Family history uncovers Waco State Home's brutal past
By Patrick Beach, American-Statesman Staff
American Statesman, February 14, 2011

Sherry Matthews was, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "borne back ceaselessly into the past" when her research into a piece of her family's history uncovered a lot more than she was expecting. The result is out next week . "We Were Not Orphans: Stories From the Waco State Home," is a realization of an ambition she says she first proclaimed in her teens, not long after her brother, Donald, gave her a manual Underwood typewriter.

Matthews: "I was going to ... be the voice for the victims of injustice."
"I was going to travel the world and cover the wars and famines and be the voice for the victims of injustice," Matthews recalled.

Decades later, while running Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing in Austin and Washington, Matthews started digging into the Waco institution that operated from the late 1920s through the '70s, and where her three brothers were taken in 1948 when she was just 3. "Dickensian" is the word former Austinite Robert Draper uses to describe the atmosphere there in his foreword for the book, but that's not even close. In their oral histories, some alumni describe brutal beatings, sexual abuse and emotional torture.

Paul Folkner, who was at the home from 1956 to 1970, describes two houseparents who would beat boys with a baseball bat "whittled down to an inch wide, with holes in it. ... They would brag about how the holes in the bat made it catch the wind, and it would knock you up off the floor when it hit." Folkner also describes another official who "beat me so hard my (buttocks) bled."

Conversely, others say the school did nothing less than save their lives. The first sentence of Dorothy Sue Robertson Diekmann's interview is, "I miss the home."

The book presents a decidedly mixed picture of the state home and its legacy, and its publication and the documentation of abuse that the project uncovered is reverberating in Waco, where relatives of some former staffers still live.

Matthews, who describes herself as an accidental advertising agency owner, goes out of her way to praise her staff, who worked on a freelance basis, in helping her finish the book (University of Texas Press, $29.95). Characteristic of someone whose agency does advertising and marketing for good causes, she's pledged to donate any profits to the Waco State Home's alumni association.

Even with help, Matthews said working on the book while running a company was a juggle. "I would have a three-hour conversation at night around my other full-time job," she said.

Nonetheless, Matthews, 65, says this in an interview in her home:

"Eighty-five to 90 percent will say 'We're better off for having the Waco State Home,'" especially for those who lived there during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. "Most of them will say their circumstances were so horrible. ... Some of them were eating dirt."

The home was designed as a safety net for poor, neglected or abused children, many of whom were not orphans hence the book's title and thought that their parents were coming to retrieve them any day.

Even decades later, "You see the terrible sense of abandonment they feel," Matthews said. "You see it in their eyes."

Matthews' own circumstances were just as bad. She arrived in Texas with her family in a boxcar and settled outside Teague, 55 miles east of Waco, where, she says, her great-uncle put the family up in a dirt-floor shed with no heat, no electricity and no plumbing in the winter. When a caseworker saw the family's living conditions, the three boys Donald, Bing and Jack were sent to the state home. Matthews' mother, Vivian Smith, told the caseworker that Matthews was 2 1/2 because she'd heard that at 3, children could be taken away. One boy spent five years at the home, the other two, six years.

Each boy dealt with the experience differently, but it was Bing who persuaded Matthews and her younger sisters to attend a reunion in 2008. There, hearing the stories of other alumni, she got perspective on an unwelcome and undiscussed chapter in her own family's life.

That even more personal tale is the subject of a memoir she's been at work on for 15 years. For that reason, among others, her brothers' stories are not among the 57 told in oral history fashion. The project also hastened Matthews outing herself about the way she grew up, which only a handful of close friends had known before.

"I realized it's not something I need to be ashamed of," she said.

After hearing mostly positive stories from alums, she envisioned self-publishing a coffee table book for them. But after research and interviews conducted by Matthews, author and musician Jesse Sublett and Matthews staffer Beau LeBoeuf, the latter two working on a freelance basis she started taking a less cheery view. And after public records and private archives substantiated many alumni's claims, the project became much more nuanced.

"I was personally upset by the abuse stories, for my first reaction was: 'Oh, my god, is this what happened to my brothers? Is this why they never talked about the home?'"

Central to 'We Were Not Orphans' is Waco State Home staffer C.B. "Buddy" Whigham, now deceased , who is mentioned about 50 times in the book as someone accused of terrorizing children over some 20 years, according to the oral histories and other documents. After Whigham, who held various titles over two or three tenures, dispensed countless whippings, a group of older boys finally got together and gave him one, likely in 1953 or '54. The boys quickly became legends. "There wasn't an ounce of blood on any of us, except (another student), and that was Mr. Whigham's blood," recalled Tommy Turner, who was at the home from 1947-57.

