On December 12, 1924, a modest obituary in the Virginian- Pilot & the Norfolk Landmark newspaper reported that Frederick J. Robinson had died the day before. His passing set in motion a legacy of charity in Catholic education that thrives to this day. Frederick J. Robinson left what was then a considerable fortune. He specified that most of the same was to be used to establish a “home and school of arts and trades for orphan boys…of the Catholic faith” and “orphan boys of other faiths and religious belief [so long as] they comply with the rules and regulations prescribed by those in charge.” The home-school was to be operated under the name of the James Barry- Robinson Home for Boys. (Captain James E. Barry was Mr. Robinson’s maternal grandfather.)
The home-school was built on a large tract of rural land on Kempsville Road near Norfolk’s border with Princess Anne County across from the current Sentara Leigh Memorial Hospital, on land once farmed by the residents.
T. David Fitzgibbons designed all the buildings, including the chapel, built in 1956. It's considered by many to be one of the most attractive small chapels in the region.
The Reverend Andrew J. Brennan, D.D., Bishop of Richmond, dedicated Barry-Robinson on December 8, 1933.
By then, the number of orphans in the country had dropped dramatically. So, the home not only took in orphans but boys from “broken homes” or needy families.
From its opening through the 1950s, the student body continued to see a decline in the number of orphans. However, the remainder continued to be boys with only one parent or from families experiencing financial or other difficulties. By 1960, the Catholic Church was placing almost all of its wards in foster homes rather than institutions and Barry saw its first students who were not necessarily boys from broken homes or troubled families. This change in the demographics of Barry-Robinson also saw a gradual elimination of the lower grades and the addition of higher ones. That process saw its culmination in 1962 when the new James Barry Robinson High School graduated its first senior class of three students.
In 1967, a further significant change occurred when the Order of St. Benedict, which had supplied the school’s faculty from its inception, made the decision to withdraw its monks and send them to a larger school in Georgia. By now, only five of the school’s sixty-one boarding students were orphans or from broken homes.
The Benedictines were replaced by monks from the Order of St. Francis and the school continued to grow in size and change in character until 1977 when the Board of Directors made the decision to close the high school and create a facility for boys in need of special services not available elsewhere.
Throughout most of its history, the boys who attended Barry were subject to a rigid discipline which started with a 6:00 a.m. wakeup call followed by Mass. School hours were from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thereafter, there was a recreational period dominated by athletic activities until the evening meal. After that, there was study hall from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Lights were out at 9:30 p.m. All of the boys ate together in a large dining hall. There were four boys to each dorm room and they were responsible for keeping their rooms clean subject to rigid inspection by the priests.
Each of the dormitory buildings had one or two priests in residence at all times. Discipline was strict. The rules of behavior and conduct were explained to each boy as well as the punishment for any infractions. By today’s standards, punishment was harsh, but fairly administered.
While the academic and athletic abilities of the students varied, as in any school, the faculty demanded the best from each student.
Through the mid 1960’s, Barry never had more than sixty five total students. In addition to the education, discipline, and moral values that the faculty strove to instill in all of the boys, athletics was always a large part of the tradition. The point was always to compete as hard as you could, win or lose. And, for many years, it was mostly lose.
Remarkably, beginning in the mid ‘50s and continuing through the ‘60s, guided by dedicated volunteer coaches, notably George Parr in football and Joe Fitzpatrick in basketball, “little” Barry-Robinson attained remarkable athletic success. The football team only had one losing season from 1955 through 1965 despite playing many teams that had more players in uniform than Barry had students. The basketball teams regularly defeated much larger parochial schools such as Benedictine in Richmond and the former Norfolk Catholic High School, and the “Rangers” were the state regular season Catholic league champions in 1963 and 1964. (The nickname “Rangers” was adopted in gratitude for a generous gift of athletic equipment from the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, which was built in Newport News, Virginia.)
Barry was also one of the first high schools in Virginia to play what were then all-black high schools, such as Booker T. Washington in Norfolk.
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, and was known as the Barry Robinson Center. That association continued until 2006 when the facility reverted to the control of the The school, now 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.
In the aftermath, the Barry Boys have stayed in contact with varying degrees of success. A major reunion event was held in 1993, with subsequent smaller get-togethers.
Over the years, although never lacking respect for the work done by the Barry Robinson Center, many of the Barry Boys felt that the Center didn't fulfill the original vision of Frederick Robinson.
So in 2003, when it was announced that a new Catholic school was going to be constructed with funding from the James Barry-Robinson Trust, a group of Barry Boys decided that setting up a scholarship fund to help deserving kids acquire a quality education in the same type of nurtuing environment would be a fitting legacy.
The James Barry-Robinson Home for Boys created a very special legacy through the boys who attended. All of them came to see themselves as something unique and something to be very proud of. They were and are the Barry Boys.
While the James Barry-Robinson Home for Boys is no more, in creating the St. Patrick’s Catholic School, the James Barry-Robinson Home for Boys Trust has ensured that the wonderful legacy of Frederick J. Robinson in providing the opportunity for quality Catholic education will endure for generations to come.
(This history was compiled from multiple sources,
and edited by Mike Rau, Class of '76)