The grant year started January 1, and I hit the ground running. The first interview I did was with Harvey Ronglien, in Owatonna, Minnesota.
In 2010, Curtis and I did a concert at the Owatonna Arts Center. It's a beautiful old brick building, built in 1885. In the back hallways, there are many glass display cases, filled with photos, articles, and artifacts from the 1930s and 40s. They tell the story of the "State School," the state orphanage in Minnesota.
After the concert, I talked to Silvan Durben, the artistic director at the Arts Center, about the orphanage. He told me the actual building where the arts center is now located used to be the main administrative building of the state orphanage, from 1886 till 1945. He told me I should come down sometime when Harvey Ronglien was giving a talk and a tour of the grounds. Harvey grew up at the orphanage, and he and his wife started the museum, the glass display cases in the hallway, in the 1980s. So Curtis and I drove to Owatonna the next summer, heard Harvey talk, and took the tour to the newly renovated Cottage 11, where Harvey lived for many years of his childhood. I was mesmerized by this intimate look at a young life forever molded by an institutional upbringing. I told him I'd like to write about him someday.
I got the grant in 2015, and "someday" arrived! I drove down to Owatonna on a bitter cold day, and interviewed Harvey right in Cottage 11. I had read his book "A Boy from C-11," which I had bought when I first met him, so I used this as a basis for my interview questions. The book is available at the gift shop, which is right there in Cottage 11. Harvey pulled no punches; he talked candidly about everyday life growing up in an institution where there was little positive adult interaction and corporal punishment was acceptable. He also recalled good memories such as being involved in the Golden Gloves boxing program, and the one good "matron" he had when he moved to the "Big Boys' Cottage."
For each person I've interviewed, the essential question is always, "How did you get through this?" Harvey's answer was complex. He learned to never "rock the boat." Individualism was frowned upon, and there were no real role models to follow. Like many of the "State Schoolers" have said, they became robots of sorts, moving along through life without thinking for themselves. Punishment for even small infringements was very harsh. He says his wife Maxine "saved him." He had no idea how to act as part of a family, and she literally taught him how this was done. Some of the others who grew up at the orphanage are very bitter and unforgiving about what they went through, but Harvey remembers both the good and the bad. Though he still has scars from what he went through so long ago, he is also thankful that the State School gave him three square meals and a good education, in the midst of the Depression years.
Harvey and Maxine still live in Owatonna, and plan to be at the CD release concert there on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 2 pm. The CD release will be held right at the Owatonna Arts Center. The room that is used as a concert hall, in the main building, was the dining room where hundreds of kids, including Harvey, ate their meals every day.
We're also doing a CD release concert in Minneapolis, at the Cedar Cultural Center, on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 7:30 pm.
You can learn more about the "State School" at http://www.orphanagemuseum.com
Loretta and Harvey Ronglien in the living room of Cottage 11. The kids were required to scrub and wax this living room floor, but they could never sit in there. It was for "show" only, such as when visitors came, which was very seldom.
My next blog entry will be Lester Schrenk, a World War II veteran who was a POW. Somehow, he was able to survive the German Death March, marching with other prisoners across Germany for 86 days through one of the bitterest winters on record.