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."
He began misbehaving. Sometimes he'd make himself sick so that he could go to the infirmary, where the nurses would give him a little individual attention. Other times he'd throw tantrums, but those resulted in Lucero being pulled out of Rosedale and placed in special-education classes at the home, where he was taught with the kids who were considered slow.
On weekends and holidays, families from the outside would pick up some of the children and take them to their homes. Each time he went off with a family, Lucero hoped it would be the family that would want him for a son.
"The worst was when I'd go to their homes on weekends for months, and then nothing," he says. "No word, no explanation. I'd go to my counselor and ask if I was going to see them again. He'd just say, 'No, no, you won't.' And that would be the end of it."
His only real family were the other kids at the home. "They were my brothers and sisters," he recalls. "We played together. We cried together. Sometimes we were even punished together. Most of the house parents did the best they could, but sometimes there was only one for 24 or more kids. Others had very little patience... they'd hear you giggle or whisper at night, and with no warning, you'd get a whipping, or they'd make you clean the floor for half the night."
Lucero does remember some good times. On holidays there were special meals, and at Christmas the airmen from Lowry Air Force Base would throw a big party with gifts for everyone. And once a year, the Shriners took the kids to the circus. But otherwise, life at the home had all the spontaneity of boot camp. Play was sandwiched in between lots of chores and studying.
By early adolescence, Lucero despaired of ever finding a better life. No one wanted him--not his mother, not his father, not the families who invited him to their homes one weekend and then disappeared the next. "I thought I wasn't worthy of love," he says.
But he had no options. That became clear one afternoon in the gym, when he got in a fight with another boy. A staff member made the two put on boxing gloves, and the other kid promptly whipped Lucero. "I was crying as I pulled off my gloves," he remembers. "I ran through the gym and out the doors, across Iliff and past Reynolds School, all the time thinking I would run away. But I stopped dead in my tracks at Warren and Washington. It was like I had hit an invisible wall. I couldn't go any further.
"After standing in the cold winter dusk for an hour in my short-sleeved shirt, I realized I had nowhere to go if I ran away. The state home was the only home I had ever known...It was good to know I had a home."
He figured he'd be a homer for the rest of his life.
The Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children was established by Colorado's Tenth General Assembly on April 10, 1895, as "a home for the children of sound mind and body under sixteen years of age who are dependent on the public for support."
The following March the first children were taken to a rented house in northwest Denver, at what was then Fairview Avenue and Bert Street (and is now 3233 Vallejo Street), while the five-citizen board that ran the home looked for a permanent location. By the end of 1896 the temporary home was caring for sixty children between the ages of two weeks and fifteen years. Twenty-one were orphans, 12 were half-orphans, and 27 had living parents who were unable, or unwilling, to care for them. Although the children attended public school, they missed about half of their classes; according to records Lucero dug up in the state archives, if any one of the children had a disease, all of them were required to stay at the home.
Six years after it was founded, the state home moved to a forty-acre parcel at East Iliff Avenue and South Clarkson Street that Thomas Moore Field had bought thirty years earlier for a farm. It was prime agricultural land, with an unobstructed view of the mountains ranging from Longs Peak to the north to Pikes Peak to the south. In 1892 Field had hired one of Denver's most prominent architectural firms, Varian and Sterner, to build a home for his family on the property. But they didn't get to live in the mansion long--Field died in 1893, his wife died four years later, and to pay off their parents' debts, the children sold the house and property to railroad mogul David Moffat. He sold it to the state, which turned it into a permanent state home. On July 19, 1902, staff members and 115 children moved to their new home.
The Field house held the girls' dormitory, offices, the superintendent's home, and kitchen, dining and laundry facilities. Several large tent-like structures with wooden floors and canvas roofs were erected to house the boys, who struggled to stay warm during the winters around wood-burning stoves.
Over the next few years, the former farm experienced a building boom. A school. A dining room. An infirmary. A boiler house to supply hot water for bathing and to heat the new buildings. Boys' and girls' dormitories. A dairy barn. An administration building. The Field home, now renamed Campbell Hall after a boardmember, was used as a nursery and for more girls' housing.
