The Orphanage

The Orphanage

Our neighbor Harry Puncec wrote about growing up around the busy shops and yards on Denver’s Broadway, and some of his experiences as a child there along that once-vibrant city centerline. His story about Broadway and Colfax was titled “Crossroads.” He picks up another chapter here, with a different kind of “crossroads,” coming of age in a Denver orphanage. Orphanages have disappeared, but memories remain. 

When society moves on there are few tears shed for lost institutions.  Orphanages certainly are included in that lost category.  Between the devastating descriptions of Charles Dickens in “Oliver Twist” and the recent scandals involving Catholic orphanages in Ireland and other places it’s hard to find a champion for the concept.

Foster care is the government’s lower cost answer to adrift kids.  So now we have scandals in that type of care where before there was a blanket of silence and invisibility hidden behind orphanage walls.  Progress?  I’m not so sure.

In September of 1951 my father died from lung cancer.  Within months my mother collapsed and ended up in the hospital.  My two younger brothers and I were shipped off to Mount St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, a Catholic orphanage on the 4100 block of Lowell Boulevard while she recovered.  It’s now called Mount St. Vincent’s and no longer an orphanage.  I was eleven when we arrived and was placed together with my next younger brother, Joe, with the older kids. Our youngest brother, Paul, landed in juniors where we rarely ever saw him.

Photo from SCL Health website, Mount Saint Vincent, History.

Our first meal there was dinner, which was served up in a large dining room located right off the kitchen.  Ten boys would sit at each table and the food would be deposited in large serving bowls at the head of each table to be passed down for each to take what they wanted.  Joe and I were sitting at the far end, a reflection of our status as the new guys, and finally received bowls and dishes nearly empty or containing the most unappetizing portions of food, fried chicken and mashed potatoes as I recall.  Being somewhat terrified we kept silent and hoped that we would be ignored.  It wasn’t to be.  Shortly after we had taken our portions the oldest boy sitting at the head of the table growled, “You guys dainty?”

Playtime. Photo from Denver Public Library Digital Collection.

We had no idea what dainty was but we could tell from his tone that it was something we really didn’t want to be.  We looked at each other desperately and answered, “Of course not!”  That was our introduction to our new companions.

One of the boys at the table became our best friend and mentor at St. Vincent’s.  He had arrived there years earlier after his father had murdered his mother and went to the electric chair for the crime.  At first he was quiet and reserved with us but seemed to understand our trepidation.  In time he opened up to make us feel welcome as he showed us the ropes.

Boys working in the print shop. Photo from Denver Public Library Digital Collection.

Every day we were given jobs to perform: make your bed, sweep the room, clean the bath and shower rooms, and help in the kitchen.  On Saturday morning we all reported to the laundry where all the clothing and bedding was cleaned.  The building was filled with steam with water dripped off every surface, and dominating the room was a huge mangle.  Wet sheets were taken from the washing machines and two kids would feed them into the mangle’s heated drum from the front.  My job, again being the new guy, was to peel the now dry sheets off the drum in the back and fold them for storage until needed.  The leading edges of my fingers above the nails were constantly blistered from the scalding heat.

An orphanage sounds like it must be a grim place but there were special moments that I recall with warmth.  Case in point, the dorm room where we slept.  It was typical institutional (like the Army), large and unadorned with about eight bunks lining facing walls.  The only piece of furniture other than a small table next to each bunk was a large four legged table in the middle of the room with one appliance upon it, a radio.  Each night after lights out it would be played softly which seemed to calm everyone.

Some nights it was a comedy show so we were able to relax and chuckle in the dark.  Other nights the station tuned to would play the Lux Radio Theatre, a one-hour radio reenactment performance of a recent movie before a live studio audience.  It’s hard to explain the impact it had on me.  No matter how the day went once the lights were turned off, the conversations ended, the theme song for the next program began to play, and I was transported.

My imagination visualized events from the dialog, narrator’s voice overs, and sound effects.  It was powerful!  I recall a story where two evil people did bad things and I could picture it all so clearly.  They would hide alongside a mountain road after dark and when a motorist would approach they would sprint out onto the road with a highly reflective sheet of metal between them.  The oncoming driver would suddenly see headlights coming direct at him — not realizing they were his own reflected lights — swerve, and plunge off a steep precipice to his death.  Later the bad guys would climb down (with much grunting and scraping) to rob the car and body.  You could see it all happen in your mind’s eye.

Of course the killers were caught in the end — good riddance — and I was then able to sleep.

I managed a minor revolt once during an epidemic of three-day measles that swept the Home.  While sweeping the floor of the chapel with a small hand-broom, a once-a-week chore, it dawned on me that I could pat my stomach with the hard bristles and get a temporary rash similar to a measles rash.  As the supervising nun came down the hall I smacked my gut and when she entered I complained of not feeling well.  One look at the horrible rash on my abdomen and I was sent off to the infirmary to join the other, truly sick boys.  Within a day I had a real case of the measles and settled in to enjoy three days of bed rest and relaxation.  In the end though, the laugh was on me because about then the orphanage received an order of tainted meat from somewhere and just about every kid in the place got violently ill.  The bad meat combined with the measles left me embracing the porcelain bowl for dear life while praying for sweet death.

