Display honors woman who played key role at Boys Town's beginning - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:05 pm
Display honors woman who played key role at Boys Town's beginning

Catherine Shields Dannehy was always a big deal to her family.

Her grandkids, nieces and nephews knew she was an Omaha real estate agent in 1917, a rarity for a woman, let alone a 20-year-old. They knew she married and had two daughters, and stayed home with them until they went to school.

They'd heard the stories about her work as an executive assistant for Father Edward Flanagan, beginning in the late 1920s. She did it because they were friends and he asked, even though it was far from common for married moms to work at that time.

And Dannehy's family always knew she found Flanagan the first location for Boys Town.

Now, due to the persistence of Dannehy's daughter, 91-year-old Mary Hegarty, thousands of visitors to Boys Town will learn the stories, too.

Family members recently attended the unveiling of a display about Dannehy in Father Flanagan's restored residence on the Boys Town campus. A large poster detailing Dannehy's contributions to Boys Town will be on permanent display on an upstairs wall in the home, which is open daily for tours.

Dannehy was one of the few women who worked at Boys Town in the early days.

“Sometimes we honestly forget the (contributions of) women,” Boys Town's executive director, the Rev. Steven Boes, said at the dedication of the poster. “We're trying to remedy that today.”

It was a sweet moment for Hegarty, who for years sought more recognition for Dannehy, not only for her connection to Flanagan but also for being a groundbreaking woman in the workforce.

Dannehy, then Catherine Shields, was riding a city bus in 1917 when she overheard Flanagan telling a friend he had wanted to rescue several homeless boys from the streets but had nowhere to put them. He dreamed of creating a family-style atmosphere for the youths.

She told him she knew of a vacant home at 25th and Dodge Streets, where Physicians Mutual Insurance now stands. She took Flanagan to see the property, he secured a loan for $90, and Boys Town was born.

That started a lifelong friendship between the Irish Catholic woman and the priest, who was born in County Roscommon, Ireland. Soon, she became his secretary at the downtown home — “he said he had a house and these kids, and nobody to help him,” Hegarty said.

Dannehy quit to raise her daughters but returned when they were in school: One day in 1930, Flanagan knocked on her door and asked her to come back. By then, Boys Town had moved to its current location near 132nd Street and West Dodge Road.

She stayed until 1958, when she was 70, years after Flanagan died in 1948. She died in 1972.

The office was arranged so visitors had to go through Dannehy to see Flanagan. She handled the mounds of mail the world-famous priest got each day, often taking dictated letters home and working each night to transcribe them, sometimes until midnight. Flanagan often visited her home.

She helped family members get jobs at Boys Town. Her husband, James, worked for the Boys Town post office at one time.

She also attended Boys Town board meetings with Flanagan, riding in the back seat while the priest sat in the front with his driver.

They wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Hegarty said.

At that time, the board was all men, so she sat in the kitchen to eat lunch. That didn't change until a woman joined the board.

The Rev. Clifford Stevens, who lived at Boys Town as a teen and now is a priest there, remembers Dannehy with fondness. They had a special connection because her brother-in-law was a dentist in the priest's hometown of Brattleboro, Vt.

“She was always a gentle, wonderful lady,” said Stevens, now 87.

She also was a strict mom and a no-nonsense person, her daughter said.

And a good role model. Hegarty herself raised six children and worked full time for Union Pacific.

She was one of the company's first woman supervisors as an assistant manager in communications, said son Dan Hegarty of Omaha.

“When she left, she was in charge of all the phones. You couldn't get a phone without her,” he said.

Hegarty's admiration for her mom drove her quest for a display at Boys Town to honor Dannehy. Over the years, she shared her cause with several people, but she wasn't getting much interest. She started to worry that she was running out of time.

A couple of years ago, she met with Tom Lynch, who oversees the Hall of History museum and the Flanagan home as Boys Town's director of community programs. He saw a perfect opportunity to launch a series on community members who were key to the home's development. Hegarty provided several family photos to create the exhibit.

Dannehy is the first honoree to be featured in the permanent displays leading up to Boys Town's 100th anniversary celebration in 2017.

The display thrilled Hegarty and a dozen or so Dannehy descendants and friends who came to the ceremony on a bright fall day, touring the home already decorated for the holidays.

“She was quite a lady doing real good in a man's world all those years ago,” Stevens told the crowd.

That only confirmed what her daughter already knew.

“She could have been anything,” Hegarty said in an interview. “She was ahead of her time.”

Contact the writer: Betsie Freeman

elizabeth.freeman@owh.com    |   402-444-1267

Betsie Freeman is a reporter covering social services, philanthropy and other topics.

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