At the home, children were divided by both sex and age. Siblings would arrive together, only to be pulled apart as each was sent to the appropriate building. They might never see each other again, except perhaps in passing. Some arrived young enough that they soon forgot they had siblings. Then, on certain days, they'd be lined up for inspection by couples looking to adopt--usually just one child, rarely siblings. Younger children, especially Anglos, went first; older children were less likely to be adopted and tended to go to couples deemed too old or poor to qualify for infants.
No matter how many children were adopted, the population of the home kept growing. Soon the board bought land to the north of the main grounds across Iliff, where it built a new school named after boardmember Dora E. Reynolds. The children attended Reynolds through the sixth grade, then moved to Grant Junior High for seventh through ninth grades and South High for the rest of their education. Otherwise, the children were generally kept at the home, away from the rest of the city. In 1924, architect Frank E. Edbrooke donated his money and expertise to build a gym on the grounds that was named after him.
The children's clothes and other necessities were donated by various groups, often church-related, with supplements from the legislature. But the home provided most of its own food from its gardens and dairy herd. The children did their bit--and then some. Girls worked at housekeeping jobs such as sweeping, dusting, washing the 624 window panes, setting tables, serving meals, ironing and helping in the nursery. The boys collected the laundry, carried meals to the infirmary, cut and watered the grass, kept up the grounds, helped in the boiler house, cleaned the schoolhouse, milked the cows, hauled manure, worked in the gardens, took away the garbage and cared for the pigs.
During the summer, farmers and ranchers from the surrounding area were allowed to take boys home to work for them. Sometimes it turned out well for the boys, who might be adopted or at least kept on with pay. But at other times they were treated no better than indentured servants.
Although the home was largely a community unto itself, whatever was happening in the rest of the state--in the rest of the world--had an effect. When the country sank into the Depression, people were constantly on the move looking for work and families were homeless and hungry. Desperate parents gave up their children as a last-ditch effort. Even though the state home had a capacity of 200, in 1933 it averaged 347 children in residence.
The State Home wasn't easy. One thing I give credit to the Home for is I learned how to work. Boy, did we ever work!
I worked in the boys' dining hall. We were up at 5 a.m. so we could get to the dining hall to set tables. While the boys were seated, us girls would serve them restaurant-style.
Sometimes the boys would trip us girls while we carried the trays. If Mrs. Reibush, the dining hall supervisor, saw this she would hit the boys' legs with a radiator brush. "That hurts," the boys would cry. She would dare them to do it again. The boys didn't.
--Daniella Garcia, who lived at the home from 1930 until 1940, when she turned eighteen.
Jim Long has such an open, pleasant face that it's easy to believe Ann, his wife of more than fifty years, when she says she's never known him to speak a cross word. "The sweetest man on earth" has a name tag stating that he first arrived at the home in 1929 or 1930--such was the state of record-keeping at the time.
The Longs have visited these grounds before and gone over to the cemetery where Jim's mother was buried a few years after she brought him to the home. But this is the first time Jim Long has reunited with other alums of the home.
He was born in 1920 in St. Louis, the youngest of five children. His father died and then the hard times of the Depression hit. In the middle of winter, his mother bundled all the kids into a broken-down Model T with curtains instead of windows and drove west.
They made it as far as Denver before getting into a terrible accident. One of Jim's two sisters was killed; Jim's legs were pinned under the car. "He still has scars," says Ann.
His mother had now lost everything--her husband, her meager finances, her hope. Unable to care for her children, she took them to the Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children. At least there, she knew, they'd have a warm place to sleep and something to eat.
The three boys--Woodrow ("Our father was a Democrat and named him after President Woodrow Wilson," Jim says), Oscar and Jim--were separated from their remaining sister, Mary, and then from each other. Although Jim occasionally saw his brothers, he never saw Mary; it was only years later that he learned she'd died soon after arriving at the home, exactly when and how he'd never know.
The home allowed parents to visit their children once a month. Jim's mother came regularly--until she got cancer. "They took me to the hospital to say goodbye," he says, looking away as his eyes suddenly tear up. "And that was it."