Terrible existence, right?  Well, not exactly!  Every boy in there had experienced great personal loss and alienation.  We were equal in many ways, in the work we performed and the games we played.  We joined together to steal extra candy from the nuns and to hide out when it was time to clean up.  When escape was impossible we worked as a team to get the job done.  For instance one boy would ride and two boys would direct the large buffing machine we used to polish the dayroom floor.  The work flew by as we kidded each other and felt at home in our common hardship.  I entered there with two brothers and left, several months later, with dozens.

Mount St. Vincent

Photo from Google Maps. Mount St. Vincent is now part of SCL Health and provides outpatient, in-home, and residential treatment for children with behavioral, emotional, and mental health needs.


A Flurry of Block Parties

A Flurry of Block Parties

A herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a gaggle of geese. OK, so what do you say for parties, a bunch?  A passel?  Group, series?  However you say it, the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association sponsored block parties over the last two weekends. Here’s the story…

The idea of sponsoring individual block parties was brought up a few months ago by Doug Whitten,  President of the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association. Since we had to cancel the 2020 Neighborhood Night Out, and it looked like we might not be able to have one this year,1 a few parties to bring back some community spirit seemed important. Neighbors who would volunteer to be party hosts would be given a stipend by the Association, to cover some of the costs of giving the party. People could meet outdoors, and keep whatever distance they needed, and still take up old friendships that might have suffered under duress. All in all, there were eight block parties held over about two weekends, and a good number of people were drawn out of their homes on the recent warm summer evenings.

Along with Stanton La Breche, I hosted the West Warren Drive block party. We held it in the Dover Court cul-de-sac off Warren, in my driveway and front yard. Roger Hanlon and Stanton split the job of delivering flyers to all 80 homes along that street. Stanton put a bunch of balloons up on the corner. By the time the party got started two of them were still fully operational and one was seriously wounded. About 40 people came to the party, renewing old friendships and starting some new. There were several people who had moved in during the pandemic and had hardly been out around the neighborhood at all, meeting neighbors for the first time. We had two grills going with burgers and hot dogs, and neighbors brought potluck dishes. I am pleased to report that there were no life-threatening flareups from my grilling this time. The kids who came especially enjoyed the dessert table and bopping around on scooters and wheelie shoes that lit up with bright sparkly little lights around the cul-de-sac.

Deb Martin told me they had a good response for the South Zephyr Street party. There were 34 people saying yes, including the Mayor and some police agents that Kathy Stapleton invited. They delivered flyers in person or left on the door for everyone on their block.  There were 25 who came to the party, so there was no shortage of food. They had music, lights on the canopy, games including corn hole which was quite a hit. Deb said, “It was a fun time and we went from 5 PM to almost 9 PM. It did rain off and on but we got another canopy and we were fine. We grilled hot dogs, had turkey and cranberry wraps, and cheese and pepperoni pizzas.  It was a lot of fun, wish there had been more.”

Carol Lally and Jo Ann Greeb told me about the party hosted by Marnie Crowe on West Iliff Lane. They had 40 to 50 people come, which is a fantastic turnout for a block containing about 20 homes. As a lesson in how to do it so well, they had handed out invitations by hand and by email, talked it up in person, and sent out email follow-ups. The party was in in the back yard, patio, and inside the house. They even provided a couple of babysitters, and games for the kids. A few new neighbors introduced themselves and immediately struck up new friendships with shared interests. The grill kept busy with turning out ribs, brisket, and brats.

Janet Zietz and Gayle Gunderson had an ice cream social for the South Zephyr Court block party. They invited about 12 families and most of them came. They used handwritten invitations for a personal touch. Over in the In the Lakewood Pines East section of the Southern Gables area, Jayne Hubenka’s block party also took the form of an ice cream social. We all know how much we love our Magill’s Ice Cream, not to mention supporting our local businesses, so making that the main item of these parties was a smart choice!

The South Dover Way party was hosted by Karen Whittier and Monica Norval, including both South Dover Way and South Warren Lane. Among the 30 to 35 people attending were a number of new people meeting  their neighbors for the first time.

DeAnn Joyce of South Balsam Court reported, “Sarah Johnson and I  co-hosted the party.  We invited about 70 of our neighbors and about 50 showed up.  We had hamburgers and hot dogs, the neighbors brought the sides and desserts. There were old neighbors meeting new neighbors and a lot of new friendships made.  Everyone had a great time and want to do it again next year.” Sara provided some photos, posted in a group at the end of the article.

Filling in the area down south in Valley View, below the flowerpots, Lisa Huntington-Kinn hosted 40-50 neighbors at tables under four canopies in her beautiful back yard. She grilled burgers and hot dogs, and music played throughout the area.

We don’t know if this “flurry” of sponsored parties will be repeated in the future when Neighborhood Night Out will be resumed in full force. That project, after all, has been our “main event” and takes a lot of effort. For now, though, we are glad that the parties hosted by those who took the time and trouble to get one together were popular, lively, and fun. These events contributed to one of the key things that the charter and bylaws of the Association direct us to do: “Encourage a cohesive community by providing opportunities for social activities.” We like to do that, and it’s great when it gets so many people to come together, reinforcing our sense of community and the neighborly ways that we’re so proud of here in Southern Gables.

As Doug said, “From my vantage point these block parties were very successful. They accomplished the goal of bringing people together, contributing to the community spirit that we used to have in this wonderful neighborhood of Southern Gables.”

DeAnn’s photos… click to enlarge.