by Jeanette M. Neyman
photography by Laura Ambriz
Former Congressman Jerry Voorhis is most remembered for his role in the 75th Congress of the United States. His political career was immortalized by infamous “battles” on Capitol Hill with Standard Oil and McCarthyism. His cynics mocked his idealism, earnestness and social gospel. But for most of his constituents, he was admired and revered.
Prior to his tenure as congressman, Voorhis served in what he considered the most challenging and rewarding role of his life — that of headmaster at the Voorhis School for Boys in San Dimas. Acting as father, brother, confidante, best friend and role model, he propelled young boys into manhood and left an indelible mark on their character that would not become truly recognized until generations later.
Leland Lee, artist and environmental photographer and student at the school from 1929 to 1936, recalls his first memory of Voorhis. “Jerry was standing there in front of me on the vast lawn across from the chapel, olive suit, clodhopper shoes, stringy tie, unruly hair; a seeming giant, to then, an unknowing innocent. The first thing he did was call me by name and give me a big hug. It was a feeling of one in a safe harbor. Even after all this time, thinking on it fills my heart.”
The campus sat on a San Dimas hilltop surrounded by mesas – ideal for agriculture. Steep hills, deep arroyos, high knoll woods, ravines and a canyon made up the yard. It was a utopian-like community with simple and attractive Spanish-style cottages in which students and staff lived together. Playing fields for sports ensured that everyone participated. Voorhis could always be counted on to coach the baseball and basketball teams. He was excellent at the former and is remembered for sporting a Chicago Cubs baseball cap wherever he went.
Each night, Voorhis bid his young charges good night. “The words he spoke I hardly heard; but etched in memory was a warm pat on my head and a kiss on the forehead. It was an electric benediction on each of us, rogue or scholar; a sign that he valued us individually,” Lee recalls.
As headmaster of the school, Voorhis was everywhere, doing everything, all the time. He taught social sciences, coached sports, led religious services, took the boys on hikes, camping trips and expeditions, arranged social conferences, conducted choir, produced plays, wrote articles for the school paper and even composed the lyrics for the school alma mater, “Song of the Viking.”
A sense of duty and loyalty was all that was required of the boys. He was often heard calling them “my boys,” and in every sense of the words he treated them as such. “His [Jerry’s] love and interest in us was so real. Whatever I accomplished was a result of his leading,” says Earl Mooney, student from 1929 to 1939.
As a credit to his teaching, many of his students later excelled in life. The list reads like a “Who’s Who”: consul general for the United States, city council members, judges, professors, engineers, union organizers, mayors to San Dimas and El Monte, a pathologist and an environmental photographer and artist — to name just a few.
A strong but thin man, quick to offer a pat on the shoulder and armed with a ready smile, Voorhis ran the campus as a mecca of cooperation and unselfishness. He hired all of the staff himself, insisting that cottage mothers and teaching staff be as dedicated to the boys as he was. Each “family” had a cottage mother at its head. The hope was that each cottage group would stay together as long as the boys remained at the school. Every cottage had its own separate dining room, opening off a patio adjacent to the school kitchen.
Voorhis’ parents, Charles and Ella, known to everyone as “Uncle Charlie” and “Aunt Nell,” sponsored the school and managed the finances. They also helped out constantly around the school, as did many others who were captivated by and eventually imbued with the spirit that characterized the campus.
The gardens, groves and poultry yards produced much of the food consumed on the campus. Any surplus was sold to help finance the operation of the school. But, year-to-year, the school claimed an increasing portion of Uncle Charlie’s fortune.
The school had its own junior high school. Next to early childhood, Jerry felt the adolescent years between the ages of 11 and 15 were the most formative period in a boy’s life, and he tried to gear the curriculum toward the needs of that period.
“Jerry placed a lot of confidence in us, and naturally we had to live up to that,” says Richard Courtenaye, retired consul general of the United States and Voorhis School student from 1934 to 1938.
Not only were the boys taught academic subjects; they were trained in agriculture, gardening, carpentry, auto mechanics, printing, photography, music, creative writing and drama.
To broaden their experience and relationships, the older boys attended the public high school, Bonita High School, then located at the site of present day Damien High School. They were encouraged to take on part-time jobs in the community and expand their experiences beyond their Voorhis home.
The Chapel, which was the center of the campus, was where Christian values were taught. For example, there was the “simple supper,” typically consisting of beans, eaten on Wednesday evenings out on the grassy hill. The tradition originally started when Voorhis was headmaster of an orphanage in Wyoming.
