Mention Boys Town and, chances are, someone will reply, Oh yes, that 1930s movie about the priest. Didn’t Spencer Tracy win the Academy Award for best actor that year? The answer, of course, is yes. But there’s so much more to the story.

In 1917, amid the tumultuous aftermath of the first World War, a tall, lanky young priest living in Omaha saw homeless boys in trouble and made a vow to dedicate his life to these aimless youngsters. A $90 loan and a drafty Victorian mansion for rent were the beginnings of Boys Town.

“There are no bad boys,” Fr. Edward Flanagan once said. “There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” And for the next 30 years, he battled the courts, the community, the odds—and, often, the boys themselves—to keep his dream alive.

In spite of a shoestring budget, the front door was always open, and boys continued to come for shelter and food, the feel of a family, and education, love, patience and understanding.

In 1921, a ‘miraculous’ real estate deal was concluded, bringing a 160-acre farm, a house and several barns together for the future of Boys Town. Omaha citizens were actively supportive and involved, raising funds to build a school, dormitory, gym and workshop.

Financial struggles were unceasing, but Fr. Flanagan met each one with dignity, tenacity and inventiveness, including the creation of the famed Boys Town Choir. He remained a ‘father’ to all his boys causing many concerns that his work would die with him. Not this Fr. Flanagan. “The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not, because it is God’s work, not mine,” he often said.

And continue it has, expanding to 14 states and the District of Columbia, serving thousands and thousands of boys and now girls since its humble beginnings.

Fr. Flanagan’s first real home has been restored and is open to the public. Graduates return to reminisce over Christmases celebrated with paper ornaments in the dining room, handmade quilts in the dormitory rooms and meals set at the table with Irish linen and red candles. All this from a $90 donation, one man who opened his heart and door to all burdened children, and a giving Nebraska community.

The ‘flyover’ city of Omaha actually has much to offer. Hiltons, Hamptons and Holidays abound—all predictably nice, especially the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel downtown. But skip down the alphabet for a more stylish stay at the Magnolia Hotel, a neo-classical 1920s building with fireplaces in the rooms.

Over Thanksgiving, this birthplace of Warren Buffet and TV dinners flips a switch in Old Town to begin holiday celebrations of ice-skating, carolers, dancing Santas at the Symphony, and the lighting of a spectacular Christmas tree at fabulous Union Station, home to the Durham Museum. Santa and Mrs. Claus greet young and old alike in this cherished tradition, begun in 1930 when Union Pacific would decorate a large evergreen for Union Station travelers.

The city has come a long way since TV dinners, offering a multitude of excellent dining in Old Town: M’s Pub, an always busy brasserie; The Boiler Room, located in the 120-year-old Bemis Bag Building, a work of art serving fresh cuisine in a patina setting; V. Mertz, for contemporary American fare; and 801 Chophouse, which like stepping into a late 1920s NYC steakhouse. For suburban options, Wave Bistro for Asian-fusion delicacies; Piccolo Pete’s, an Italian steakhouse specializing in making people (including Warren Buffet) full; and Kona Grill, for happy hour and sushi alongside a colorful and active aquarium.

So if you still find yourself searching for the meaning of the season, look to Omaha, a city that knows how to celebrate, honor and keep the spirit of Christmas.  

Native St. Louisan, Judy Crowell, has been a Ladue News travel writer for years, traveling the world but preferring to chronicle the sublime beauty of America, “from sea to shining sea”.