Val Peter

Father Peter leaves bigger Girls and Boys Town

While serving in Iraq last year, young Marine Sgt. Eric Eggink wrote in gratitude to the Rev. Val Peter, president and chief executive of Girls and Boys Town.

“Thanks to the skills I learned at Girls and Boys Town, I'm able to lead others and teach these men how to handle battle,” wrote Eggink, who graduated in May 2001 after arriving at the institution in 1997, at age 15.
Now Eggink is back safe in Omaha and can't believe that Peter is stepping down as the leader at the campus that was once called Father Flanagan's Boys' Home.
“It's his life,” Eggink said. “He's the guy who makes things happen.”

Peter's been making things happen — expanding and diversifying the institution — since he took over in 1985. Under his stewardship, Girls and Boys Town has grown to 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
While in the public imagination, Girls and Boys Town is primarily thought of as an orphanage, most of the troubled young people living on its campus have been referred by families or social service agencies.It also has a national, toll-free crisis and referral hot line for children and parents. Assets include a research hospital in Omaha, a national resource and training center and a publishing arm, Boys Town Press.
While the organization is battling four sex-abuse lawsuits and has occasionally clashed with the local Roman Catholic bishop, its literature says 43,654 children received direct “help, healing and hope” from Girls and Boys Town services last year.
In addition to the task of overseeing the 500-plus children and all the staffers at the Omaha campus, Peter has acted as an unofficial pastor to the national parish created by Girls and Boys Town.

In one of what the Boys Town Web site calls “Father's Letters,” Peter mixes his counsel with a little frank street talk: “If you look like a ho, act like a ho, talk like a ho, you will be treated like a ho. So don't go out of your way by engaging in fringe and dangerous behaviors.”
Peter teaches and preaches moral absolutes and the famed “Boys Town model,” which comes from university research into “behavior-shaping models,” stressing self-discipline and respect.
In another of his letters, he says: “Lies decrease the love we have for one another. ... They extinguish trust and belief in one another. Lies are morally wrong.”

Peter will remain for a year as pastor to the boys, girls and others who attend services at Dowd Memorial Chapel at Boys Town Village, as the Omaha campus is known. He relinquished his duties as president and CEO to the 46-year-old Rev. Steven E. Boes (pronounced BAYS) on Friday.
The national board of trustees' chairman, former Coca-Cola division president John J. Gillin of Atlanta, describes Peter as “electric.”
“When he walks in a room, people know he's there,” Gillin said. “But the fun is watching kids when he enters a room. They crowd around him. They love him. He knows their names.”

Peter also is unafraid to protect his institution. In 1994, he filed a defamation suit against the American Institute of Philanthropy over an unflattering institute report card.
“We think sometimes you have to restore and preserve your reputation,” Peter said in 1996 when the suit was settled.
Also in 1994, Peter entered a national brouhaha between then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gingrich had praised Girls and Boys Town and, citing the movie “Boys Town,” said it was evidence that orphanages are not a bad solution to the problems of today's youth. Clinton and others derided the notion as ridiculous nostalgia.
Peter waded in, inviting Clinton and Gingrich to tour the facilities.
The national shadow of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy or others in authority also fell on Girls and Boys Town. Four lawsuits are pending against the institution: three allege that sexual abuse occurred in the late 1970s or early 1980s; the other alleges abuse in 1997.
Said Boys Town attorney James Martin Davis: “My advice was not to settle any of them because there was nothing there.”
More recently, Peter and his board in 2003 risked the ecumenical wrath of his archbishop, Elden Curtiss, over Peter's retirement and whether the search for Peter's replacement would be national.
As it turned out, said Peter in April, “The best person for the job was found right here in the diocese.” That is Boes, who had been running the St. Augustine Indian Mission and School in Winnebago, 70 miles north of Omaha.

Peter has loved his work at Girls and Boys Town, which was renamed from Boys Town in 2000 by the vote of its residents. “Ever since I was young I've loved the chaos of family life — the tears and the pain, the hope and the hugs,” Peter said.

So what's next for the 70-year-old priest?
“Oh,” he said, “I'm gonna help the kids.”

On the Net: Girls and Boys Town:

Nelson Lampe
2 July 2005


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