Revisiting Tough and Tender Lessons in Life

By Elizabeth Simpson
October 22, 1993

Sixty years ago, the James Barry-Robinson Home for Boys opened in Norfolk. Today, former students and teachers gather to reminisce about a strict but nurturing school that turned many young lives around.

NORFOLK - They were called the Barry boys, a tough lot of kids who were sent to an all-boys school for reasons that ranged from broken homes to lagging grades to desire for a solid Catholic education.

The James Barry-Robinson Home for Boys was for orphans and children from broken homes when it first opened, but parents later sent their children to the boarding school because they knew they'd get guidance from the Benedictine priests who ran the place with a strong hand and gentle hearts. ``When people started paying to send their kids there, that really impressed the other boys," said the Rev. Anselm Ober, who taught at the school from 1942 to 1945. ``They'd go, `Those guys are paying to come here.' "

The school, now a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, will turn 60 years old this year, a fitting time for one of the graduates to organize the school's first reunion.

John Koonce, who graduated from the school in 1968, came up with the idea after getting together with about 10 other graduates last Thanksgiving. "We were sitting around and people kept saying `What happened to so-and-so?' "

Koonce decided to find out. He organized a reunion to top all reunions and invited back all the Barry boys, from the homeless children who first went to the Kempsville Road school in 1933 to the last high school graduate of 1977. Armed with a list of graduates, city directories and telephone books, he and a couple of other grads made hundreds of calls. They tracked down more than 300 students on their list of 600.

The reunion, a three-day affair, kicks off today. It includes a field day patterned after the school's annual spring field day and a special Mass in honor of students and priests who have died.

Although the school had a reputation for unyielding discipline, the students and the priests remember each other warmly.

"I thought I was a very lucky person to be assigned to the school," said the Rev. Damien Abbaticchio, who taught there for 12 years and is now a chaplain at DePaul Medical Center. "It was very rewarding work. They were very, very fine boys, and I thought a lot of them."

"It wasn't just a teacher-student relationship," said Lyons Query, a Norfolk resident who attended the school in 1942 and 1943. "They joked with you, played basketball with you. They made you feel you were at home."

The school was conceived as a home for orphan boys by Frederick J. Robinson, a Norfolk real estate man, who named the institution after his grandfather and added his own last name. When Robinson, a Catholic, wrote his will, there were 750,000 orphans in the country. But by the time the school began accepting students Jan. 1, 1934, the number of orphans had dropped dramatically. So the home took in boys from broken homes or needy families.

George W. Doyle, who now lives in Fayetteville, N.C., was in the first group of boys there. He and two brothers had been sent there from the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester because their stepfather was an invalid and their mother was in poor health.

Doyle remembers arriving at James Barry-Robinson on a cold January evening nearly 60 years ago. He was 15 years old. And rather than being scared about moving away from home, he was excited at the prospect of living somewhere with electricity and radios. ``The only news we ever got was when the postman came through," he remembers.

James Barry-Robinson was a step up. The home was a working farm in those early days, and the boys grew vegetables and raised goats, cows and rabbits. "We did the kinds of things that kids enjoy doing," said Doyle, who is now 75.

Besides teaching them a core of academic subjects, the black-cassocked priests also instructed the boys on woodworking, and together they built pews for the chapel, chicken coops, rabbit hutches and furniture for the dorms. The boys canned the vegetables they grew, slaughtered pigs and milked cows. Ober remembers the day the boys returned from castrating pigs and reported, "We cut out their tonsils!"

A man gave the school some trees, which the boys planted along the driveway. He also told them where they could get some Swiss goats. "Having much esteem for this tree-donating gentleman, I fell for his plan, and we found ourselves the possessors of several goats," the Rev. Sylvester Healy, the school's first director, was quoted in a history of the school. "The boys, as usual, were highly enthusiastic for the first few days, but in no time the task of caring for the goats, and especially milking them, became a drudgery, and we had to use Hitlerian tactics to keep the goats from starving."

It was a life of fresh air, right-off-the-vine food and closely supervised study. The priests kept track of the weight gain of the boys, which was dramatic even by teenage standards.

