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At first glance, the Rev. John Crews doesn't look like an authority figure. His leisurely pace, gentle voice and playful blue eyes, sparkling with humor, don't add up to the image of a patriarch.

It can take Crews hours to cross the campus of Hanna Boys Center outside Sonoma, where he has served as executive director since 1983. Hanna, a refuge for troubled boys for more than six decades, is a big place. The property sprawls over 163 acres, with the current campus covering 110.

But that's not why it takes Crews so long to walk the grounds. He stops constantly, chatting and joking with the nearly 100 boys who live and study there.

"I need to call my mom and see if she's going to pick me up for the weekend, but she might not want to," one boy tells Crews at the center's basketball court.

"I wouldn't want to. Would YOU want to?" Crews teases. The joshing might sound harsh if it weren't for the warm grin on the 66-year-old priest's still youthful face.

Dressed in a sweatshirt and slightly baggy pants, Crews calls each boy by name. He readily recalls which kids turned out for soccer, which boys like to draw, and which one just finished building a cabinet he's been working on for two years.

"I've never had any trouble remembering the boys' names, but the staff comes and goes," Crews said, smiling slightly.

The staff at Hanna numbers 128, including teachers, coaches and counselors, and Crews maintains the same easy banter with them that he uses with the boys.

"In the 20 years I've known Father Crews, this is who he's always been," said Hanna's shop teacher, Keith Hale of Kenwood. "You can't have an adult conversation with him, because if a boy comes up and interrupts, the boy becomes the priority. It takes some getting used to. But that is why we're here. It's real, and the boys can sense that."

Crews grew up on the move. He and his two brothers and sister, all younger, followed their father, Sidney Crews, an Air Force pilot who rose to the rank of colonel, mostly back and forth from Air Force bases in Florida and South Carolina, but elsewhere, as well.

"We also lived in Panama and Olso, Norway, and Weisbaden, Germany," Crews said.

St. Augustine

Raised as a Presbyterian, Crews became a Catholic when he started his college career at the University of South Carolina.

"I really came to it intellectually. I was in a philosophy class and studied St. Augustine. That really grabbed me," Crews said. "Looking back on it, my dad and I butted heads, and this was a magnificent way to give him the finger."

After graduating from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Crews was ordained as a priest on Feb. 14, 1971.

A colleague told him, "Ordained on Valentine's Day? Crews, can't you take anything seriously?"

Later in life, Crews and his father became close, and Crews embraced his military background, serving as a Navy Reserve chaplain since the late '70s. His father died three years ago in South Carolina. His mother, Anne, now lives in Myrtle Beach, Fla.

Crews was the only one in his family to move west, after he heard about Sonoma County from a fellow seminarian. He served as a parish priest at St. Sebastian's in Sebastopol and St. Joseph's in Cotati, and as an administrator at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa before moving to Hanna Boys Center.

His only teaching experience was a class in community care he used to teach at Santa Rosa Junior College, but he has a master's degree in private-school administration from the University of San Francisco.

The boys who come to Hanna choose to come. They're not remanded by any court, or referred by public agencies. Each boy must write his own letter to Crews, stating why he wants to come to the center.

Go to college

The same themes run through all of the letters, year after year, Crews said. The boys want to get out of dangerous neighborhoods or stressful homes, finish high school and get good enough grades to go to college.

Each applicant starts the process with a tour of the campus and ends with a personal interview with Crews. Ultimately, boys sign a contract with the center to obey the rules and achieve the goals they set for themselves. The rules that Crews lays down are simple but firm.

"I tell them no drugs and no gangs. And I have to know where they are every minute of every day," he said. "We have a dress code. And they say, &‘Yes, sir' and &‘Yes, ma'am.' "

Hanna gets 600 applicants a year. Families are charged tuition based upon their financial situation. No boy is turned away for financial reasons.

With an annual operating budget of about $10 million a year, it is supported by donations and gets no funding from the Catholic Church or public tax money. The center includes an accredited four-year high school and 10 cottages and group homes where the boys, all in grades 8 through 12, live on campus.

"Father has helped a lot of boys out, here," said Hanna senior Luis Hurtado, 18, from San Francisco's Mission District. "I'm doing way better here than I was in the city. There's a lot of support here. I feel a lot safer here."

Robert Kennedy, 18, came to Hanna all the way from Dayton, Ohio.

"Our parents made some bad decisions and they were unable to take care us," said Kennedy, whose older brother graduated from Hanna and went on to Holy Names University in Oakland.

Sonoma real estate agent Mike Caselli, who serves on Hanna's building and grounds committee, credits Crews with nurturing the atmosphere that makes Hanna a haven for troubled young men.

"What Father Crews brings to the boys, and the people who work there, is really a sense of family," Caselli said. "When you go on the grounds, you don't feel that you're at an institution."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.