Eugene Whitehead looked up at the stone facade of the Old Building at the Nevada State Children's Home and fantasized about running things one day. Big dreams for a neglected 8-year-old boy who'd been made a ward of the court, a kid who was an orphan for all practical purposes.
The home in Carson City closed in 1992, so Whitehead never got the top job. He got something much more precious: a future.
"Without the Children's Home, I would have been doomed," Whitehead says matter of factly. "It catapulted me into a successful life."
Whitehead lives today in Washington state, has a master's degree in social work and teaches people with developmental disabilities. He says his time as a "home kid" inspired him in his choice of profession and gave him a family he's closer to than his biological relatives.
On Aug. 12 to 13, he'll have a chance to catch up with some of these family members at the second annual Children's Home reunion organized by former home kids and the State Division of Child and Family Services.
A lunch on Aug. 12 will be held at 11 a.m. at 673 S. Stewart St. in Carson City, once the site of the home and now, fittingly, the headquarters of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Nevada. Sunday there will be a picnic and swimming at Lake Tahoe's Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center. Cost is $7.50 per day, with kids free.
Organizer Bonnie Nishikawa, who came to the compound in 1942 when it was still called the Nevada State Orphan's Home, expects at least 150 people from four generations of adult home kids to attend, including Angelina Basso Povina, 93, of Reno, and former state legislator John Polish of Ely.
"It's wonderful to see everyone get together and rekindle memories of their childhood and connect with their pasts," says Bruce Alder, deputy administrator of the division and the last superintendent of the home from 1982 to 1992.
For some, part of that connection will involve a trip to the Nevada State Library and Archives to retrieve their sealed records or to take a look at the Big Book. The tome, an outsized, leather-bound ledger, lists the names of every child who came to the home from its opening in 1873 to its final days in 1992.
Residents were signed in on arrival and signed out on departure, their names graphically bracketing their time at the home. But between these brackets, Alder acknowledges, lay both pleasure and pain.
"There have been over the years some wonderful staff that created nurturing experiences for kids. Unfortunately, we've also had times when kids didn't have a good experience."
And, as Nishikawa explains, there was the stigma of living in an orphanage, even though most home residents weren't full orphans - kids who had no living parents - but half orphans, meaning they had at least one living parent but were abused, neglected, abandoned or from families who couldn't care for them.
"Some who came last year [to the reunion] were nervous and traumatized. Grown men and women crying and laughing at the same time," she says. "Being raised in an institution was not easy. Not everybody has the positive attitude I have. Some children felt very isolated and abandoned, especially the younger children when they were separated from their older siblings."
This separation sometimes occurred when siblings who had lived together in the Old Building were placed in different small cottages under the supervision of cottage "parents." The cottages replaced the Old Building when it was torn down in 1963.
But for every story of separation, there's also one of success. Whitehead says he thrived in the cottage with his surrogate mother and father and their natural children.
"It was a great place. I was well taken care of. It was nice as a child to have three square meals a day, get attention, celebrate holidays, go to school.
"This is not to say we didn't have our complications, challenges and difficulties," but, he points out, being born into a typical or "perfect" family is no guarantee of a happy childhood either.
In the end, Whitehead believes, it's important that families, no matter where their from, no matter who they're made of, get together and share the past, the good and the bad.
As Alder puts it: "Like most of us, as time goes by the children from the home focus on the positive experiences of childhood and learn to put in context those things that might be negative."
If you go:
What: Children's Home Reunion
When: 11 a.m. Aug. 12
Where: 673 Stewart Street