A few years later Woodrow ran away, riding the rails back east and eventually ending up in Boys Town. There Father Flanagan made such an impression on the young man that he became a monk in the order of St. Benedict. Oscar remained at the home until a rancher took him in as a summer worker and eventually adopted him.
For Jim, life at the home consisted mostly of working and studying, along with plenty of compulsory church attendance: the Seventh Day Adventists on Thursday, the 23rd Avenue Presbyterians every fourth Sunday, and the Denver Bible Institute every Sunday. "Catholic kids got to go to some place away from the home," he recalls.
Jim spent most of his spare time in the home's library, where he read every book once and most of them several times. Adventure books, books of military campaigns in far-away lands. He recalls with fondness one man who'd come to the home on Sundays and choose ten children--"It was luck of the draw...you were standing in the right place when he got there or you wouldn't go," he says--and let them choose a special outing.
But not all of his memories are so pleasant. While some of the matrons, as the women who ran the dormitories were called, genuinely cared for the children, others saw their charges as a means to a paycheck...or worse. "If you got a bad one, God help you," Jim says, recalling one woman who, out of "pure meanness, I guess," regularly beat him with a wire-bristled radiator brush hard enough to draw blood. "If she was in a hurry, she'd just beat my hands. But if she had more time, she'd bend me over the bed and beat the hell out of me from my neck to my knees."
As a teenager, Jim worked summers on farms and ranches. One old rancher nearly starved him. But the next year he went to a farm in Johnstown, where he was treated like a member of the family. At the end of the summer, they asked Jim if he'd like to stay on for the next couple of years and finish high school. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says, then looks quickly at Ann. "At least until I met her."
Jim met Ann after he moved to California in 1940 to work for North American Aviation and make enough money to finish his education at what was then Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley. One day he wandered into a corner market, looking for a mirror he could use to inspect the undersides of aircraft wings. The store didn't carry mirrors, but the pretty daughter of the owners offered him the mirror from a compact she'd just purchased.
"He had golden-brown hair, wavy, and lots of it...and sharp blue eyes," Ann says, looking up into those eyes. Jim retrieves his wallet from a back pocket and pulls out a snapshot of the grocer's daughter. "Here's why I never went back to Colorado," he says.
Together they had a son, "and now two darling granddaughters," Ann says. Jim stayed at North American Aviation for forty years--working on government projects that ranged from World War II fighters to the space shuttle. During that time, he found Woodrow in Massachusetts and Oscar in Northern California. They stayed in touch until the two older boys died.
I and another boy ran away from the Home. We walked and thumbed our way to the State Home camp. We broke into the kitchen and had something to eat. Afterward, we settled in for the night.
The next morning we awoke very cold. We thumbed our way to Torrington, Wyoming, where I had hoped to visit an aunt in Lusk.
We didn't make it. The Sheriff picked us up and I fell asleep in the car. Next thing I knew I was in a jail. I was returned to the Home.
The houseparent, Mrs. W.R. Hood, told me to go upstairs to the dormitory. She followed me. As I leaned over my bed holding the rail she lifted my sleeper gown. With a 1/2-inch thick lacquered board with holes in it, she whipped me good. I cried, begged and promised that I wouldn't run again as Mrs. Hood beat my naked butt. After I healed, I was on the run again.
--Edward "Dizzy" Davis, an on-again, off-again resident of the home from 1935 through 1938.
The Depression ended--but then the war came. Ninety-four boys who'd lived in the home served in World War II. Three of them died.
In the years after the war, the population of the home dropped. But that wasn't the only change. The area around the home was becoming increasingly urban, and farm activities--chiefly the dairy barn and the hog operation--were phased out until only the garden remained. But a more fundamental shift was occurring, too. Through the war, most of the children brought to the home were Caucasian. Beginning in the late Forties, though, there was a marked increase in Hispanic children.
One reason for this change, at least according to Lucero's research, was that child-welfare agencies were beginning to exert more influence in removing children from poor families. In this era of post-war prosperity, Hispanics remained the poorest of the poor. And then, once at the home, Anglo babies were the first children adopted. Hispanic couples, who might have taken home children like Jim Lucero, often were too poor to meet the state's adoption requirements. In 1940, Hispanic children made up 10 percent of the home's population; by 1961, they accounted for 70 percent.
