A Reunion Revives the Bittersweet Memories of An Age Gone by for Alumni of An Albany Orphanage
Founded in 1829, New York's Albany Home for Children was one of America's first orphanages. Its six stern brick cottages held 150 kids from age 2 to 18, with about 12 houseparents to supervise them and get them off to city schools and churches. By the 1950s, though, government-assisted programs to keep children in their families began to make orphanages obsolete, and the home closed in 1959. Today, it is a facility for kids with behavioral and emotional problems.
On this sunny Sunday, however, the America of orphans and orphanages is being brought to life once more. Sunday night, in the gym, there is a dinner dance with a reel of old home movies—and suddenly, in grainy images flickering across the screen, they are all back, shrieking with laughter in the wading pool, feeding the chickens, tending the garden, tremulously facing the doctor's needle. And, as they watch, the orphans emeritus scream out names, and sometimes sob.
For PEOPLE reporter Sue Carswell, the reunion was also a return home. "I grew up next door," she says. "I always knew it used to be a home, and I felt sorry that kids used to live there with no one to love them. I had a mom, dad and four brothers and sisters. All my life I was haunted by what these children were like and how they'd grown up." When she heard about the reunion, Carswell says, "I had to meet them." Here are the stories she found.
I liked it here. I really didn't have a home before. My mother and father were separated so I had to go to the home with my older sister when I was 7. My sister was always like a mother to me. We all slept in one big room in each cottage, about 20 beds to a room. At night, the older girls would bring flavored snow to us as a treat. We did odd jobs around the grounds to earn extra money. We always had to make our beds, sweep and dust mop.
—Betty Johnson, 58
We all felt very lucky to have an orange crate by our beds. We used to make our own curtains for those crates. We felt so proud because they were the only possessions we had.
The only thing I really missed were the school activities. I don't think any of us went to the school prom. Nobody asked us. We didn't have the money to buy a dress anyway. We girls used to have to wear these heavy brown stockings, and we just didn't look like normal people. When anyone would see us walking to school, they would see our stockings and they would say, "Oh, there's that girl from the home."
Christmas morning was so exciting. It was like a month and a half long because for weeks and weeks you'd really pored over those catalogs. You never knew if you were going to get what you asked for. They would say, "Well, it's up to Santa."
—Edna Hornachek, 61
Every Christmas we used to take the Montgomery Ward catalog and pick out toys. The boys were partial to roller skates and flashlights. With the flashlights we could play tag on the dormitory ceilings. And we'd wait for Santa to come.
At night before dinner, our house parents would have announcement time. One evening when I was 12, they made the announcement that Walter Pringle, who had gone off to WWII, had been killed. I had always looked up to Walter. That was so scary. I didn't know how close the Japanese were or if the Hawaiian Islands were down the street. But Mrs. Scott assured us we were safe.
When I was 17 and in high school, one of my jobs after basketball practice was to clean up the social worker's office. One day she left her file drawer open, and I happened to pass it while I was mopping. I pulled out my file, locked the door, pulled the shade. I proceeded to read, but I got very scared. I found out I was born out of wedlock and that's when my mother put me in the home. I also found out I had a brother Elmer, who was seven years older. I was scared, then elated—I had a family. I was overjoyed because deep down I knew in my heart I wasn't an orphan. I also found out that my brother, Elmer, had wanted to get me out, but they told him to not even come to see me. Elmer wasn't a stable person at the time. He had combat fatigue from WWII.
Eventually I got in touch with Elmer, and my mother too. After Elmer's father died, my mom got pregnant with me during an affair. She said that on her deathbed. I said, "Mother, I'm going to ask you a question." I said, "Was so-and-so my father?" She nodded her head yes. I gave her a hug, but I never pursued it. From that point on, I didn't think it was important.
—Bob Wygant, 60
I remember Miss Dugan. She would sprinkle wax all over the floors, and we'd put on our big heavy socks and skate. What a shine! The day she left, we stood outside to say goodbye, and the tears just flowed. She was too good to us kids.
—Don Ashley, 72
The coach and his wife, Swanee, were wonderful people. It was like we were their regular family. It touched him deeply when I asked him to give me away when I got married. I called him Pop before they had a daughter of their own.
I noticed the coach cried through most of the reunion. You know something? Being our coach wasn't a job for him. He really cared about us.
Never mind the tears. The reunion was the happiest Sunday of my life. My wife, Swanee, and I got interested in that line of work because we didn't think we could have any children of our own. We were close with a lot of the kids, not only Sue Dieckelmann. For instance. Bob Wygant. We'd leave our door open, and he'd come over and raid the fridge. We'd leave notes saying you can have this but don't touch that. He even told us about the time he went through the file and discovered he had a mother and a brother. One time he showed us a letter he wrote to his mother saying he'd found out where she was living and wanted to forgive her. It was very touching. He wanted to make a home for her so she could come and live with him. He asked me what I thought, and I advised him to wait, visit her first and see how things went. Which he did. When he came back, he said that he was never quite able to get that close feeling from her. He was glad he never pursued it.
—Coach R.J. Huddleston, 77
If there was one thing I missed growing up. it was love. I never really had some-body to give me a ling or a kiss. My houseparents, well, they didn't have the time. The people who understood the love concept were the children whose parents or relatives came to visit them. But there were a lot of kids like me, and we had nobody. I mean nobody.
A lot of us were so naive, we thought if you kissed a boy you might get a baby. I think we were taken advantage of. When we left and met a man. we thought, "Here's your future." We went with him because we just finally had somebody to care for us. Many of us felt like failures. Working with my friends at the phone company, I saw that I didn't have to put up with some of the things that I did. In my first marriage. I was married for six years. It's been 30 years with my second.
I tried to get a boyfriend from outside the home, but I was always called "the girl from the home." We weren't "bad" girls. For God's sake, I was put into the home at the age of 3.
I cried when I left the home. I was really leaving my family. I got married at 20 because I desperately wanted a family. something that was mine. It wasn't bitterness, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't wait to start life. We had seven babies in 11 years, and I made sure to let them know how much I loved them, even if it was just a hug when they left the house and a kiss when they came back in.
—Caroline Commisso, 59, Edna's sister
Life wasn't that bad as a black orphan. I was treated just like anyone else. I was in a safe world. When I left, that's when I went through hell. The home didn't prepare me for the outside, for being black. I kept asking myself, "What am I doing here and win am I different?"
—Gail Elliott, 51
One day at my junior high school I was in the lunchroom. We weren't supposed to make any noise, but I felt like blowing up my lunch bag and popping it. So I did and it made a huge bang. So after school, I had to report to the teacher's office. He said to me, "I think you're a very spoiled child. Are you the only one in your family?" I said, "No, I have 150 brothers and sisters." And with that he threw me out of the office. I was only telling him the truth.