This article was originally published in 2017.

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The five boys in the photo look like they are 10 or 11.

Their clothes are dirty and tattered and their shoes are scuffed and worn.

And around Boys Town, they are simply referred to as the “first five.”

A century ago, with a borrowed $90, Father Edward Flanagan rented a run-down Victorian mansion at 25th and Dodge Streets in Omaha and officially opened his boys home to five children assigned to him by the court.

Soon after the opening, a picture was taken of five of the boys living at the home, and the famous photo was born.

So was a bit of a mystery.

Boys poured in after that opening day and the record keeping wasn’t good in those first weeks. So Boys Town has never known for certain the identities of the first five, said Tom Lynch, Boys Town historian.

Lynch said the identities of the five boys will probably never be known for certain, but as the organization marks its 100th anniversary this year, the photo takes on even greater significance as a reminder of its mission of serving children and families.

“That image was always very important to Father Flanagan,” Lynch said. “He looked at the photo as representing all the boys.”

The picture has been an important image for Boys Town over the years, popping up in brochures, posters, histories and other materials about the campus, including a recently published centennial book.

Lynch said he believes the boys in the photo were the first five — or at least among the very first — to reside at the home.

Founded as a children’s home, Boys Town has changed over the years into one of the largest nonprofit child services and health care organizations in the country.

During the past decades, family members of former Boys Town residents have thought their father, grandfather or relative was one of the boys in the photo, which is reproduced in near life-size at the campus museum called the Hall of History.

When Darlene Divis looks at the boy on the far right in the photo of the first five, she sees her father John Kresse.

Divis said her dad grew up poor in Omaha and was 12 years old when he was sent to live at Flanagan’s boys home because of a truancy.

In the years after, her father became a farmer near Brainard, Nebraska, married and raised a family.

Divis said her father told the family he was one of the first five boys, and the distinction was even mentioned in a news wire obituary that appeared in The World-Herald when he died in January 1985.

Divis said her dad didn’t talk much about his time at Boys Town and was a little embarrassed about why he was sent there.

She said Boys Town was good for her father and he proved how people can change their lives.

“He had a rough life, and he turned his life around,” she said.

Lynch, the Boys Town historian, said Divis’ father lived there during its early days, but can’t say definitively he’s in the photo.

Lynch said Flanagan unknowingly added to the confusion about the identities of the boys in the photo when he wrote his autobiography in the early 1940s.

Flanagan wanted to include the photo in the book and assigned a name to each boy after researching Boys Town records, Lynch said. Divis’ father is on that list, Lynch said.

But through additional research for another book about Flanagan, a second list of five different names for the boys in the photo was pulled together, Lynch said.

So starting in the 1940s, two different lists of names circulated.

Lynch said all the boys on both lists lived at Boys Town in its early days. But Lynch said his own research has shown that there are discrepancies with the dates that the boys lived there, which is partly why Boys Town cannot definitively name the boys in the photo.

Brothers William and Steve Sudyka are on the second list of names.

But Steve Sudyka’s son, Stephen, has looked at the photo and does not see his father or uncle in the picture.

Stephen Sudyka, who lives in Westminster, California, said his dad and uncle died in the 1970s and that his father recalled the photo, but not being in it.

Sudyka said his father, who moved to California in the 1940s and became a butcher, had good memories of Boys Town and described Flanagan as tough but kind.

Sudyka said even though he doesn’t think his dad is in the photo, he’s proud that his father was part of Boys Town’s roots.

“It’s part of my heritage,” he said.

Lynch said that in some ways the growth and success of Boys Town over the decades started with the photo of the five boys.

Flanagan had a natural instinct for marketing, Lynch said, and knew photos would be a powerful way to share Boys Town’s message, draw community support and attract donations.

So Flanagan hired local photographer Louis Bostwick to chronicle the early months of Boys Town.

Bostwick took several dozen photos for Boys Town, including the one of the five boys, Lynch said. He said it was the first photo taken of any of the boys living there.

Bostwick, who also played an important role capturing Omaha’s history from about 1900 to the early 1940s, was known for producing compelling photos with razor-sharp clarity, even though he used a camera primitive by today’s standards.

Lynch said Flanagan’s attachment to the photo of the first five never faded.

“Boys Town is a family and a family takes photographs,” Lynch said. “He considered them all his children.”

Photos: Boys Town through the years

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