"The alumni who cried did not cry about what happened to them," Matthews said. "They cried about witnessing a beating and not being able to help and the terrible guilt they felt that they couldn't do anything."

Matthews said she and her crew unearthed a paper trail exposing widespread abuse and cover-ups throughout five decades and that she has "dozens" of reports of abuse that are not in the book. After federal district Judge William Wayne Justice ruled in the early '70s that routine practices in Texas Youth Council (later renamed the Texas Youth Commission) facilities including the Waco State Home constituted cruel and unusual punishment, widespread reforms were instituted. But that was just a few years before the facility closed in 1979.

As Matthews puts it in the book: "The documents and interviews map out a damning trail of abuse and failures at the highest levels to protect the children."

"A lot of stuff is not in the book," she said. "A lot of names have been deleted. Even though dead people can't sue for libel, I did not want to humiliate and embarrass, without absolute proof, living family who probably have no idea what their relatives did."

Yet for all the tales of horror children beaten bloody, a boy with a jaw broken, girls groped, impregnated and spirited away many alums recall the home with great warmth, and some didn't want their memories corrupted with those who had less rosy recollections. The book has people in Waco talking. One former alum has been very vocal in her opposition to the project, and there were vague rumblings about legal action to stop publication.

In the book, many alums talk about the great abundance of food, frequently because they were malnourished at home. They enjoyed outings to town. A fair number met their future spouses there. Many needed the structure and discipline awaking at 5 a.m., making a bed so a coin could bounce off it that the home provided. School was rigorous, athletics strongly encouraged. Guadalupe Vasquez King, who lived there from 1958-68, calls her time there the best experience of her life. Leroy Willeford calls it "the best three and a half years of my life. I had 280 brothers and sisters."

"I regard it as a lifesaver," said Harvey Walker, who lives in rural Williamson County and lived at the home from 1944-51. "It changed my life forever. Pretty much everything about it was positive to me. A lot of the guys didn't see things the same way."

Walker said he thought the book was "a great idea. The title of the book indicates the attitude of the kids there we weren't orphans. I thought it was a good idea to get the stories written and let the public know what people who lived there thought about the place. I found out some things I didn't know anything about."

Asked if any habit he learned at the home stayed with him throughout his life, Walker laughed and said this:

"I was 11 years old, and my job was to polish the brass in the boys' bathroom. There were long brass or copper pipes. I had to keep those things shiny, and I took pride in that. Nowadays, every day I wipe my sink and faucet and everything down, make sure it's shiny and doesn't have any spots on it."

That's a happier memory, or at least a neutral one, and those like it have their place in the book. And it wasn't as if Matthews went looking to expose the underside of the home, but once she found out, the dormant journalist in her couldn't let it go especially when she requested and received correspondence between her mother and the school's then superintendent and uncovered a "horrible betrayal" on the part of her great-uncle. Again, she's saving that story for her family memoir, but her reaction to the information is still raw.

"I got the records, and I was shocked and angry," she said. "I could not stop reading it. I read those letters, and I was stalking around the house, screaming."

Like Walker, many alums were grateful for the chance to tell their stories, grateful that somebody cared to revisit a corner of the state's history that's all but forgotten. Others, including one of Matthews' own brothers, just didn't want to talk about it. As for why brother Bing felt it important for Matthews to attend the reunion with him, Matthews has a simple answer: Those years in the home made a big impact in the kind of man he became. Bing says he doesn't recall if he got whipped aside from switches on his legs in the baby cottage for talking too much. Brother Jack says he did, and one time put a pot lid in his pants before getting whipped to protect him from the blows. The teacher got one lick in and laughed so hard he told Jack he could go.

And there you have the institution in a nutshell: pain and humor in the same instant. Was the Waco State Home good or bad? Both, it would seem, sometimes at the same time. No place, no person is any one thing. And sometimes history can overtake you like a wave, whether you want it to or not.

"I think I always sensed there were dark stories related to the home," Matthews said. "And while I wanted the truth, I also took cues from my mother and brothers to 'leave the past alone.' The problem is that it never leaves us."

Nor, sometimes, does an ambition first expressed as a youth. Matthews did, much later than she anticipated, become a muckraking journalist of a kind, telling a story that could hardly be more personal. She never forgot what she intended to be, which might be one reason why she still has that Underwood that Donald gave her sitting on a shelf in her study.


pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603


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