On a regular basis, people would come to the Home, look at the children and then make a decision on who they wanted to adopt.
I remember on a Saturday morning all of us girls were told to line up in a circle in the dayroom. Those girls who were not adoptable were excused. This couple who wanted a younger girl but couldn't due to their age picked three or four of us older girls, including me. We had personal visits with the couple.
After the couple talked with the office, I was placed in their home. After one year, I was adopted. My new parents were wonderful.
--Helen Parker Lungwitz, who lived at the home in 1947.
Bill and Chuck Ramsey came to the home from the Western Slope sometime after 1945. Although both of the boys' parents were alive, going to the home "was a blessing," says Bill.
The family had five kids, three boys and two girls, starting with five-and-a-half-year-old Bill and stair-stepping down to the eighteen-month-old baby. Their parents often locked their children out of the house and told them to go away. "Chuck, here, who was the next oldest, cut his arm on a window, trying to get back in," Bill says.
They were lucky to be living in the days when milk and cheese were still delivered to neighbors' doorsteps. "And that we were too young to know that stealing was wrong," Bill laughs. "We were just trying to survive."
One day the children's parents took the five kids to a babysitter--an unusual event in and of itself. A few hours later a woman arrived in a blue car. The parents had been deemed unfit, and she was with child welfare. She packed the kids into her car and drove them to the state home.
The three youngest children were quickly adopted. "Chuck and I were kept together at the home," Bill says. "To us, it was heaven--three meals a day, a place to sleep. There was stability, if not love.
"Life at the home was good. Sure, we were disciplined, but never beaten. One matron used to catch us talking at night and put us in her closet. About the fifth time she did that, I pulled all of her clothes down on her head...For some reason," Bill laughs again, "she never seemed to hear us talking after that."
After several years at the home, the boys were adopted. The couple had wanted younger children but settled for Bill and Chuck. Bill, who had looked after his siblings, had an independent streak that frustrated his new father, and he left home at sixteen.
"I was better off at the home than with either my birth parents or my adoptive parents," says Bill. "Life was tough at the home; there wasn't a lot of nurturing, but we were treated fairly and given what we needed to make our own way in the world."
Bill went on to earn a college degree and became a salesman in Colorado Springs. Chuck, a teacher in Jefferson County, got his master's degree--even though their adoptive parents "ridiculed him and said he wasn't smart enough to go to college," his brother says.
Bill and Chuck both became family men, although they admit that their experiences probably made them too lenient with their own children. Together they found their other brother and one sister, Ruth, who lives in Commerce City. But so far, they've been unable to locate their second sister, because the records of her adoption remain sealed.
The siblings also decided to try to locate their parents. In part, it's to learn their medical history, "in case there's something we should be aware of," Bill says. But there's a more important reason.
"Every one of us here," he says, gesturing to the reunion crowd, "is looking for some sense of closure. Who are we? Where do we come from? We can't go back to our childhood and do it over again, but it'd be nice to know who they were, what they thought when we were taken away, and what made them treat us like they did."
After Governor Daniel Thornton received a complaint letter in July 1951, the state home itself came under fire for mistreating kids. Like a ransom note, the letter consisted of words cut from magazines and newspapers and then taped to the page, so that authorities would not be able to identify the authors by their handwriting.
"Special attention Governor Thornton," it began. "Please help us girls here in the state home. We're called bad names and Mrs. Marshell...she beats us...she make Lucille Bolegett get undressed naked and brutal beat her and Mrs. Marshell put her finger in the girl and said she a no good prostitute...On the outside when children are mistreated someone will report it. Here nobody gives a dam. Do you?"
Both Denver dailies launched investigations. The controversy reached its peak in 1953, when the home's superintendent was pressured to resign. But that didn't end the scrutiny. According to one mid-Fifties report to the Colorado Legislature, "As years passed, the Home became a depository for children neither readily adoptable nor permanently placeable, because of mental and physical defects, emotional traits, or race, or religion."
