Boy Story: Chaska Man Recalls Life at Fr. Flanagan’s Home For Children

Patrick Smith with grandsons Joseph, Nick, Sam and Max

Patrick Smith has led an intriguing life. In fact, he’s experienced (and seen) more in his lifetime than most. Conversations with the Chaska resident provide interesting recollections and unexpected revelations.
 
Smith’s delivery of details is direct, leaving little room for much color commentary, as it were. Ask him a question, and the response stays right within the query’s boundaries. No more, no less. It makes sense, however, given his career—though he’s retired, once a cop, always a cop. Along with his stretch as a police officer, Smith’s boyhood, military service, wife and children created the outline for a life story worth telling.

During the 1940s, Gertrude La Ronge was a single mother whose circumstances were such that she was unable to care for her young son, Smith, so he spent his earliest years in foster homes. From kindergarten through eighth grade, he lived in the Minneapolis Catholic Boys Home, where his mother visited him every other week over the course of those nine years. La Ronge would bring her young boy art supplies, including watercolor paint, artist charcoal and, most fortuitously, a camera.

During that time, one of Smith’s assistant Boy Scout leaders was a volunteer named Charles M. Schulz, who would later become the creator of the Peanuts comic strip. If only Smith knew then what he knows now. It wasn’t uncommon for Schulz to offer the scouts some of his artwork.  He gave Smith a painting of a knight in shining armor atop a steed. “It was beautiful,” he says. “I wish I still had that watercolor.”
 
After graduating from eighth grade in 1954, Smith was sent to live in Boys Town, Neb., site of  Father Edward Flanagan's home for boys, which opened in 1917. Some are familiar with Flanagan’s work from the 1938 film Boys Town¸ featuring Spencer Tracy’s Academy Award winning performance as the devoted Catholic priest, who once remarked, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” (Flanagan died of a heart attack in Germany in 1948.)

Flanagan’s mission to help boys in need continues today and includes girls (admitted to the school in 1979). The film’s version of Boys Town bears little resemblance to Smith’s experience.  “It was a pretty rough place,” he says. After four or five days of admissions testing, Smith was sent to bunk in a cottage with 19 other kids his age and a counselor.
 
“I wasn’t very happy at first,” Smith says of those early days. Not surprisingly, newcomers had to prove their mettle to the other boys—often with fists. “After three or four (fights), they’d leave you alone,” Smith says.  “In a place like that, you either fight or run.”

 Memories aren’t readily forthcoming from Smith. “I blocked that stuff out. I didn’t like it much,” he says. Bright spots included packages from home, including film for his camera and Greyhound bus fare for visits to Minneapolis to see his mother for two weeks out of the year.   

During the latter part of Smith’s stay in Boys Town, the population included about 800 boys, ages 9 to 18, whose school day began early in the morning and lasted until about 3 p.m. “They would spend a part of the day at the trade school, working on a craft. For physical education, the boys would use the large field house. On any given day, hundreds of boys would be in the building playing basketball, swimming, lifting weights,” according to Boy Town’s historical records.

Smith, thanks to encouragement from the nuns at the Catholic Boys Home, was a prolific reader. (He’s read the encyclopedia—twice. “You can learn a lot of stuff,” he says.) Smith spent much of his time in Boys Town immersed in books. What else did he do? “Nothing. Play sports,” he recalls. Weekends were spent playing on the school’s football and baseball teams during the season.

Smith and a few other boys were asked to play Legion baseball for Millard, Neb., playing in small-town stadiums, in front of, on occasion, even smaller-minded fans. Once when the Legion team’s African-American first baseman was heckled and peppered with racial slurs, teammates  stood up for their teammate—emulating a Boys Town motto; He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother.

Belonging to the Boy Scouts also occupied some of Smith’s time in Boys Town, but his scouting tenure was cut short. During a trip to Minnesota’s Many Point Scout Camp, north of Park Rapids, bordered by the 143,000-acre Tamarac Wildlife Refuge, word around camp was that there was a Girl Scout camp across the lake. Smith and a few buddies “borrowed” the camp medic’s boat and took off by night across the lake. Alas, the reality of a girls’ camp ended up to be nothing more than adolescent wishful thinking. Upon their return to camp, the boys encountered thick fog—the shoreline lit only by the reproachful glow of their scout leaders’ cigarettes. Once ashore and after an unsuccessful dash to anonymity, the boys’ scouting days ended.

A fonder memory finds the Boys Town football team traveling to the Twin Cities in 1956 to play DeLaSalle High School in the old Parade Stadium, where about 9,000 fans gathered and watched the Boys Town team hand the Islanders a 20-0 defeat.  “We beat ‘em up pretty good,” Smith says, a smile finally edging its way across his face at the memory.

Smith was at baseball practice his senior year when his coach told him he needed to return to Minneapolis, as his mother was dying of stomach cancer. Smith stayed with Father Ahern at the St. Paul Seminary for two weeks until her death, later returning to complete school .

With many years of perspective, Smith says he’s grateful for his time in Boys Town. In fact, he returned there in July 2007 for the Boys Town National Alumni Association Convention.  Smith’s class of 1957 celebrated its 50th class reunion with a special get-together and recognition at the convention banquet.

After high school, Smith worked as an apprentice typographer in Minneapolis before serving in the Navy from 1959 to 1963. As a photographer for the Navy’s Public Information Office, Smith traveled to Australia, Japan, Korea, the Panama Canal and South America, photographing military personnel for news articles, which were sent to their hometown newspapers.

Smith turned his experience in the military into a career with the Minneapolis Police Department from 1966 to 1998. He married his late wife, Janet, in 1968, and they had two children. His son, Kevin, lives in Chaska with his wife, Kirsten, and their four sons.
As a policeman, Smith walked the beat and patrolled in a squad car before working in the Identification Division, where one of his duties included crime scene photography. “I’d volunteer for the night shift. That was where all the action was,” he says. In order to stomach photographing some of the crime scenes, Smith says he often thought of victims as furniture. “Some of it was pretty gruesome,” he says. “If you go to the scene, and the cops are outside, you know it’s bad.”  When he recalls some of the more troubling scenes, it’s evident from Smith’s facial expressions that he hasn’t forgotten the victims, whose final moments he captured on film. Once retired, Smith set down his camera, his interest in photography tainted. “I’ve seen too much,” he says.

Today, Smith leaves the police work to the authors of some of his favorite novels. He treasures time with family, participates in church activities and watches his grandsons play sports. Though his life has taken him to many places and through many experiences, the only personal token Smith shared with a visitor was a clearly beloved, framed photograph of his son and his family. In light of his familial pride, it’s easy to understand why Smith gives his life an appreciative nod. “It’s been good,” he says.  

Boys Town has a hotline for parents and teens to call 24/7, 365 days a year. Professional counselors provide emergency or direct assistance to callers all across the country. 800.448.3000.