Flangan's Toughtest Customer
“There’s no such thing as a bad boy!”- and then along
winter night a long-distance call came to that Nebraska
village known all over the world as Boys Town. “Father
Flanagan? This is Sheriff Hosey - from Virginia. Got
room for another boy - immediately?”
is he now?”
“In jail. He’s a desperate character - robbed a bank,
held up three stores with a revolver.”
old is he?”
“Eight and a half.”
gaunt, blue-eyed priest stiffened at the telephone.
let his age fool you. He’s all I said he was, and
more. Will you take him off our hands?”
For years the Rev. Edward Joseph Flanagan has been
taking unwanted boys off the hands of baffled society:
youths of all ages, races, creeds.
I can’t manage an eight-year-old by this time, I ought
to quit,” he said. “Bring him on!” Three days later.
Sheriff Hosey and his wife set down their prisoner
in Father Flanagan’s office - an unnaturally pale
boy with a bundle under his arm. He was no higher
than the desk; frowzy hair of chocolate brown dangled
over the pinched face; sullen brown eyes were half
shut beneath long, dark lashes. From one side of his
mouth a cigarette drooped at a theatrical angle. “Don’t
mind the smoking,” pleaded the sheriff. “We had to
bribe him with cigarettes.” The sheriffs wife laid
a long envelope on the desk. “There’s a complete report,”
she snapped. “And that’s not the half of it. This
good-for-nothing criminal is not worth helping. It’s
my personal opinion he ain’t even human! Good-bye
and good luck-you’re going to need it!” Now the heart
of Father Flanagan is warmed by his love of God and
man, and especially young ones. Looking upon this
patched wraith of childhood, the priest thought that
never had he seen such a mixture of the comical and
the utterly squalid and tragic.
the newcomer to a chair, Father Flanagan began to
read the report. People had forgotten the boy’s last
name; he was just Eddie. Born in a slum near the Newport
News docks, he had lost mother and father in a flu
epidemic before he was four. In water-front flats
he was shunted from one family to another, living
like a desperate animal. Hardship sharpened his cunning
and his will. At the age of eight he became the boss
of a gang of boys, some nearly twice his age. Coached
by older toughs of the neighborhood, Eddie browbeat
them into petty crimes which he planned in detail.
About six months before the law caught up with him,
his rule had been challenged by a new member of the
never do anything yourself. You’re no leader.”
show you,” replied Eddie. “I’ll do something you wouldn’t
dare. I’m going to rob a bank.”
The bank was housed in an old-fashioned building.
When most of the clerks were at lunch, Eddie entered
unseen and crossed to an unattended slot of the cashier
cage. So small that he had to chin himself up, he
thrust in one grimy paw, seized a packet of bills
and hid them in his jacket. Then he walked out to
divide $ 200 among his comrades. But the exploit was
a flop; the bank concealed the theft and there were
no headlines. “You’re only cracking your jaw,” the
found that dough somewhere.” Eddie’s answer was to
disappear for several days. Someone had sold him a
revolver, and he was out in the fields beyond town,
This time the local front pages were full of him.
Slouching into a restaurant at a quiet hour, he aimed
his gun at the terrified counterman and was handed
the day’s take from the cash register. Next he dragged
a roll of bills from the pocket of a quaking tailor.
His third call was on an old lady who kept a candy
store. “Put that thing down,” this grandmother cried,
“before you hurt yourself!” She smacked the gun out
of his hand and grabbed him by the hair. Savagely
he struggled; he might have killed her, but her screams
brought policemen. Now Eddie had wound up in Boys
Town. Putting aside the report. Father Flanagan looked
at the villain of the piece. In the dimmish light
Eddie sat unmoving, head lowered, so that it was hard
to see much of that sullen face. As the man watched,
the child produced a cigarette paper and a sack of
tobacco. One hand. cowboy fashion, he delibrately
rolled a cigarette and lit it, thumbnail to match;
he blew a plume of smoke across the desk. The long
eyelashes lifted for a flash, to see how the priest
was taking it. “Eddie,” began Flanagan, “you are welcome
here. The whole place is run by the fellows, you know.
Boy mayor. Boy city council. Boy chief of police.”
the jail?” grunted Eddie.
“We haven’t a jail. You are going to take a bath and
then get supper. Tomorrow you start in a school. You
and I can become real friends - it’s strictly up to
you. Some day I hope I can take you to my heart. I
know you’re a good boy!”
reply came in one shocking syllable. About ten o’clock
next morning Father Flanagan’s office door opened
and the new pupil swaggered in. His hair had been
cut and neatly combed and he was clean. With an air
of great unconcern he tossed on the desk a note from
one of the teachers: “Dear Father Flanagan: We have
heard you say a thousand times that there is no such
thing as a bad boy. Would you mind telling me what
you call this one?” Back in the classroom Father Flanagan
found the atmosphere tense. The teacher described
how Eddie had sat quietly in his seat for about an
hour; suddenly he began parading up and down the aisle,
swearing like a longshore- man and throwing movable
objects on the floor, finally pitching an inkwell
which landed accurately on a plaster bust of Cicero.
