mouth; you look like an idiot.' You did what the other kids said."
Unlike Simmons, many of the Buckner "orphans" had parents. Their parents were simply unable or unwilling to keep them, like parents of many children who become wards of the state today.
Sally Hawkins Bingham, president of the Buckner Alumni Association, graduated from Buckner in 1966, meaning that she finished high school and was old enough to leave. Now a mother of grown children, she is involved in church work. Her father abandoned her family when she was 5. They were his third family, she says, and leaving them was "easy to do" for him.
Her mother gave all five children to Buckner because she could not provide for them. Sadly, that was not the end of the children's experience of abandonment.
Bingham told me on the telephone: "She came to see us a lot when we were itty-bitty, when we first went out there, and as time went on it grew less and less. And then it just stopped altogether. That didn't take but a year or two, you know, two to three years maybe. It just stopped.
"I was a middle child. I had a sister and brother older and a sister and brother younger. My little brother and sister were quite young. I was 5, and they were 3 and 1 when [our parents] left.
"It was bad in the beginning, just because you don't understand why you can't go home again. Even though they don't want you, you still want to cling to them. And that's what made it tough at those times.
"As I got older, I don't know if I just got rebellious or got very self-sufficient or what. I got very independent, and then I got into sports."
In their reminiscences in Orphan Chronicles and in the conversations I had with them, there is a great deal of "self-sufficiency." In fact, self-sufficiency may be putting it mildly.
Mel Walls, a '58 Buckner alumnus now retired from the National Security Administration, talked to me by phone on several occasions from the front porch of his farmhouse in Virginia where he breeds Thoroughbred horses. Walls described the defense system he thinks some of the Buckner orphans carry into adult life.
"You will find that there is a shell, and if you pierce that shell, you will find a compassionate person. But the persona presented to the world can be quite tough. If he feels safe in lifting that veil, that's when you'll find the person. But he does not want to be perceived as being vulnerable. If you confront him, you'll find yourself with an implacable foe."
Of all the alumni I talked with or whose reminiscences I read, Walls, an eloquent writer, had the least sentimental memory of his years at Buckner.
"There was a time in my life, in my 20s," he said, "when it did not do for you to tell me you were a Baptist. I would say, 'I know all about Baptists. Baptists are real good at beating the shit out of kids. Why don't you try me now?'"
He recalled the period in 1994 when Michael Fay, a 19-year-old American, was sentenced by a Singapore court to six strokes with a rattan cane for vandalizing automobiles, later reduced to four strokes after President Clinton pleaded for leniency. One day at Walls' place of work at NSA the conversation turned to beatings, and he discovered that none of his colleagues had ever experienced a serious one. Walls, who is an expert on the different effects of leather straps and linoleum paddles, gave his colleagues an impromptu seminar:
"I said, 'I want to describe it to you. The first lick, you are just...every nerve, every muscle in your body is just screaming. After about the second or third lick, the muscles in your ass take on a life completely out of your control, and the only thing you can think of is where is that next lick going to land. Is it better to land on a place that is already numb, or is it better to land on fresh territory? And all of a sudden, all of your being is concentrated in the skin of your ass.'
"It is a memorable occasion," he told me. "But in the future when you are tempted to do something, suddenly your ass remembers. And your ass says, 'I would rather not take part in that, so let's think of something else to do.'
"Does that mean I concur in what they did to us? Probably not. Was it effective? Probably yes. It taught me to hew to the line more carefully and to err on the side of their desires, not my own."
When Lois Lillico saw that I was intrigued by her past, she began writing at home during the day and bringing pages of her autobiography to me in the evening at the nursing home. She began with her mother's death from a sudden illness when Lillico was 5, and then her father's death of a heart attack when she was 12.
She wrote, "As the ambulance drove away with his body as I watched with an aching heart, the pastor's wife stated to me, 'Lois, what will become of you children now?'"
She brought me a scanner copy of a photograph of herself and her brother at their father's grave in Rosemont Cemetery in Wichita Falls, dated May 17, 1948--a pretty girl with wild red hair in a plain checked dress, arms limp at her front, face crimped in a tiny mask of a smile. Her brother is turned from the camera and bent at the neck as if gulping back tears.
She wrote of waking up the first morning in a dormitory at Buckner: "The next day, the pecking order began, and various ones began to impress upon me what I could or could not do, the friends I could or could not make, and it was right here that my backbone stiffened, and I purposed in my heart that I would make my own choices, and if no one wanted to be my friend, that would be their choice, but I chose NOT to be intimidated by anyone."
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.
"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.
Obviously Buckner has always been a Baptist institution with a strong emphasis on religious training. That training seems to have had the same mixed results on the orphans that it did on everybody else. Even Mel Walls, who in his 20s used to challenge Baptists to a fight, has mellowed some, but he confided that he is still not a major devotee of organized religion.
Jerre Simmons, whose father killed her mother in front of her and then took his own life, feels very differently. For her, Buckner was both a haven and a salvation, then and in the rest of her life after she left the home, because of its religious teaching.
"We were taught to serve God and our fellow man," she said. "That was the key to happiness."
I asked her what Buckner would have been without religion.
"That would have pulled all underpinnings out of it for me, because my faith has remained very important to me. We didn't have a father, but God was our father, and there are scriptures that can be construed in that way, and that's what we were told in church."
One of the least told stories in The Orphan Chronicles is any memory of Christmas. A few writers here and there offer sketchy recollections. There was a tree, and hanging from the tree were ribbons. Each orphan was allowed to pull a single ribbon from the tree. Attached to each ribbon was a single apple, an orange, nuts or peppermint candy, which the orphans then pooled and stirred into a kind of trail mix they called "pig wash."
As I was leaving Simmons' home, she made a gesture, I think toward portraits or photographs of her grown children in the living room, and she said, "You know, maybe I should have told my kids more about it, about the hard parts like never getting a present at Christmas. But you don't want to tell them things that will make them sad."
The outside world was a matter of huge fascination for the orphans. Their term for the universe beyond the hedges, fences and guarded gates of Buckner was "away from here." Several of them mention "away from here" in their essays as if it were a place.
Walls told me that boys from the orphanage always "walked stiff-legged" around boys from the outside, ready for a fight, and regarded all girls from outside the orphanage as movie stars.
"Mostly my impression was that everyone away from here was rich, which was a complete denial of my own experience [before Buckner], but that was what it grew into," he said.
Simmons said she thought the Buckner orphans were protected from some of the sharper edges of envy by the fact that they knew so little of the world beyond Buckner's borders.
"We wanted a family life, but we had very little idea of what that would be like," she said. "It wasn't something that confronted us every waking moment. We were kept busy."
Another recurring theme in the essays and in the conversations I had with the orphans was the notion, imbued in them by their adult masters, that everything they had lost, everything that had been denied them in childhood would be gained in the life beyond if they worked hard enough and played their cards well enough.
In her introduction to the book, Simmons wrote: "We knew the rest of the world lived lives very different from ours; we felt true happiness was somewhere in the future and not available to orphans. Happiness would come when we were away from here, living in the real world."
It's strange, in a way, that we have stopped using the word, as if it were a bad word. Very few of us are orphans at birth, but most of us become orphans sooner or later. When we do, we're fortunate to have some Oliver Twists and Little Orphan Annies to help us across the threshold, over to their side. Eventually none of us is away from here.
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