For the first time in its 94-year history, the board chairman of Omaha-based Boys Town will be a non-Catholic. In fact, the new chairman is also non-Christian — he is Hindu.
“I think a ‘first' is always good in the sense that there might be some stereotypes that people have about Boys Town,” said Rajive Johri, who becomes chairman next month. “This truly tells you how mission-oriented Boys Town is.”
The Rev. Steven E. Boes, national executive director, said Johri has been a valuable member of the 16-person board for four years.
“He really is an outside-the-box thinker and a great mind,” Boes said. “He's not a rubber stamp. He pushes me a lot, which is exactly what a board member is supposed to do.”
For most of its history, the ex-officio Boys Town board chairman was the sitting archbishop of Omaha. But in 2003, then-Archbishop Elden Curtiss resigned, and the board elected its first lay chairman, John Gillin of Atlanta.
He was followed as chairman by Omaha businessmen Ken Stinson and John T. Reed. Johri, who was born in India and had served as president of the First National Bank of Omaha, will serve a two-year term as chairman.
It promises to be an important period. Boes (pronounced “Baze”) said Boys Town plans to embark on a $20 million capital campaign in hopes of adding two $10 million buildings to its main Omaha campus.
“We hope to write a new chapter in the history of Boys Town,” the priest said, “and make a large national impact.”
Boys Town, he said, believes that children with severe behavioral problems often are prescribed inappropriate and unnecessary medications.
With the proposed buildings, including a residential treatment center, the hope is to perform advanced research.
Instead of heavy medications, Boes said, “the Boys Town model of self-control” someday could become prevalent. It includes teaching youngsters techniques for dealing with stressful situations — such as tensing muscles for 10 seconds and then releasing, rather than punching a wall or a person.
Said Johri: “There are ways other than drugs to treat children.”
Boys Town operates facilities around the country, directly working with 24,000 youths, double the number of five years ago. About 650 attend school on the Omaha campus made famous in the 1938 movie “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy as the home's founder, the Rev. Edward Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney as a tough student, Whitey Marsh.
The movie showed boys of various faiths praying in the dining hall, and Boes said that diversity continues today. About 20 percent on the main campus are Catholic, about half are Protestant, a few are Jewish and one is Muslim. Some arrive unchurched.
While it's interesting that Boys Town will have its first non-Christian board chairman, Boes said, diversity is in keeping with the home's history.
Though it was founded by Father Flanagan, a Catholic priest from Ireland, his close friend Henry Monsky, a Jewish lawyer from Omaha, played such an important role that Boes said he was “very much one of the founding fathers of Boys Town.”
Johri, who left First National in 2009 and lives in Greenwich, Conn., said he grew up in a Hindu home in India with a Muslim cook, Jewish and Christian teachers and a Christian nanny.
“We believe in the existence of God, one God, who is known by different names to different people,” he said. “We accept and tolerate all religions.”
He said he knew little about Boys Town when he arrived in Omaha several years ago. When Stinson asked what kind of civic service he was most interested in, Johri said, he replied “children and education.”
Stinson, who was board chairman, invited him to Boys Town. Johri visited with staff and with students, who live in homes with adult couples.
“I was very touched by the mission of Boys Town,” Johri said, adding that “its roots have been diverse from the beginning.”
In 2003, then-Archbishop Curtiss resigned as board chairman after a disagreement with the Rev. Val Peter, executive director at the time. Curtiss discouraged a national search for Peter's successor, favoring instead the appointment of a priest from the Omaha archdiocese.
Peter eventually was succeeded by Boes, a priest of the archdiocese who was director of the St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Neb.
While there, he learned the spiritual customs of American Indians. Working with Johri, he has learned the spiritual customs of a Hindu from India.
“Rajive's spirituality is one that really involves engaging your body when you pray,” Boes said. “It's something you do, not just something you think about. He says to write the name of the person you're praying for, and I've started to do that.”
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