Methodist Orphanage alumni reunite in Raleigh on Easter weekend

rstradling@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

  • Orphanage an idea from the past

    The number of children living at the Methodist Orphanage peaked in 1931, at 340. By the time the Methodist Church decided in 1979 to close the campus, that number had dropped to about 50. The needs of children had changed, as had the prevailing thinking about the best ways to serve them.

    Fewer children needed homes because of economic hardship or because a parent had died; instead, social service agencies needed places for children who were troubled, neglected or abused to find respite until they could be returned to their families or placed with a foster or adoptive family. The Methodist Home for Children shifted its focus to smaller group homes in the communities where the children lived.

    The decision to close the orphanage and sell the campus was not popular among alumni, and it fell to Rufus Stark, president and chief executive officer, to resist the criticism. Stark, who died in Durham last month at 82, continued the organization’s transition to one that works to strengthen and preserve families rather than replace them.

    In 1989, in an op-ed piece headlined “Orphanage nostalgia misplaced,” Stark wrote that removing troubled children from their homes and giving them a new institutional family on a tree-shaded campus was an appealing idea but wrong. “The neglected, abused or troubled child, placed out of home, longs for his or her own family, no matter how inadequate others may judge that family to be,” Stark wrote. “When the child runs away from the orphanage (and they all run, either actually or in their dreams), he or she will eventually wind up at home.”

    Staff writer Richard Stradling

— Most of the stories of how they came to live at the Methodist Orphanage begin with tragedy: the death of a parent, usually a father, in a poor family with too many children to take care of.

And yet many of the former residents of the orphanage that the Methodist Church operated on Glenwood Avenue for more than 80 years have fond memories of the place.

It was where they played, made friends, went to school and had their first dates. For many, as children it was the only home they ever knew.

“I guess on the outside looking in, it’s sad. But to us, it’s not sad,” said Peggy Griffin of Cary, who came to live at the orphanage when she was 6 after her father died of a heart attack, leaving her mother with six children and a seventh on the way. “We had food. We had a nice place to sleep. We had people who cared for us and wanted us to be happy.”

This weekend, former residents of the orphanage, which was renamed the Methodist Home for Children in 1955, will hold a reunion, as they have every Easter weekend since 1929.

They’ll gather at the North Raleigh Hilton to get caught up or reacquainted and trade stories about their lives as children. This year, there will be a special ceremony, complete with color guard and bagpiper, to honor veterans of the armed services who came from the orphanage.

The event is largely organized by Griffin and her husband, Billy, who has headed the alumni association for the past 18 years. The couple met at the orphanage and married in 1954, a year after Peggy graduated from the orphanage school.

Billy Griffin was 11 when he came to live at the orphanage in 1946 after the death of his father, who himself had been raised at the Methodist Orphanage.

The Griffins are devoted to the alumni association and the reunions, “so we don’t lose sight of where we were raised and what it’s done for us,” Peggy says. But they recognize that their membership is getting older and shrinking.

The orphanage closed in 1984, and most of the active association members lived at the home in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, when the children had lost one or both parents and came to live out their childhoods.

More recent alumni, Peggy Griffin says, came from more troubled backgrounds, with drugs or abuse in the home. They often went back to their families if the situation stabilized.

“They just do not have the same memories we have,” she said. “When I hear them talk, it sounds like a different place. It was just not a good experience for them.”

‘Taught you perseverance’

The Methodist Church established the orphanage on what was then the edge of Raleigh and accepted children from throughout eastern and central North Carolina. The first child, Cassie Bright, came to live there in January 1901.

The campus grew to include about 65 acres and several buildings, where children lived and went to school and church. There were ball fields, a gym, a skating rink and a single-lane bowling alley. A large bell, which today sits in a small memorial in front of the Methodist Home for Children offices on a small corner of the former campus, set the rhythm of the day.

The orphanage also operated a 285-acre farm south of the city, where the boys went to raise and milk dairy cows, tend hogs and grow corn, hay and vegetables (girls worked on campus doing cooking, cleaning and laundry). Herbert Wells recalls working as a “milk boy,” riding to the farm in the back of a truck at 3 a.m. to milk the cows and clean up the barn.

“It taught you perseverance,” says Wells, who is now 86 and lives in Youngsville. “I’ve never known one who lived up there who hated to work.”

Wells, a Navy veteran who retired after doing substation construction and maintenance work for 42 years at Carolina Power & Light, says the orphanage was the best thing that ever happened to him, even though he came to live there at age 7 after the death of his father.

“They taught you some manners; they taught you to respect your elders; they taught you to work,” he said. “And if you acted up, they warmed your butt, and that was all right.”

‘Like brothers and sisters’

Janice Meyer remembers what it was like sharing a house with 25 girls her age in the late 1950s. By that time, the teens attended nearby Broughton High School, where to other students it seemed like the orphanage girls had an unending number of dresses and skirts.

“We all just switched around, and the other kids thought, ‘Wow, you have a lot of clothes,’ ” Meyer said. “We were very close to each other. We were like brothers and sisters.”

Meyer went to college and became a math teacher in Rocky Mount and had four children of her own. Though she has wonderful memories of the orphanage and appreciates what it provided her, she says it wasn’t the same as having a mom and dad that love you.

“Even now – I’m 70 years old – every time I hang up the telephone with my children, the last thing I say to them is ‘I love you,’ ” she said.

Meyer is among the youngest active members in the alumni association, one of the new guard that Billy and Peggy Griffin hope will take over for them eventually and make the association their own.

“We don’t know where it will go from here, or for how long,” Peggy Griffin said.

The association has a mailing list of 230, down from 350 about 20 years ago, Billy Griffin said. He calls every alum on his or her birthday – still more than 200 calls a year, but fewer with each passing reunion.

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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