Though it was an all-boys school, the students kept up with the world of girls through the daughters of the maintenance man, who lived on campus with his family. "They would come over Saturday evenings and teach the boys to dance," Doyle remembers. "Some well-to-do family had donated a record player and a radio, and we'd dance to that."

Once a week the priests would load the boys on a bus and go to downtown Norfolk, where they would take in a movie or a football game.

"In the summer we'd go to the beach," Abbaticchio said. "We loved the beach. We'd go five times a week if we could. And we never lost a boy there. We fished many a one out, but we never lost one."

Although Doyle and many other boys loved their life at Barry-Robinson, some students chafed at the discipline, which included paddles, straps and directives to pick bushels of weeds. Reports of runaways were common. Doyle remembers his younger brother packing a sled with a box of possessions and a swimming suit to run away to Florida. The state police picked him up north of the North Carolina border and brought him back.

The following summer, he tried again and made it.

The school was a junior high at first, but in the late '60s, when the Catholic Church started placing orphans in foster homes, the school became a high school or "college prep school" for middle-class Catholic boys.

The enrollment was divided between "home boys," who stayed at Barry year-round, "boarder boys," who went home on weekends, and "day-hops," who went home at the end of the school day.

Koonce, a boarder boy, can recite the routine there as if it were yesterday. "The priest would come in at 5:30 and clap his hands, and if you didn't get up you'd get water in your face."

They all attended Mass first thing in the morning, followed by breakfast - "two pieces of toast, a doughnut, a half-pint of milk and a box of cereal" - and then classes. The boys played sports in the afternoons, a time anticipated by priests as well as students.

"As soon as class was over, I'd change out of my robes into my play clothes," Abbaticchio remembers. "I'd be the first one on the field." The school produced some formidable teams in its time.

Supper was followed by a two-hour study hall, supervised by priests.

"They had to toe the line," Ober said. "There was no yakking, no noise." Though dreaded by the boys, the study hall is most often cited by alumni as the thing that turned them from mediocre to college-bound students.

Despite the priests' tight rein on them, or perhaps because of it, the Barry boys always found opportunity for horseplay. Koonce remembers nighttime escapes to the movies, and the paddle punishment afterwards.

The priests remember the boys' antics as well. Abbaticchio recalls with glee a night when he walked out into the pitch-dark hallway and heard one of the boys whispering, "Come on, let's go. Father Damien is asleep, I'm sure."

Abbaticchio could see the silhouette of the boy feeling his way down the hallway wall in the darkness. The boy's hands went from the hard wall of the hallway to the warm flesh of Abbaticchio. "He gave out a yell and ran back in his room." Abbaticchio doubles over with laughter at the memory.

Each Friday the boys would clean the dormitories, waxing the floors, dusting, pulling sheets tight over beds. "If it wasn't clean enough, you'd start over again," Koonce said. The boarder boys went home every Friday night unless they earned too many demerits, in which case they had to stay behind.

The Benedictine priests left Barry-Robinson in 1967 to run an academy in Savannah, Ga., and Franciscan priests took over administration of the home. The school closed as a high school in 1977, after Robinson's heirs complained that it wasn't following the original intentions of his will.

Although the orphan population for whom Robinson intended the school no longer existed, his heirs believed the estate should be for children with some sort of special need. So the school became a group home for troubled adolescent boys that same year. In 1986, the center affiliated with Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.

The school, now called The Barry Robinson Center, serves emotionally disturbed boys and girls 6 to 17 years of age. About 65 children live at the center, which also has an outpatient treatment program and an array of prevention programs.

Some former students are disappointed that Barry Robinson is no longer a high school. There are no football games to attend, no regular class reunions. Yet they understand Robinson's original intent of helping children in need.

"They're helping very important children here," said Howie Bonnewell, a Virginia Beach resident who graduated in 1973. "And that's what it's all about."

From the Virginian Pilot
Published: October 22, 1993
Section: FRONT, page A1
Source: Elizabeth Simpson, Staff writer
© 1993- Landmark Communications Inc.