In an attempt to keep up with changing times, the institution's name was changed to the Colorado State Children's Home, and a new boys' dormitory was added in 1957. But the end was in sight. Orphanages had fallen out of favor.
In 1959 the state ordered a comprehensive study of the home, and two of its recommendations subsequently became law. One was to discontinue the home's adoption program, and the other prohibited the admission of children under age seven. As a result, the home's population began shrinking rapidly. Between 1958 and 1959, 220 children had been admitted; between 1962 and 1963, only 34 children were brought to the home.
In 1967 the Colorado Legislature enacted the Colorado Children's Code, which established a judicial category called Children in Need of Supervision. It also again changed the name of the state home, which had been placed under the auspices of the state Division of Youth Services six years earlier, to the Colorado Youth Center.
But there were fewer and fewer youths who lived there. Finally, the institution was closed in July 1971. Over the 75 years of its existence, it had been home to 16,971 children.
Each one had a story.
Ann Riles looks around at the other alumni laughing and sharing memories of their old home. "I hate this place," she says. She was six months old when she was taken from her parents and placed in the home in 1949. "The courts decided they were unfit," she says, "but what sent my mom to a mental institution was losing her kids."
Life at the home was as good as your houseparent. "Some were understanding and tried their best," Riles recalls. "But I had one who was cruel. She made us stand bent over in the hall with our hands behind our back and beat us with a belt...Sometimes she made us stay there for hours.
"It was a lonely place to grow up," she continues. "There was no one to tuck you in at night, no one to say 'I love you,' no one to talk to as you grew up or be there for you as a mother...I saw my mother once a month."
And while the staff used children to do much of the work, she says, they weren't given jobs that might have helped them in the future, "like how to cook."
Like most alumni with children, Riles concedes that when it comes to her own kids, "I overcompensate, spoil them rotten...give them too much love, if there's any such thing. I wanted them to never know the horror of loneliness."
She looks around and wrinkles her nose. "I'm glad this place is gone."
Two years after the home closed, the Denver Police Department's SWAT and canine-team headquarters moved into the Edbrooke Gym. Most of the other buildings were boarded up, then torn down in 1979. In 1982 a nine-hole golf course was built on the grounds where orphans had once grown corn, beans and squash. The boiler house was renovated and turned into a pro shop. Black-and-white photographs of the home's residents--clothed in outfits from many eras--still decorate the walls there, although few visitors realize the significance. The former Field family home had been recommended for historic designation, but in 1987 vandals started a fire that all but destroyed the building. It was razed two years later.
In 1995 Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich resurrected the notion of orphanages as viable options. Such institutions were certainly better for kids than living in single-parent homes rife with drugs and child abuse, he argued. Not surprisingly, the left scoffed at Gingrich's contention. After all, anyone who'd ever seen Oliver knew that orphanages were inhumane.
A year later, however, an economist at the University of California at Irvine named Richard McKenzie wrote an impassioned defense of orphanages. He was in a unique position to do so: The son of hardcore and abusive alcoholics, he was young when his father walked out and his mother committed suicide. Constantly truant and in trouble with the law, he was headed nowhere fast when he was placed in a rural North Carolina orphanage known as "The Home."
That also became the title of the book that resulted from his survey of 1,600 former residents of orphanages. It turned out, McKenzie says, that many of the alumni of these institutions were doing better than the general population.
"Clearly, orphanages were imperfect institutions," McKenzie wrote. "No doubt, some were pretty bad places, and all orphanages failed some of their charges. However, the 'batting average' for many orphanages was astonishingly high.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the orphans, all of whom are now middle-aged or older, report a high school graduation rate that is 17 percent above their peers in the general white population. They have a college graduation rate nearly two-fifths higher than their counterparts, and they have a substantially higher percentage of master's, professional and doctorate degrees...
"Granted, there may be some biases in the data. The respondents do not, and could not, represent a random sample of all orphans. At the same time, there is another downward bias that critics might be reluctant to acknowledge: The survey was among a subgroup of Americans who, if the orphanage criticisms are to be taken seriously, should have done far worse than the general population. The orphans attribute their better-than-average records to the moral and religious values, work ethic, sense of responsibility and encouragement they were given at their homes.