Replacing Eddie in his seat. Father Flanagan apologized:
“It was my fault. I never told him he mustn’t throw
inkwells. The laws of Boys Town will, of course, be
enforced withhim, as with all the rest of us. But
he has to learn them first. We must never forget that
Eddie is a good boy.” “Like hell I am!” screamed Eddie.
The child made no friends among boys or teachers.
And for Father Flanagan he reserved his supreme insult
- “a damned praying Christian.” Spare time he spent
roaming about stealthily, looking for a chance to
run away. He stood aloof in the gymnasium and on baseball
and football fields: “Kid stuff!” he muttered. Neither
choir nor band could stir him; the farm bored him.
And in all that first six months not once a laugh
or a tear. Soon the question in Boys Town was whether
Father Flanagan had met his match at last. “Does the
little fellow learn anything?” he asked the sisters.
he is getting his A B C’s,” they reported.
fact he’s learning more than he lets on. But he’s
just eaten up with hate.” This was not the first tough
case Father Flanagan had dealt with. One youngster
had shot his father, a wife- beater, through the heart.
A murderer - but only because the lad loved his mother.
When the priest had understood, he had been able to
work things out. There must be something in Eddie,
too, that could be worked out. “I’ll have to throw
away the book of rules,” grumbled Flanagan. “I’m going
to try spoiling the little devil - with love!” Boys
and teachers watched the new strategy as if it were
a sporting contest, and the home team was Father Flanagan.
Upon those weeks and months of planned treats the
priest looks back with a reminiscent shudder: the
scores of second-rate movies they sat through; the
hot dogs and hamburgers, candy bars, ice cream and
soft drinks that Eddie stuffed inside his puny body.
Yet never once did Eddie give a sign that anything
was fun. In summer dawns that smelled of pines and
wild clover, he would trudge stolidly down to the
lake, but no grunt of excitement came when he landed
a trout. An apathy settled upon him; he became more
silent than ever. Only once toward the end of that
unhappy experiment did man and boy come closer together.
At a street crossing in Omaha Eddie was looking in
the wrong direction when a truck bore down on him;
Father Flanagan yanked him out of harm’s way. For
one instant a light of gratitude flickered in the
startled brown eyes, then the dark lashes fell again;
he said nothing.
to the man of faith it began to seem that here was
an inherent vileness beyond his reach. Hope had fallen
to the lowest possible point when one soft spring
morning Eddie appeared in the office, boldly announcing
that he wanted to have it out with Father Flanagan.
This time the brown eyes were glowing with indignation.
“You been trying to get around me,” he began, “but
now I’m wise to you. If you was on the level, I might
have been a sucker, at that. I almost fell for your
line. But last night I got to thinking it over and
I see the joker in the whole thing -“ There was something
terribly earnest and manful in Eddie now; this was
not insolence but despair. With a stab of hope the
priest noticed for the first time a quiver on the
“Father Flanagan, you’re a phony!”
“You better prove that, Eddie - or shut up!”
“Okay! I just kicked a sister in the shins. Now what
do you say?”
“I still say you are a good boy.”
did I tell you? You keep on saying that lie and you
know it’s a lie. It can’t be true. Don’t that prove
you’re a phony?”
Dear Heavenly Father, this is his honest logic! How
can I answer it? How defend my faith in him _ and
in You? Because it’s now or never with Eddie _ God
give me the grace to say the right thing.
Flanagan cleared his throat. “Eddie, you’re smart
enough to know when a thing is really proved. What
is a good boy? A good boy is an obedient boy. Right?”
does what teachers tell him to do?”
“Well, that’s all you’ve ever done, Eddie. The only
trouble is that you had the wrong teachers - wharf
toughs and corner bums. But you certainly obeyed them.
You’ve done every wrong and rotten thing they taught
you to do. If you would only obey the good teachers
here in the same way, you’d be just fine!”
simple words of unarguable truth were like an exorcism,
driving out devils from the room and cleansing the
air. At first the tiny human enigma looked dumfound-
ed. Then came a glisten of sheer, downright relief
in the brown eyes, and he edged around the side of
the sunlit desk. And with the very same relief Father
Flanagan’s soul was crying; he held out his arms and
the child climbed into them and laid a tearful face
against his heart. That was a long time ago. For ten
years Eddie remained in Boys Town. Then, well near
the top of his class, he left to join the United States
Marines. On blood-smeared beaches he won three promotions.
chest,” boasts Father Flanagan, “is covered with decorations.
Nothing strange about that, for he has plenty of courage.
But God be praised for something else: he had the
love of the men in his outfit - brother to the whole
bunch. He is an upstanding Christian character. And
still the toughest kid I ever knew!”