By James Byers and Wakeelah Crutison
News Editor and Copy Editor
On Friday several alumni of the Waco State Home joined author Sherry Matthews and shared their often-heartbreaking stories about growing up in the facility, as chronicled in Matthews’ new book.
“We Were Not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home,” released in February and published by the University of Texas Press, collects the oral histories of more than 50 alumni who lived in the home, which opened in the 1920s and was closed in 1979.
At the beginning of a presentation in Bennett Auditorium, a short documentary by Corra Films was shown chronicling the experiences of several alumni. The stories were explicit and evocative. The alumni recalled being savagely beaten by baseball bats, fondled by staff members against their will and unknowingly dropped off at the home without forewarning or their consent.
Despite the shocking stories of abuse, Matthews emphasized the positive, saying many alumni had found the strength to move on from the abuse.
“This is not a collection of people who see themselves as victims at all,” Matthews said. “These are very proud, defiant people.”
Six alumni read excerpts from the book chronicling their personal experiences.
Tommy Turner, who lived at the home from 1947 to 1957, recalled a story about a brutal disciplinarian, C.B. Whigham, who savagely abused children at the home frequently. One night, Turner and his friends finally got revenge on Whigham after walking in on him abusing a friend named David.
“Mr. Whigham hit one of our boys in the face with his fist, starting an all-out brawl,” Turner read from the book. “No matter how hard we pounded on Mr. Whigham, he would not let go of David’s head, so we kept fighting. No one was seriously hurt, but we gave him a good thrashing that night. We were just tired of him and his brutality, for we’d all been on the receiving end.”
One woman whose parents grew up at the home stood up after the presentation and thanked Matthews for writing the book, saying she had already read it five times.
Scattered throughout the crowd were alumni from the home who came to see their friends, some who shared their story with Matthews for her book, like Angelina Casarez of Waco, who arrived at the home in 1960 and graduated eight years later.
Casarez said she never experienced the worst of the abuses mentioned by other alumni, but she heard stories from her three siblings, who graduated after her.
“It wasn’t all that bad, not when I was up there. We always did things. We went swimming, we went bowling, we went to Sears, we went to the movies, we went to the drive-in and the food was awesome,” Casarez said, pausing to greet a fellow alumna from the home.
She did recall living under several mean house parents and being disciplined by corporal punishment.
“They would make you bend over and touch your toes and then they’d whack you,” she said. “That hurt.”
One of the most difficult moments, she recalled, was when her brother drove from Fort Hood to visit her, but she wasn’t allowed to see him because she had gotten into trouble the night before. She watched his car pull away from the home, the last glimpse she would catch of him for an extended period of time.
Like other alumni, Casarez expressed gratitude to Matthews for writing the book and sharing their stories.
“I’m glad it’s out in the open,” she said.
“Working with Sherry Matthews was awesome. They’re very good people. They’re great. I’m glad I’m in that book and I’m glad they talked to me, and I’m glad I’m a part of the project.”
Matthews said she hopes people can avoid future abuse by learning from the past.
“The dark side of the home is a lesson to all of us,” Matthews said. “If you’re a victim of abuse, it’s OK to talk about it.”