Celebrating Sonoma Valley's 60-year-old refuge for boys
Published: Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 11:38 p.m.
Everyone likes a happy story at holiday time — something warm and fuzzy to make us feel good about our fellow man.
I don't know of one any warmer and fuzzier than an account of the first 60 years — that's right, six-oh years — of Hanna Boys Center.
This remarkable school on Arnold Drive in the Sonoma Valley will open its doors to the public today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., conducting campus tours and offering refreshments. It's a kick-off for a yearlong celebration of the 60th anniversary.
The school has changed — the world has changed — since 1944 when Father William O'Connor, who had been assistant pastor to Father Henry Raters at St. Rose Church in Santa Rosa before becoming director of the San Francisco Catholic Social Service, read the results of a 13-county Bay Area survey about juvenile delinquency.
The term itself was something new — a phrase used to identify youngsters who paid a price for our World War II victory, who hit the streets when war sent their fathers to the armed forces and their mothers to defense work in the shipyards.
When Father O'Connor's boss, the Right Rev. William Flanagan, heard the results of the survey, he and Father O'Connor went to see Archbishop John J. Mitty, who authorized an experimental program for neglected and underprivileged boys. They rented a big house in Menlo Park and enrolled 25 boys referred by the courts, social agencies and parish priests. It was an instant success, which meant that the house was instantly too small. O'Connor and Flanagan, who was no relation to the famous Father Flanagan of Nebraska's Boys Town (think Spencer Tracy) went on a nonstop speaking tour telling the story of “the forgotten boy,” raising more than $1 million to buy land and start construction.
The land they chose was the 157-acre Morris Ranch in Agua Caliente. The groundbreaking in the fall of 1948 drew 10,000 people to hear an address by the popular “TV priest,” Monsignor Fulton Sheen. Actress Irene Dunne, the first of a long list of Hollywood and sports celebrities who would take up the Hanna cause, was also in attendance.
The first building and the most important, architecturally, was the chapel designed by architect Mario Ciampi and constructed from stone quarried on Trinity Road just east of the school.
By the end of 1949, the chapel, the administration building, classrooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool and the first of three residence “cottages” were completed, and Hanna Center for Boys, named for San Francisco's late Archbishop Edward J. Hanna, was ready for occupancy.
On Dec. 4, 1949, a bus pulled up in front of the chapel and 25 boys tumbled out, eager to begin their new adventure.
In 60 years, as I said, the world has changed and so has Hanna Center. The first group of boys was young, mostly elementary school age, from San Francisco and Oakland. When boys were of high school age, they attended Sonoma Valley High or, later, Justin-Siena, the parochial high school in Napa.
Today, the 102 Hanna boys are all high school age, the youngest 13. Nearly 40 percent come from Sonoma County.
Archbishop Mitty High School on campus was accredited two years ago and last year graduated 16 boys.
Former Cardinal Newman principal Dennis Crandall heads a lay faculty with a year-round program — half-days in the summer.
There's a band and a choir, art and woodshop, a 4-H program. They field soccer, baseball, track and basketball teams. (No football. For participation in that sport, Hanna boys attend Sonoma High, as does sophomore running back Yahya Muslim, a leading rusher for the Sonoma Dragons this season. )
Families pay when they can but in many cases, they can't. The 2008 annual report shows that 33 percent of the boys come from households below poverty level. Fully 95 percent of the youngsters pay $500 or less per year.
So, without government money for church funds, who does pay the price — more than $10 million last year — for the operation of the school?
The answer is that the interest and the commitment from community leaders — of all faiths — to the Hanna Center mission has not diminished since Monsignor O'Connor first took his message to the Bay Area communities. Governance is by a board of regents and the budgets are met with annual fundraisers and events that net $3 million to $4 million per year. The program's “secret weapon,” which is the envy of nonprofits everywhere, is a $125 million endowment fund.
There have been just three directors in the 60-year history — founder Monsignor O'Connor, who served 23 years, Father James Pulskamp, 12 years, and the current “Padre” as some of his charges call him, Father John Crews. Crews, who holds a doctorate in education and is a former Navy chaplain, has been at the helm for 25 years and, after a trip around campus with him, I'd say he's still loving every minute of it.
He cautions me to remember that boys are not “sent” to Hanna Center; they choose to come. Prospective students — 140 last year — have taken a tour of the campus and elected to apply. Part of the application process is a handwritten letter to Crews telling why they want to live at the center and what they hope to accomplish. That is followed by a lengthy interview and, finally, a contract, which is signed with a reminder that it is to be taken very seriously and that their word is their bond.
Not all succeed, of course. But so many do that a tour of the campus with Crews is a happy journey.
The boys don't wear uniforms, although they are required to dress neatly, wear shirts with collars and, on a brisk day, there is a distinct Hanna look from the jackets which bear the name of their living group.
There is another aspect to that Hanna look. They are all smiling. I haven't seen so many smiling teenagers since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland borrowed a barn and put on a show.
Classes have just ended and students come to greet Crews, to joke with him, to tell him they raised their math grade, to borrow his cell phone to call their girlfriends (“Two minutes, that's all,” they are warned.) He knows every one of the 100 by name, and can recite the circumstances that brought them here.
The center's influence doesn't end with graduation. The “Follow-On” program provides scholarships, helps with jobs and housing and, in some cases, offers interim living quarters on campus.
The 34 Hanna “boys” currently serving in the military are prayed for in the chapel each morning. Catholicism is not required, but chapel is. “They don't have to be Catholic,” says Crews, “but they must learn how to act in a place that others consider sacred.”
There have been some extraordinary successes at Hanna Center and the alumni association offers strong support. Graduates have doctorates, are corporate executives, serve on the board of regents. But, as Crews cautions, success at Hanna comes in many forms. Sometimes it's a family, a job, good health or “just being alive.”
The challenges are many. The culture of the communities served has altered. Staff members are now required to take “gang training.” And everything costs more.
But the pride and the joy in the work remain. “If I had a magic wand,” says Crews, “I'd have 35 of these Hanna Centers.”
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