Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

 
James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning


The Kindness of Strangers

Jim Wilson


Some 51 years ago this September, a boy of 9 entered the Oklahoma Baptist Orphans Home, as it was named then, at the old 63rd and Pennsylvania location in Oklahoma City. He was assigned a bed. A definite place to sleep was a rare thing in his life. Then the next morning, he was given a toothbrush and he brushed his teeth for the first time in his life. Clothes were provided for school and for church, for he had come with only one pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of socks and shoes. The next Sunday, he went to church and on Monday, he went to school. He was fed three meals a day. It was to be that way for nearly 10 years. He loved it; it was stability for the first time in his memory. Before admission to the Home, there had been times when he had gone hungry with no food or money in the house.

I write about that boy as if he were another person, probably because I have built a shell around that early part of my life. It is painful, even today, looking back at it more than a half century ago. What brought that boy to the Home? His journey was somewhat round about and I can’t even remember it all—but here goes.

I was born the ninth of 10 siblings into a family that never got its act together. We moved around a lot although always within the eastern Oklahoma-western Arkansas area. The time was near the end of the depression, when many families had little or nothing. I don’t know how, but I was shaped by the depression, always cautious about making and about spending money.

Mother died when I was 6, complications of hypertension; she was 46. The older five brothers and sisters were adults, some with children of their own. The younger three of us were farmed out to them. The remaining two were sent to other relatives.

I know that the older sister who took me in loved me, but with three children of her own and with her husband drafted into World War II, she could not afford to keep me. I was sent to another sister. I have tried to reconstruct my travels during those three years, but I’m not sure of the sequence or number of times I was sent from one sister to another. My adult brothers were in the Army, one a prisoner of war, so only sisters were available to care for me.

I can recall seven arrivals in those three years, being shipped from one situation to another. Some of those trips were by myself by bus, from one city to another. This was terrifying, alone, spending hours on a bus; wondering if I would be met and accepted this time.

The next to last situation was in a county orphanage in Fort Smith. We were well-fed, clothed, schooled and sheltered, but no one really had our best interests in mind.

My oldest brother was released from the Army after the end of World War II and took me out of that orphanage only, however, after I insisted on staying to finish the first grade. It had taken me three years to finish first grade, having started five times. It must have required only an extra month or two, an eternity at that age, but I still remember so badly wanting to finish that grade.

The brother who had taken me in also had my youngest sister, three years older than I, and three children of his own. He had trouble making ends meet and through a friend, arranged for me to enter the Baptist Home. My sister was to enter also, but housing for her age was overcrowded and by the time that was resolved, she was too old.

I never regretted being put in the Home and I never seriously wanted to return to my family. I did sorely miss my sister and was disappointed that she couldn’t enter the Home, too.

The Home provided me with the security that every child needs, the assurance of food, clothing, shelter and someone to watch over them. My first houseparent, a grandmotherly person, was Mrs. Standfield, and I think she probably was the best one. She read to us before going to bed. I can remember two stories, one about Lindbergh flying over the ocean to Paris and one about a dog in Alaska. We were greatly disappointed when she left.

For a while, we were left in the care of Rev. and Mrs. Ira Caleb Watson who were houseparents of the older boys with whom we shared Martin dormitory. He left soon thereafter. I believe Mrs. Bruton was our next houseparent. She was a stern, but not unreasonable person.

About this time, a building was finished for the junior boys and so they moved into it. I stayed in the same building, having been promoted to the intermediate boys group. I’m not sure I recall everyone or the right sequence, but the Tysons, the Harrells, and the Gowdys were our houseparents at various times.

The Tysons were relatively young. One extremely cold night in the winter, he drove us somewhere in the old school bus. It had a weak heater up front that never dreamed of warming the rear of the bus. Mr. Tyson put one of his wife’s scarves over his head and ears to keep warm. He caught a lot of ribbing from us about that.

We must have ridden a million miles in that old bus and I couldn’t get away from it, even after it was sold. It was the cause one of the major disappointments of my early life—more about that later.

About Mr. Tyson, one summer a group of us were repairing the blacktop road just south of the main dining room. We pounded the blacktop in, but it would not set. Mr. Tyson decided to apply some heat in the form of gasoline. We gladly poured a stream of gasoline over the asphalt and backed away. Mr. Tyson lit it, but was not happy over the intensity of the flame. Applying illogic to the situation, he poured more gasoline starting away from the fire, but not far enough. He suffered burns on his hands, not overly severe, and it taught us a graphic lesson. Fortunately, no one else was hurt. Later in life, I had a close relationship with gasoline, but never felt the need to match my wits against it.

