Alumna reformed state home’s abusive culture


Book exposes Waco facility’s secrets

By James Byers and Wakeelah Crutison
News Editor and Copy Editor

It only takes one courageous person to make a change.

That may be one of the most indelible lessons from Sherry Matthews’ new book, “We Were not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home,” which collects the oral histories of more than 50 Waco State Home alumni.

Throughout the years the home, which opened in the 1920s and closed in the ’70s, housed thousands of children from troubled homes, giving them a place to learn and grow.

While many of the book’s narratives are warm and laced with nostalgia, others reveal a dark, previously unpublished history of the state home: one filled with neglect and abuse, often both emotional and physical.

The brutal abuses that occurred all too frequently at the home began to change when Rebecca Canning, now Rebecca Brumley, took over as superintendent.

Brumley comes from a family with a rich Baylor tradition. Her grandfather is Dr. J.M. Dawson, a 1904 Baylor graduate and pastor of Waco’s First Baptist Church for 32 years. Her grandmother, Willie Turner Dawson, is the namesake of Dawson Residence Hall, and her father, Matt Dawson, was a professor emeritus at Baylor School of Law.

Brumley graduated from Baylor in 1964 with an English and education major with a speech and history minor.

Though she was involved in a variety of activities on the Baylor campus, Brumley said she desired to be more involved in the community. She decided to volunteer at the Waco State Home, tutoring children in subjects such as literature and English. In the later ’60s she taught recreational sports such as archery and fencing during the summers.

Brumley said as a volunteer she witnessed some of the abuses outlined in Matthews’ book, but has chosen not to discuss them.

“…I don’t think it helps for me to go back and rehash what I saw when I was not involved in the home except as a volunteer,” Brumley said. “It’s more constructive for me to say I got there and knew that I had a mission and I worked very hard to try to fulfill it.”

After writing her master’s thesis on the home, Brumley decided to apply for superintendent in 1974, intending to reform the school and reverse the cycle of abuse. She got the job.

“When I got to the state home as superintendent I wanted to deliberately set a course which was diametrically opposite of what had been,” Brumley said. “And that was to have a philosophy focusing on each individual child, and the strategy to develop constructive opportunities in both the short term and the long term to live a fulfilling, happy, productive life for each child.”

Brumley began the reforms by banning corporal punishment of any kind.

“It was challenging. There were many staff members who absolutely agreed in the necessary reforms and worked diligently and happily in that direction,” Brumley said. “But then there were many staff members who had other ideas who were very entrenched in it and devoted to the previous methods of working with kids and who were either dragging their feet or sometimes hostile to change.”

Staffers who refused to alter their approach and continued to practice corporal punishment were fired.

Brumley’s reforms put a stop to the abuse and led to the eventual closing of the Waco State Home in 1979. The building that once housed the state home has now been converted to the Waco Center for Youth.

Brumley said she had dual goals of reforming the home but also eventually closing it when she arrived as superintendent.

“In my opinion, all children should be in the least-restrictive, most homelike environment possible for them to thrive in,” said Brumley, explaining why she thought placing children in homes with real families was ultimately better for their future than keeping them in a large, institutionalized facility.

William Cooper, professor of philosophy emeritus, met Brumley at Seventh and James Baptist Church in the late ’60s. He said he wasn’t surprised Brumley was able to institute reform at the state home.

“She’s very much concerned about addressing issues that are important,” Cooper said.

“She likes to see results. She’s not a fearful person at all. She’s very capable of dealing with complex issues.”

Brumley said she has many fond memories of the children whose lives she changed forever.

One particular memory that stands out is when the home staged the play “Oliver” and more than 77 children participated. The play was so massively popular the children performed it in multiple venues.

“That helped change the tide,” Brumley said. “It was a huge experience because it was so very obviously different from anything these kids had experienced before out there, and it was wonderful.”

Brumley said she’s glad Matthews wrote the book.

“I think it’s marvelous to give these kids, these adults now, an opportunity to tell their stories,” Brumley said. “I respect them, absolutely, and I’m looking forward to be with as many as can come to these events that we’re all heading.”

Larry Norwood, Radford visiting professor in journalism, knew both Matthews and Brumley as a student at Baylor. He said he was affected by the power of the book.

“[The book] tells a story that needed to be told,” Norwood said. “The stories it tells are in some cases really heart-wrenching.

Norwood said that while some stories are difficult to read, many of the accounts of the home in the book are positive.

“The book is very well-balanced, I think, in talking about good things that happened to kids and the fact that if it hadn’t been for the State Home, a lot of these children would have been lost,” Norwood said. “They never would have been able to get up to the starting line.”

Matthews will speak about her book at 3 p.m. today in Bennett Auditorium in the Draper Academic Building. Alumni from the home will also be on hand to read excerpts of their stories. Brumley will not attend the event.

Brumley now lives near Fort Worth and is the director of the Red Oak Foundation, a charitable organization she founded with her husband that gives away books to children in families that need them. In 13 years, the foundation has given away more than 330,000 hardback books. The foundation also gives away scholarships to kids who want to be public school teachers.

“It’s tremendously fun,” Brumley said, adding that she personally chooses which books to donate. “I don’t want kids to end up where so many kids in the State Home did.”