Home Boys

The state orphanage sheltered almost 17,000 children over the years. That makes for one big family reunion.

Jim Lucero opens the small white booklet to a crude map with black boxes representing buildings, most of which no longer stand. Facing north, he points first to a gray stone structure across Iliff Avenue and then to its corresponding mark on the map.

"That was the Dora Reynolds school," he says. Turning east, he points again, as he has dozens of times already this day. "Over there was Babyland, where I was brought in 1950." And to the south, beyond a brick smokestack "for the old heating plant," is a nine-hole golf course, "which used to be the vegetable gardens."

Here and there on the grounds of what is now called Harvard Gulch Park, other people wander with similar maps, turning around like children lost in a museum, trying to refresh memories grown hazy with time.

At the park pavilion, they stop to sign a registration book and peer at black-and-white photographs--looking for friends, and even themselves, in the faces of children who lived here long ago. Two older women stare at each other for a moment, trying to see past the wrinkles, then glance down at the name tags they each wear; with small cries of recognition, they fall into each other's arms like sisters--which, in a sense, they are.

Twenty-five years ago, the Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children finally closed its doors. In the seventy years before that, thousands of children--children with no parents, children taken from their parents, children given up by their parents--lived and played on these forty acres. This is their first big reunion.

Lucero, the chairman of the July 21 gathering, was four weeks old when he first came to this place in 1950. His mother was a teenager whose family made no offer to help support her illegitimate child and was too poor to have provided much even if it had made such an offer. His father died six months after Lucero was born, in the El Paso County jail. "Suicide," said the authorities. "Killed by the cops," said his family. But by then, his son was already a ward of the juvenile courts. Until he was eighteen months old, Lucero lived in Babyland, just another brown baby in the rows of cribs that lined the nursery.

Us girls had different assigned chores. When I returned from school, I would go to work in the nursery. When I entered the building the nurses, Miss Hicks or Miss Freeman, would say out loud to the infants, "Here comes your mama."

All the little ones would stand in their cribs, grab the railings and just shake the cribs in anxious anticipation for me. I would take the children to the playroom where we would play and I would give them a cracker.

--Mary Davenport, who lived at the state home from 1938 to 1951.

From Babyland, Lucero "graduated" to the toddlers' building, and then, at age five, moved on to the cottage for preschool boys. "We were separated from the girls," he remembers, "and told, 'You're not little boys anymore...you're going to have to start cleaning your rooms and getting yourself dressed. No one's going to look after you anymore.'"

By then, Lucero was beginning to realize that not all children lived in dormitories presided over by houseparents. Looking across the street at the modest neighborhood that bordered the grounds, he'd see kids playing outside their houses. Soon he got to meet some of them. In September 1956, scrubbed and dressed in donated clothes, Lucero and the other elementary-school-aged residents of the home were sent to nearby Rosedale Elementary School. This was the first year that state home children were integrated into the public schools. Up until that time, they had attended the Dora Reynolds School on the home's grounds, where they were taught by Denver Public Schools teachers hired especially for the job.

Some of the Rosedale parents opposed having their children mixed in with kids from the state home. Even in the Fifties, some people believed that orphans would grow up shiftless and irresponsible like their parents. And it didn't take long for the school's principal to put the "homers," as they were derisively called, in their place. Early in the term, he had the children from the home assemble in his office.

"He said, 'You state homers had better not cause any trouble, because I'm not going to tolerate any misbehavior,'" Lucero recalls. It was all very bewildering to a six-year-old; as far as he knew, no one from the home had done anything wrong. But the principal's words were frightening enough to stick with him for the next forty years.

Lucero saw that there were other differences between the home kids and their classmates. The neighborhood children would sometimes get picked up after school by their mothers and fathers. The more he saw the parents hug and kiss their kids, the more envious he became.

"I was always wishing I had a mommy and a daddy to say, 'I love you,'" Lucero remembers. "I wanted my own bedroom where I could have time for just myself. I wanted toys that I didn't have to share with 24 other kids or have stolen by the older boys."

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