  • Continued...

    It seemed we had more fun with “Doc” and Mrs. Harrell than any other houseparents. Neither seemed ever to get upset or particularly angry with us. Their interpretation of the rules seemed somewhat looser than other adults at the Home. Doc got his nickname as a boy prescribing rabbit “pills” to various patients for their ills. The name stuck and he enjoyed using it.

    We moved into the just completed George Cottage in my last year before leaving the Home. The houseparents for the senior boys were Bill and Ruby Gowdy. They were relatively young, only a few years older than we. Bill was very stern and thought he had to be a strict disciplinarian. Bill and Ruby came to see me one night when I was in college, to tell me they were leaving the Home to go to California. I agreed they should do so, since I thought there was little future for them at the Home with the minimal pay and no chance for advancement. I know I didn’t influence their decision, just supported it.

    One great thing about the Home was that there were always enough guys to get up a game of football, basketball, baseball, or whatever sport was in season. Plenty of space was available and enough beat-up equipment to play. Anybody could play, even the little boys, as long as they didn’t whine if they got hurt. That was how I discovered football. Even though I was small and not particularly coordinated, I could jump on the big guys and help ride them down. Determination counted as much as size and skill. That determination carried me through high school football and helped in life, as well. Football teaches you discipline, teamwork, strategy and execution. It supposedly teaches you how to lose graciously. I never did learn that very well. I love football even today and I still get upset when OU loses.

    The 1954 season was the best we had while I was in school. We had won our first nine games with only Midwest City, the perennial powerhouse, left to play. We got on the bus to go there for the game. Guess what! The school had purchased the Baptist Home’s old bus for the athletic teams. The bus broke down on the way and we hitchhiked to the stadium. My group of three was picked up by Midwest City people who were so dumbfounded that they couldn’t even give us a good razzing. Anyway, we got to the stadium about 10 minutes before the game was to start. The opposing coach would not agree to delay the game and thus allow our team to warm up and get prepared to play. We got clobbered. I’m not sure we would have won, but had we arrived at the normal time, the score would have been a lot closer.

    Another sports activity I sort of wandered into was Track and Field. This was to have something to do in the Spring other than play baseball, which I couldn’t do at a high-school level. I enjoyed running the long-distance races. At that time, they were the half-mile and mile runs. Roy Kelly and I were on the team. He became a teacher and coach after graduating from college. I started jogging again a few years ago, not nearly as fast, but I can go further than a mile. I’m proud to have been a team mate of Roy’s.

    Edith Stinson came to the home after her husband of some 30 years had died trying to rescue an electrical worker off a power line. She was responsible for the daily operation of the Home. My first experience with her was on the end of a scolding. A group of us had cut across a field on the way home from University Heights Elementary School, where all the Home’s primary-grade children attended. She made it clear that I should not have crossed the field and was not to do so in the future.

    All the kids were taken to shop for clothes twice a year to stores like, Sears, Montgomery Wards and Penney’s. Every time Mrs. Stinson took my group, we got a new clerk who was always delighted to have five or six customers to outfit. The clerk invariably added sales tax to the bill and Mrs. Stinson invariably explained that we didn’t pay sales tax. This invariably led to calling the manager who was always delighted to see Mrs. Stinson and to explain to the clerk that we didn’t pay sales tax. Somehow the attention paid us always embarrassed us, but it taught us a lesson—calmly explain your position and insist on your rights.

    As we got older, Mrs. Stinson seemed to soften, but she still could straighten you out without raising her voice. After one lengthy discussion with Mrs. Stinson, mostly one way, I saw Mr. Browning and remarked that I’d rather have had a spanking; it would have hurt a little more, but would have been over a lot faster.

    Mrs. Stinson retired a few years later and moved to California to live near her sister. We corresponded with Mother’s Day cards, Christmas cards and an occasional letter until she died. She always mentioned that she had to drive the “old ladies” when they went out to lunch. She would always write that she should not call them old, because they were younger than she was.

    Another favorite person was Fran Rodgers. She wasn’t employed by the Home, but taught us piano and voice lessons. Any kid in the Home could take these lessons and many of us did. I pounded away many an hour on the piano, not with much talent, but somehow, probably due to her, it was enjoyable. The older boys formed a barbershop “quartet”, with five or six singing, all baritones. You never heard a more enthusiastic “quartet”. Conrad Case and I joined the Young Adult Choir at First Baptist Church and he immediately became the soloist, so there actually was some talent in the “quartet”.