"By constantly resurrecting memorable images of Oliver Twist begging for food, critics of orphanages ensure that even bad family circumstances appear better than long-term stays in orphanages. The critics don't seem to get it; many orphanages were pretty good places, certainly better than the destructive homes (traditional and foster) many of them left. A necessary step in setting a sane new direction for child care is to set aside misconceptions about orphanages. Orphanage care was not always the best of care (as if it could be), but it was a saving grace for hordes of children in the past."
After Jim Lucero spotted a column by McKenzie in the Rocky Mountain News this May, he sent the paper a letter with information about the upcoming reunion. Because all records from the state home are sealed, there was no way to obtain a list of former residents, much less their current addresses, so Lucero had to rely on advertising and his letter to the News to get the word out. Even so, calls were soon coming in from all over the state and across the country.
Lucero had finally left the state home when he was fourteen and was placed with a foster family. There, for the first time in his life, he received constant encouragement and affection. His foster parents, using their own money, placed him in a private school for two years so that he could catch up with his peers. When he was ready, he transferred to Alameda High School, from which he graduated with good grades and renewed self-esteem.
Out of high school, Lucero joined the Army and saw duty in Vietnam and Germany before returning to the United States. He enrolled in college and started a business cleaning office buildings.
One day he received a shocking telephone call: It was his mother.
Until that point, Lucero hadn't known who she was or even if she was alive. He agreed to meet her. She tried to explain what had happened, that she was young and unmarried with no support--but he wasn't ready to forgive. Crying, he blamed her for abandoning him. He asked her not to call again.
But in 1991 Lucero had a change of heart--and a change of direction. He gave up his cleaning business and became an anti-abortion activist in Wichita, helping to run a support center for women who'd been persuaded to carry their children to term and then either give them up for adoption or keep them.
"My experiences had convinced me that all human beings have value, even unborn human beings," he says. "My mother was no different than many of these girls. I was an unwanted pregnancy, too, but at least she gave me a chance to live."
He was now overcome by a powerful urge to reconcile with his mother. He realized she'd had no choice other than abortion, and he was grateful she had given him to the orphanage instead. This time he initiated the call, and they forged a friendship.
Over the years, Lucero had kept in touch with other homers. For a while, they had been his only family, his true brothers and sisters. He and some of the homers were sitting around a few years ago, reminiscing, when the idea of a reunion came up. "If we're going to do it," Lucero remembers saying, "let's do it big."
He wanted more than just a gathering of people with a common address. He wanted to give them something--a past, a history, the sort of legacy non-orphans had. So he began to research the history of the home and put together a small booklet of photographs and maps of buildings that no longer stand, spiced with remembrances of homers.
"Other people know their roots...who their grandparents are, where they came from," he says. "Many of us don't, although I was lucky in the end and found my mother. This research was our genealogy, our history, all the way back to 1896...even though the generations separate us, all these thousands of children were our family."
On July 21 more than 400 members of this family, former residents of the home and a few staffers, gathered at the park. They spent the day wandering the grounds, talking, hugging and promising to stay in touch. And then they were gone, scattering back to their homes and new families.
Lucero looked around. The sun was setting, lighting up the windows of the remaining boys' dormitory, where he'd once prayed to find a family--not realizing until much later that he already had one...a very large one.
Walking from the infirmary past the Edbrooke Gym to the Main Office, I looked around at the State Home grounds. The buildings were the same as I had always known them, but the place was empty of people.
The boys playground was now gone. In my mind, I could see the swings, merry-go-round, the teeter totters, rings, the monkey bars and slide. In my mind, I could still hear us boys yelling and playing. Now...everything is silent. There is a stillness on the State Home grounds. No more children yelling and playing.
The front porches of...the buildings stand empty. No more teen-age girls and boys sitting on the front steps visiting and laughing.
I know this was for good. I was leaving the State Home. After checking out of the office for the final time, I loaded my two suitcases into the state car...I felt like crying, but I couldn't.
--Phillip Montoya, who arrived at the home in 1953 and was the last child to leave in July 1971.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.