Memories Of The Orphanage -- Two Men Relive Their Days At A Montana Home And Give New Insight Into A National Debate

Their toothbrushes hung among 50 others above 50 identical hooks for their wash cloths in a cottage set aside for boys of a certain age.

Every morning they watched the same ritual: the whipping of the bed-wetters. Every Tuesday night they ate stew, every Wednesday they ate beans, every Thursday hash or chipped beef, every Friday fish.

That was the childhood Francis R. Murphy of Mountlake Terrace and Noel Freedman of Edmonds shared with hundreds of other children at the Montana State Orphans Home, which was built in 1874.

Murphy, Freedman and a handful of others from the Seattle area are back in Twin Bridges, Mont., and nearby Dillon this weekend for a reunion of orphans who lived at the home from 1917 to 1970.

Their experiences lend some insight into the national debate on orphanages, which began when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggested that neglected or unsupported children might be better off in institutional housing.

The majority of the 400 men and women who will tour the now-closed compound of barns, chicken coop, butcher shop, shoe shop, steam plant - all operated at one time by the children - were at the orphanage in the 1930s and '40s, same as Murphy and Freedman. Most weren't real orphans; they were there as a result of families torn apart first by the Depression and then by war.

Murphy and Freedman only recently caught up with each other. Anything that Murphy, then known as Harry, forgets about those days, Freedman can fill in from the diary he kept from age 13 to when he was released four years later.

Though Murphy and Freedman shared the good times on the basketball team and the hard times doing kitchen duty or being disciplined, the men came away with contrasting viewpoints. Ask 100 orphans and each would have a different opinion, said Freedman.

Freedman has a tendency to turn up the ends of memories in a positive way. The orphans always won at the state track meets because they were fed healthful food, worked steadily and got good sleep, he said. He feels he left in 1945 well prepared for life, with good morals and good skills.

When friends read his diary they say, "You worked all the time!" When he reads it, he recalls the shows the kids saw on Sundays, the books he read, the number of marbles he won.

"May 22, 1944. The Junior League brought in another puppet show. I sure enjoyed it. I helped them set up and take it down."

"June 15, 1942. I had a fight with Don Brooks. We have to rub floors for two whole weeks all day. I played softball for a while. But I quit."

"May 20, 1945. Mother came today. I was sure glad to see her."

Freedman's memory is that his mother came often, maybe once a month. According to his diary, which he received as a gift from his twin sister, she came but once a year.

Murphy doesn't have a diary but his memory doesn't falter when it comes to some of the harsher events. He recalls little children being hung on coat hooks as punishment. He remembers being forever afraid of the dark after being repeatedly locked in a dark cloak room. He remembers shoveling snow without gloves and passing out from the shock of frostbite, only to be beaten awake by the matron.

"I wouldn't live my childhood over again for anything," said Murphy, who never had a visitor, never wrote a letter and didn't celebrate a birthday until he was 22 and had a family of his own. "I didn't know the meaning of love."

Eager for the reunion

From these two men, Gingrich would find one ally, Freedman, for his support of orphanages.

And yet as the reunion weekend approached, Freedman and Murphy were equally eager to go back.

Freedman talked about the event so much his wife warned him not to get too excited in case one of them got ill and they couldn't go. Freedman's response was that he would hire an ambulance.

"I never looked forward to anything when I was growing up in case I got disappointed," he said this week. "I'm looking forward to this. I'm going!"

In one way, Murphy and Freedman took identical routes out after leaving the orphanage. Both got work with skills learned at the home. Both married as soon as they were able and neither let go. Freedman has been married 46 years; Murphy 44. Murphy's wife, Rose, was also an orphan.

Another similarity: Both men had to take stock of themselves when it came to disciplining their children. The orphanage had to be strict. But both Freedman and Murphy came to see that isn't the only way to raise kids.

Freedman said he was "super strict" with his first two boys but not so with the next three. The change came when he asked himself, "What's going on here?" The results turned out the same. All five grew up to be "really fine men."

Murphy's revelation came very early while giving his son a bath. The water was too hot, but Murphy tried to make him sit in it anyway.

"My wife came in and said, `You're not in the home, now. Forget it!' I guess if you're abused, you're going to abuse your children. I never did it again."

There were good aspects to the discipline at the orphanage, according to Freedman. When kids ran away, as they did often, they were easily recognizable not only by their uniform of overalls and denim jacket but because they automatically said, "Yes, ma'am and No, sir."

He forgives the excesses because he believes they came from ignorance. The people in charge did what they thought was right.

Punishing bed-wetters

Bed-wetters were whipped in an attempt to cure them. The matrons tied shoes on their hands at night on the theory that they were wetting their beds because they were playing with their genitals.

The bed-wetters tried to beat the system. At 6 a.m. the kids had to stand by their beds and pull the covers back to show whether the sheets were dry or wet. But the radiator went on at 5 a.m. so the kids would pile their sheets over the heat to try to get them dry and back on the bed before the whistle blew at 6.

Freedman had more emotional support at the orphanage because he was there with his five brothers and sisters. His parents were alive but unable to care for the children. In contrast, Murphy was one of the few true orphans. He had no one.

Murphy thought his name was Harry until he joined the U.S. Navy and found out his name was Francis. He assumed he'd been at the home all his life but found in records that he'd come in 1930 at age 2 after being abandoned and malnourished.

Freedman's background reflects the classic struggle of the time. His father left his wife and their six kids when he couldn't find work in Montana. Freedman's mother tried raising the kids with her parents and then sent them away to boarding school but couldn't pay the bills. She was turned down for welfare because other people were considered worse off.

At last she left the kids in a government building, telling them she'd be back after work and that the state was their "baby sitter."

The kids were discovered before noon and spent the next two weeks in a receiving home before being placed in the orphanage.

Over the years, Freedman's mother tried to reclaim the oldest children one by one. Freedman and his twin were the youngest. The twin eventually spent her last years in high school with her mother while Freedman joined a brother at a boarding house in Seattle. He worked his way through Ballard High School by working full time at Pier 91, using dishwashing skills he learned at the orphanage.

A letter from Mom

When Freedman got his records recently from the state archives, he found a letter from his mother that had been intercepted by the state. The letter promised that she would come that summer to bring him home, a promise she didn't keep.

"They didn't want to pass that on to a little kid and break his heart," said Freedman.

Freedman went on to make his living in real estate. He never lost his affinity for the underdog, he said.

When Murphy left to go into the Navy, he had mixed feelings about getting away from the "secure isolation." He wasn't sure, he said, whether his life was ending or just beginning. He came away with the start of a career. He first learned to cut hair at the orphanage. Later, he and his wife owned a styling salon.

Though Freedman looks back more fondly than Murphy at his years at the orphanage, his feelings were not mixed the day he left.

On May 30, 1945, he wrote: "I left the home. Yippee! Hooray!"