    Mildred Gilliam was another favorite. She drove all the kids everywhere when just a car was needed. She drove to the hospital so much that the doctors would ask for her diagnosis before even examining the kid. They would have granted her an M.D. in an instant. Mildred was one of those adults you could kid around with, and we all did.

    We all had chores to do. The young kids had to make up their beds every morning and had to clean their rooms and some part of the building they lived in. As you grew older, chores were more involved. One of my chores was mowing the grounds with the tractor. This took up an hour or so every day. One morning Mildred came running across the field toward me. Some houseparent had called to the office to tell her that I was mowing too fast. I probably was exceeding a normal pace. She had run at least a quarter mile to tell me.

    Driving anything is a thrill when you’re a teenager, so picking up trash was a chore we older boys didn’t object to too much. Each building had one or two large garbage cans for their trash. We gathered them to haul the trash to the incinerator. For several years, each building had burned its own trash in a barrel safely removed behind the building. Invariably, the grass caught fire once or twice a year and we all grabbed old towels or clothes to go beat out the fire. It always was great fun. Finally, after the incinerator was built, we gathered the trash in the old pickup and always managed to drive out onto 63rd Street to Pennsylvania, then south to the incinerator. We could have stayed on the road within the Home’s ground, but going out on a real street was far more enjoyable. There was always some construction going on at the Home. One day we picked up the leftover pieces of lumber and burned them in the incinerator. We managed to melt the grates in it, but didn’t quite burn it down. The grates were replaced and we continued to drive and burn.

    The farmers and ranchers of Oklahoma frequently donated their products—watermelons, fruit, and hay, among other things, to the Home. The older boys, with one of the men, would take the old truck to pick up the donation. One time, before we had a decent commissary, a truck-load of apples was received. The baskets of apples were set out for us to eat, and we did. Finally, the cooks and houseparents got upset because we weren’t eating our normal meals, so the baskets disappeared and we went back to our normal routine.

    One time we picked up a load of hay for the Home’s dairy farm. I stacked the hay. We frequently loaded bales of alfalfa which stacked very nicely. This time, however, we got a load of prairie hay which was slick as a whistle. I stacked it and we roped it down as usual and started home. The hay started to slide around and the top bales began to slide toward the sides. We stopped to buy more ropes to add to the tie downs. It didn’t work. As we entered on of those old two-lane girder bridges, a car entered the other end. I can see now the woman in the car screaming and throwing her arms up. Fortunately, the bales didn’t fall on them. After one more set of ropes and several more stops to check and tighten them, we made it to the Ranch. Fortunately, I graduated before going to get another load of hay.

    Mr. Browning was responsible for a number of the most positive things that happened in my life. He came to the Home in my Junior year. Most fortunately for me, he knew how to get things done. He took me to Dallas and introduced me to the personnel director of Mobil and got me a summer job during college as a roustabout. He introduced me to Dean Couch at OU who promised me a scholarship and did come up with a four-year tuition and books scholarship provided by Texaco. Dean Couch had been looking for someone whom Carl and Grace Fairchild could help through college and he recommended me. Mr. Browning took me to Grace and Carl’s house to meet them. They have been my unofficial parents now for more than 40 years. On the way back from Dallas, the car the Brownings and I were riding in had a flat. It was an unusually cold night and was snowing. Mr. Browning and I got out to change the tire, but he insisted on doing it and suggested that I keep warm in the car. I later learned that he had been stationed in Alaska with the military and was involved in keeping the highway open. It was probably a balmy night for him.

    As for me, I graduated from OU in 1960 and worked for Texaco until retiring 33 years later in 1993. I started at Texaco’s Tulsa Refinery, then transferred to Port Arthur, Texas, then New York, then Houston. Marjory and I have been happily married for 34 years and we have a daughter, Leslie, and son-in-law, Carl Watson, and are very proud of both of them.

    I know my life would have been different had I not been put into the Home. Almost certainly it would have been far more difficult, maybe terrible. As it was, strangers took me in, accepted me, loved me, guided me, and opened doors of opportunity for me to achieve a life of fulfillment and happiness. I am deeply grateful. All kids need a little attention, a little love, a little discipline, and they usually will turn out right, even when starting a little later than others.

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