We are excited to present you with a second guest blog by Lafayette YMCA member Brent Clary. Brent is an attorney with Bennett Boehning & Clary LLP and a former member of the Board of Directors at the Lafayette YMCA.
Father Flanagan of Boys Town came to our town for YMCA’s 50th Anniversary in 1939
As the Lafayette YMCA this year celebrates its 125th anniversary, folks might enjoy turning their attention to the Y’s 50th Anniversary. 75 years ago, on October 4, 1939, in celebration of the Y’s 50th birthday, Lafayette YMCA leaders pulled an unbelievable coup by engaging the esteemed Father Edward J. Flanagan, the famous founder and administrator of Boys Town, to come to Lafayette for the event. A huge crowd packed the Purdue Union to hear the words of this visiting celebrity, but the tale of how Father Flanagan came to attend is a story in itself.
Father Flanagan’s Story
Back on December 12, 1917, as the world trembled under the rage of world war, Father Flanagan, then a young Irish priest from Omaha, Nebraska first opened the doors of a crude Omaha house to a few (six or seven, according to legend) down-and-out boys. Boys Town was begun!
Twenty-two years later, in 1939, as Europe and Asia felt the force of what was to become World War II, it might have been irony that led Flanagan to Lafayette to commemorate the founding of the local YMCA.
But, the story cannot ignore Hollywood and the movies. Although 1939 stood as a banner year for the production of classic motion pictures, with both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz hitting the big screen, the 1938 film Boys Town had, by 1939, pushed Father Flanagan squarely into the national spotlight. Spencer Tracy was awarded an Oscar (which he later donated to Boys Town) for his portrayal of Father Flanagan.
Any civic organization lucky enough to land the likes of Father Flanagan as a banquet speaker could boast of making a ‘prize catch.’ So, how did our local YMCA land Father Flanagan? YMCAs, with their international flavor and good work, appealed to Flanagan.
A brief history of our local YMCA
The YMCA, originally was founded in London, England on June 6, 1844, soon spread throughout much of the world, with the first “Y” appearing in the United States in 1851. A first attempt at a Lafayette YMCA in 1866 failed, but, in 1889 the movement was reorganized and the Lafayette YMCA was born.
Not surprisingly, several distinguished local citizens played a role in getting the YMCA off the ground. Dr. Stanley Coulter, later to become Dean Emeritus at Purdue, was the first president and served during the critical formation period.
On August 9, 1906 ground was broken on a lot at 7th and Columbia Street in downtown Lafayette for the construction for a new and modern building. Thanks to a series of fund-raising efforts, the 7th and Columbia structure was finished and formal dedication occurred on September 11, 1907. According to the Journal and Courier, the final cost of the construction was $59,126.39, a pretty hefty sum for 1907.
The YMCA certainly endorsed the philosophy and efforts later used by Father Flanagan as it distinguished itself from the beginning as an organization where youth could spend their time in constructive, character-building activities. Although the initial purpose of the YMCA certainly focused on Christian leadership, the organization clearly served the needs of several denominations and various faiths.
But, you may ask, “What led Father Flanagan to Tippecanoe County, Indiana for the 50th birthday celebration of its YMCA?”
The Board of Directors of the YMCA had made elaborate plans to celebrate with a ‘Golden Anniversary Jubilee Week’ in 1939. Initially, the week of May 7th through 15th had been set aside. Lafayette YMCA president, retired army field officer Col. George F. Byers, proudly announced a variety of speakers, including General John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of US forces in France and Dean Emeritus Coulter of Purdue University. But, war raged viciously throughout Europe and wars make demands on military folks. Soon General Pershing, who cited ‘health problems,’ probably had other concerns when he expressed his regrets in being unable to attend.
YMCA directors, impressed with the parallels between YMCA goals and the principles enforced by Father Flanagan’s Boys Town seized the opportunity. Efforts commenced to call upon Father Flanagan to be the banquet’s speaker. But, due to the incredible demands on Father Flanagan’s time he simply was unavailable for any time in May.
Not to be denied, YMCA embraced the challenge, postponed the date of the celebration until October and lined-up the services of Father Flanagan. Thus, as the Journal and Courier reported on September 28, 1939, the YMCA Jubilee Week would offer a wide range of well-planned events all of which would culminate on the night of October 4, with the Golden Anniversary Banquet to be held at the Purdue Union Ballroom.
The Greater Lafayette YMCA celebrated its 50th birthday with an address by Father Flanagan who presented his powerful message tying the goals of the YMCA to those of Boys Town.
The parallels of goals between the YMCA and Boys Town stood obvious. Not surprisingly, A.R. Killian, Mayor of Lafayette, and D.S. Keim, Mayor of West Lafayette, acknowledging the fifty years of service from the YMCA, issued a joint, congratulatory 50th anniversary proclamation, and the mayors were pivotal in welcoming Father Flanagan to Greater Lafayette.
Furthermore, with radio being the media of the day, coverage for the YMCA banquet was arranged through WBAA of Purdue University, which obtained special permission from the Federal Communications Commission for an evening broadcast. As a final observation, even though Purdue University played no official role in the ceremony, one must conclude that the holding of the event at the Purdue Memorial Union and contributions by such Purdue people as Dean Emeritus Stanley Coulter, the Y’s first president, made everything even more appealing to Father Flanagan.
Father Flanagan’s message
Father Flanagan disappointed no one. His words, reported in the Journal and Courier and several other Indiana newspapers, were predictably clear and to the point. “If America deals fairly with its youth, this youth will be more than fair to America” declared Father Flanagan according to the October 5, 1939 issue of the Journal and Courier. “There is no such thing as a bad boy. Character, whether good or bad, is a matter of habit and habit is a matter of training and education. Proper training from parents, from organizations and from others is the most effective method of building good character.”
Father Flanagan, speaking as war engulfed much of the world, summed up his philosophy by saying, “There is no magic or mystery to the Boys Town philosophy…it is as fundamental as common sense. The citizens of Boys Town become responsible members of society because they are trained in responsibility. Every boy in Boys Town has a duty to perform for the good of his community.”
Attendees of the banquet, who had paid the respectable sum of $1 per person to attend, were impressed and pleased with Father Flanagan’s presentation. By the time Flanagan had finished, no one in the crowd doubted the Boys Town saying, “He ain’t heavy, father…he’s m’ brother.”
Approximately two years after Father Flanagan made his YMCA presentation, the values exemplified by these organizations were again tested as the United States was pulled into World War II. Many United State soldiers, while carrying wounded buddies from the fields of battle, found the load a bit less burdensome as they reflected, “he ain’t heavy, father…he’s m’ brother.”
Without question, many of our local citizen’s felt the sting a few years after the war when Father Flanagan, who had gone in May of 1948 on a round of conferences, lectures and interviews regarding assistance for war-ravaged Europe, retired to bed early on May 14, awakening around midnight with complaints of pain and dying of a heart attack that night.
Thus, as we rejoice in the 125th birthday of our local YMCA, recognition of that 50th Anniversary Celebration of 1939 feels even more appropriate.
By: Brent E. Clary
With two locations in Lafayette, Indiana, the Lafayette Family YMCA is a community committed to healthy living and social responsibility. For more fitness tips and to stay up to date about YMCA events, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, or visit our website.