Celebrating Sonoma Valley's 60-year-old refuge for boys

  • 1950: Gov. Earl Warren, second from left, joins Archbishop Mitty in the 1950 dedicatioin of Hanna Boys Center.

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.

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