Minnesota Memories: For a time, I was an orphanPart 5 of a 10-part series
By: Paul Slayback, Duluth News Tribune
When I was 9, my father told me he was going to take a trip. Finishing dinner, my dad walked into the kitchen and said, “I’m going south for the winter — you’ll be staying here.”
“With Marian and June?” I asked.
“No, they can’t take care of you. I’ve arranged for you to stay at the Children’s Home over on 15th,” he said.
“Why can’t I go with you?” I persisted.
“You’ll miss too much school. Here you can stay at the same school ... and your sisters can come visit you,” he said.
The Duluth’s Children’s Home, on 15th Avenue East and Fifth Street, was staffed and operated by Catholic nuns.
At that time, we only lived about four blocks from “the Home,” as it was called. My sisters, Marian, 17, and June, 14, both of whom had quit high school, were working and living in Duluth, barely scraping by.
“When do I have to go?” I said.
“Tomorrow,” replied my dad.
Lying in my bed under the covers in the black of night, crying softly, I closed my eyes and visualized myself meeting new boys and girls, making friends, working hard, learning new things, and having fun. Wiping away the tears, I said to myself, “I can do this.” That was the last time I cried as a boy.
The next morning, a Saturday, dad enrolled me at the Children’s Home. I met Sister Rosalie, who had me take a shower and change into clean clothes.
Rosalie was about 40 years old, 5 feet 4, with a soft, pleasant face and kind eyes. She wore a long, dark blue dress and sturdy black shoes and spoke in an agreeable manner.
The Duluth Children’s Home looked gigantic to me. It was a three-story building, occupied the space of about eight houses, and had four entrances. Inside were separate sleeping quarters for boys and girls, a library, game room, huge dining room, reception room, living room, living quarters for the Catholic staff, a basement with a gym, coal furnace and laundry room.
The Children’s Home housed about 100 kids, boys and girls from about 4 to 16, and it ran with amazing efficiency. It was here that I was instructed in the proper use of a knife and fork, making a bed and personal hygiene. I already knew some from my sister, Lorna, but here, those things were systematically and strongly stressed.
After a few weeks I began to like the sisters, Sister Catherine, Sister Mary, Sister Margaret and Sister Rosalie. They were kind, patient, treated us all fairly, had no teachers’ pets and were basically pleasant to be around. I recall Sister Catherine looking at one of my math tests and complimenting me on how well I scored. Scanning my spelling paper, Sister Mary told me “great job.” This was the first time anyone paid any attention to my school work.
Throughout my stay I was always kept busy. In the fall we played flag football. I could run fast, throw the football and strip a flag from a ball runner. The older boys often picked me to be on their team. Across the street from the orphanage was a baseball field. In the winter, the city would flood the field with water, transforming it into a wide ice rink for skating and hockey.
Choosing up teams, I was picked to be wing man, using for the first time a pair of skates that fit. They weren’t mine, but they were mine to use and I took full advantage after school and on Saturdays.
In the spring there was baseball and we Children’s Home boys had an advantage —our hand-me-down donated gloves. Like the comfort of a pair of well-used shoes over a new, stiff pair, old gloves worked better than ones fresh out of a box from Montgomery Ward. The used gloves were “broken in,” seasoned, had natural depressions and creased patches of leather from hundreds of snared and caught fly balls. I could hit. I could throw. I could pitch. Like football, the older boys wanted me to pitch because I could pitch the ball fast. I started to fit in as an athlete from the Home.
Then there was the boxing. I enjoyed the year-round boxing in the basement gym with large 16-ounce gloves. This was the first time I ever boxed. I boxed other boys my same age, coached by the older boys. I remember Sister Rosalie sitting on the stairs hanging onto the banister with one hand, watching me boxing with Kirk and other boys about my age. When I finished, she’d place her hand over my shoulder and telling me how well I had done. I liked that. She reminded me of my Aunt Myrtle.
Besides sports activities, the Home also had a play room, library and a kind of arts and crafts room and the sisters assigned student helpers to assist anyone with their homework. At mealtime, there was a brief prayer of thanks for “all we were about to enjoy” but, on the whole, very little preaching or attempts to convert us to Catholicism.
Regarding the children, I learned that many had been “orphaned” by abandonment or death of their parents, or inability of the parents to support them. The younger ones often talked about getting adopted and getting a new home. The older ones seldom mentioned that.
Periodically, adult men and women would visit the Home and bring used clothes, games, sports equipment and presents. Another thing they brought were their smiles and demeanors—their smiles were wide, their faces seemed to radiate with a glow like a newly waxed apple and their mannerisms seemed to be asking for a thank you —thank you —thank you.
In June, my father returned and checked me out of the Home and we moved to a new house on the edge of an alley in the center of Duluth.
At first I was happy to see my father and enjoyed my new freedom as a 10-year-old loose in the city.
But after a few weeks, I began to miss my friends and the sisters at the Home. They had been nice to me; I learned a lot of valuable things. I was never lonely, being surrounded by about 100 other kids, and I also missed the many activities. A little part of me wished he had left me there —at least I felt wanted at the home, and I grew to like the routine and feeling I was part of a big family —even though it was a family of orphans.
SUNDAY: Uncle John drops in for Christmas