In 1913, Omaha, Nebraska, was the gateway to the West. For over half a century, pioneers, Indian scouts, goldseekers, cattlemen and wave after wave of immigrants had passed through the city, first on wagon trains across the prairies or up the Missouri River from St. Louis, and then, as railroad lines were laid, on the trains of the Union Pacific westward to California or Oregon. In 1913, the city was expanding from the Missouri River west, and from the city center north and south, making it the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco.
With this growth came all the problems of an open city. Brothels and bars and gambling dens flourished where the city met the river. Closed neighborhoods of Irish, Polish, Bohemian, German, Italian, Greek, Jewish and Scandinavian immigrants, most of them poor, gathered around their churches and synagogues. There were corrupt city officials and a political machine that had ruled the city since the turn of the century.
For all its pioneer flavor, the city had come into its own with a lavish Trans-Pacific Exposition in 1898 that brought thousands to Omaha and sparked civic and commercial development that made many of its citizens not only rich and prosperous, but patrons of the arts, education and civic enterprises that created some of Omaha’s most durable institutions. The economy of the city was primarily based on the stockyards in South Omaha, which employed thousands, and the meat-packing industry that rivaled those in Chicago and Kansas City.
But the city was awash with immigrants seeking employment, many of them not speaking English, with rampant poverty in the ethnic neighborhoods, and hundreds of men seeking work in the stockyards and packing houses. The politics of Omaha were controlled by a political machine headed by a political boss named Tom Dennison, who manipulated the office of mayor for his own purposes and, from his headquarters in the Third Ward of the city, encouraged open vice, shady business practices, and underworld activities that gave Omaha the reputation of a crime city.
Into this maelstrom of growth and decline, of blossoming economies and ethnic violence, in 1913, came a young priest, fresh from the seminary, with the oil of priestly ordination scarcely dry on his fingers, who would transform the moral character of the city and infuse into its civic consciousness something of grandeur, something of hope and promise, and something of human dignity that would be heard around the world.
Fresh from the Seminary
Edward J. Flanagan had first come to Omaha in 1907, a frail, sickly, somewhat tubercular, 21-year-old, to recover from a physical breakdown during his first year in a Yonkers, New York, seminary. With his sister Nellie, he had come to New York from Ireland to join a colony of Irish relatives who had fled the Great Irish Famine of 1845, settled in East Village, a suburb of Manhattan, raised families and prospered, welcoming into their company the flood of new immigrants who were fleeing the injustices and oppression that were part of the British occupation of their country.
His first priestly assignment in Omaha, in 1913, was St. Patrick’s Church, one of the religious centers of Irish life in the city, and it was here that young Father Flanagan, on Easter Sunday of that year, collided with his destiny. On that day, at 6:00 o’clock in the evening, a tornado struck the city, destroying one-third of the city structure, killing 115 people, destroying 2,000 homes, and causing a financial loss of eight million dollars for the city. Homes in every part of town were destroyed, commercial buildings collapsed, and a half-mile-wide path of destruction swept through the city. Streets were so packed with wreckage that even travel on foot was difficult, and streetcar and telephone service was non-existent. The tornado entered the city at Fifty-first and Center streets, struck Farnam Street at 39th, plowed on to 16th and Manderson Streets, then crossed the Missouri River, wreaking similar havoc in Council Bluffs.
Father Flanagan had been in Omaha less than a week when he was thrown into human tragedy and suffering on a scale he never could have imagined: husbands without work, families without fathers, hospitals full of the sick and bed-ridden, children needing comfort and old people needing care. It was a massive human tragedy, and he plunged into it with skill, compassion and determination that foreshadowed the years ahead, when he would become a legend in the city.
His First Home for Boys
Two years later he rented and outfitted a hotel for the itinerant workers in the city who had no work because of the drought of 1915. Two years after that, in 1917, he opened a home for homeless boys with five boys off the streets and from the juvenile court. Before that year was out, he had 35 boys on his hands and had to move to a larger place on South 13th Street, the old German–American Club. Within weeks he had 50 boys, then 100 and then 150. He had to move again, and made a desperate appeal for funds to buy land and to build a new Home for his boys — a project for which he did not have a cent to his name.
The appeal was a bust, and Father Flanagan began to see the humor of his situation. “We had no money,” he wrote, “no nothing — we were living in a fool’s paradise.”
He knew that there was money in Omaha, but he also knew that most of the well-to-do people were not intent on the betterment of the city. They were intent on making money, and many of them were complicit with the shady tactics of Tom Dennison and his cronies, who doled out privileges, licenses and profit-making favors to those who winked at their methods and tactics.