“We maintained an honor roll of boys, who, during the week, had been especially good members of the family. Those on the honor roll were entitled to an outing. They could choose, within limits, what it was to be. Week-after-week, the choice was always for an evening picnic around a campfire in the mountains. I cannot remember that we missed a single week-even when the snow was deep, and the wind was howling,” Jerry wrote.
Voorhis’ love for the outdoors inspired the school to purchase additional land in the High Sierras, where he would drive the boys up Highway 395 in the temperamental Ford school bus during the late spring and summer. Initially, tents were rigged along Rock Creek around June Lake, but later years were spent improving the encampment.
“Each summer was spent raising a cabin,” says Steve Gally, former student. “This is where many of the boys learned their trade.” Provisions were often sparse, with just a blanket and canned food and biscuits — which Voorhis had made himself.
“Those biscuits were so hard that they nearly broke your teeth. We would kid him that if we threw them, we might kill a squirrel,” Al Berg recalls, a former Voorhis School student.
Voorhis attributed his mother, Ella Smith, and her devout Episcopalian faith as a strong influence in shaping his person. “By the time I was 4-years-old, I was accompanying my parents to Sunday school — in the small frame Episcopal church in Ottawa, Kansas. I grew to love that little church,” Voorhis wrote in his book, “Confessions of a Congressman.”
Upon graduation from Yale, Voorhis felt the real world lay with the people beyond the college walls and sanctuary of his parents’ home. So he did the thing he wanted to do for so many years. He found a boardinghouse room and a factory job at 39 cents an hour. At first, he worked as a receiving clerk, then later as a freight handler. He was happy among the blue-collar ranks.
He traveled Europe at the height of post World War I inflation, on a goodwill mission for the Student Friendship Fund of the YMCA. “He came down with pneumonia after offering his coat to an elderly man in London,” says Mary Glasgow, secretary for the Voorhis Viking Alumni. “His father brought him home shortly thereafter to recover.”
During his rehabilitation, he met, fell deeply in love with and married Louise Livingston, a social worker. At the call of an Episcopal bishop, Voorhis and his wife Louise started the first church home for orphan boys in Wyoming. But, as a result of differences of opinion with the board of directors, coupled with his father’s impending retirement and need to invest his money in what his father considered a more worthwhile cause than stocks and bonds, his father proposed to establish his own institution.
In the fall of 1927, Voorhis, Louise, their baby girl Alice and a half-dozen of the Wyoming boys set out to Claremont, Calif., and started constructing the Voorhis School for Boys in San Dimas.
Completing his master’s degree at the Claremont College, Jerry wrote, “I studied hard and wrote my thesis, ‘The Education of the Institution Boy.’ That thesis was, in fact, the plan for what was to be the Voorhis School for Boys. So two birds were killed with one stone of that year’s study.”
After the school disbanded in 1938 (the school was donated to the state and became the first Cal Poly Pomona State University south campus), Voorhis maintained contact with most of the boys. “I still have those letters; that is how much he meant to me,” Courtenaye says.
Voorhis also published a yearly newsletter called the Voorhis Viking with an update on each boy — now men — and how they were getting along.
If there ever were a testament to the respect and adoration felt for Voorhis, it would be the Voorhis Viking Alumni. The boys started the non-profit alumni organization in 1942. Supported by dues, the alumni maintained the High Sierras camp and met there every Memorial and Labor day weekend. The alumni members have also carried on Voorhis’ legacy of sharing, by offering educational scholarships at the Claremont Graduate School. “We try to maintain the kind of relationship we learned,” says Gene Hacken, retired electro-mechanical engineer and student from 1934 to 1939. “We have a common heritage; we learned what kind of people we could be.”
After Voorhis’ death, the Viking Alumni took over the newsletter and still maintain an update on each of the former students. As the years pass, alumni members learn of their comrades deaths with heavy hearts and sighs of loss. “This is to inform you of my father’s [Vinton Burgess] death on May 21st of this year,” says a letter written by Burgess’ son, Doug, sent to the Voorhis Viking. “His heart gave way. I know the Voorhis experience was a highlight in his life — he often spoke of it.”
One of the most jubilant periods of Voorhis’ life was coming to an end. Although politics would bring with it challenges and adventures, scattered with some moments of deep personal satisfaction, for Voorhis, nothing ever again would compare with the immediate feeling of service and achievement derived from his work as headmaster of the Voorhis Home.
“Had I known in 1936 that only two years later the Voorhis School for Boys was to become only a bright memory and its property a gift to the state of California, I am doubtful that I ever would have run for Congress.” Voorhis later wrote. “Those were among the best and happiest days of my life.”