Skewered the City’s Rich
So, with a knowledge of financial matters gained from two years as an accountant at the Cudahy Packing Company when he was 22 years old, Father Flanagan penned an editorial in his Boys’ Home Journal that he knew every businessman would understand. The Journal had thousands of subscribers in Omaha and surrounding cities. One of his favorite writers was George Helgesen Fitch, a popular author, humorist and journalist likened to Will Rogers. Fitch’s books and newspaper columns satirized urban America and delighted people like Father Flanagan who knew that, by trick and shady policies, money could easily be accumulated and that rich men were very unlikely to part with their riches for merely philanthropic purposes. Father Flanagan dipped his pen in Fitch’s kind of satire and skewered the rich men of the city by his subtle wit and naked honesty. Here is an example:
The casual reader of the more or less prosaic pages of this periodical may have noticed that we made a plea for financial assistance in our August issue, and even burned the midnight oil in working out an equitable plan to suit, as we thought, all purses, fat and lean, but maybe it’s the recent hot spell, or absence from home — at any rate, the building fund has NOT increased by leaps and bounds.
Now were we financiers, such as the late George Fitch used to tell about and write about, we might rapidly increase our building fund, either in hot or cold weather, after the following manner which George related was about the way the average financier turned the trick:
“If a financier has a dollar and needed two, he would use the dollar as first payment on a $10 bill and he would bond the bill for a $20 gold piece and would charge $5 for doing this.
“Then he would sell the option on the $20 gold piece at $17, for one dollar down, to forty-five people and then would dispose of a half interest in the entire transaction for $150, two dollars down, and the rest payable in short term notes.”
The “hot spell” could have referred to the weather, but it could also have been a not-too-subtle reminder of the violence that had broken out in Omaha that very month, a citywide riot that ended in the murder of an African–American man named William Brown, who was falsely accused of attacking a white woman. He had been taken from the jail, dragged into the street, beaten, hanged and his body burned. The mayor of the city had almost been killed while trying to stop the violence; a sad commentary on the moral climate of the city.
At Caustic and Witty Best
This little editorial entitled “If We Were Financiers” must have surprised and unsettled Father Flanagan’s friends in the financial and business community, who saw that they were dealing with a sharp business mind, a priest who was savvy in worldly matters and with the trade secrets of the financial community. It was Father Flanagan at his caustic and witty best, and his success at this kind of journalistic banter, with a pen dipped in satire and irony, is shown by the fact that, in the next issue of his Boys’ Home Journal, he announced the purchase of the farmland he had been looking for at a cost of $14,000. Part of the cost was provided by several friends, but the bulk of the cost came from a loan of $12,000 from an unknown source.
With the land secured, he could start planning to put a building on it. Then, when news got around that a grand lady of Omaha, the widow of one of the business pioneers of Omaha, had given $10,000 to open his building fund, and another grand lady, also a widow of a business pioneer, had handed him a check for $20,000, a delegation of businessmen of the city made tracks to the German–American Home with offers of help and support — moral and financial — and pledges that began to appear regularly in the pages of the Journal.
That caustic and witty editorial showed Father Flanagan’s familiarity with the inner workings of the business community, as well as his cynicism about those who held the purse strings of rich corporations. He had hinted that greed was the motor and motivation of their business practices and that the welfare and good of the Omaha community played no part in their financial dealings. Later on he would remark on this critical period in his work for boys: “I am afraid Father Flanagan was a nuisance to the good merchants and professional men of Omaha during those leans years. I begged in the daytime, tried my best to mother the boys at night. Somehow I kept going.”
The city was already saddled with a corrupt political machine that had lost favor with the public as well losing the recent mayoral election. One of the acts of the new mayor of the city was a letter to Father Flanagan, congratulating him for his service to the city of Omaha with these words in bold letters; “I don’t know of any civic organization in the city of Omaha that. . .is doing better work than the work you are doing.”
With something of wit, something of humor, and something of brazen audacity, the savvy priest had trapped others into his way of thinking and turned their world upside-down, simply by an unconventional appeal to their own best interests. He not only influenced the city’s major companies to display paid ads in his Journal, but he also challenged their investment practices by pointing out that an investment in the future of these homeless boys would bring a greater benefit to the city of Omaha than any other investment.
He did not appeal to their charitable instincts, or what he sometimes called the “Oliver Twist appeal.” He talked about hard cash and a return on hard cash, and it began to make sense to a number of hard-headed business men who were captivated by his logic and by his dismantling before their very eyes the lust for gold that was the secret engine of their financial enterprises.
Father Flanagan could see heroism in the little boy off the streets, and he could see heroism in the girl selling tickets at the movie theater. But it was his ability to see heroism in men immersed in the pursuit of wealth and to use their own logic and their own self-interest to enlist them in a nobler cause that set him apart, making them heroes in spite of themselves. TP
Father Stevens, a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, graduated from Boys Town in 1944 and was ordained in 1956. In 1961, he became a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. From 1968-69 he was executive editor of The Priest magazine. And in 1984, he founded Tintern Monastery. In his retirement he writes from Boys Town.