By Pat Geiger
Most people, including my own children, feel sorry for me when learning I spent five years in an orphanage. The truth is, I was far more fortunate than those children left alone all day, many of whom never ate as well as I, nor slept in a nice clean bed, nor had their every physical and spiritual need met.
Both the city and country homes had chapels where we were required to attend brief services each morning before breakfast and each evening before supper. Every Sunday we attended St. John’s Church – three hours on Good Friday. When the children reached the age of 10, with their parents’ consent, they were confirmed at St. John’s Church after several weeks of confirmation classes.
I was very proud to be awarded a Bible for having the neatest notebook in my confirmation class. I still have this Bible in the front cover of which is my Confirmation Certificate dated April 6, 1930 and signed by Robert Johnstin, Rector. I was confirmed by Biship Freeman, then Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
The first page of my Bible is inscribed:
“To Flora Mae Hennings, April 6, 1930
From Elizabeth K. Dodge”
Flora May (with a “y”) Hennings was once my name.
We attended public school, walking to school in groups with a governess. I attended Grant School for kindergarten through 5th grade. When leaving the home seven days after turning 11, I transferred to Toner School, a move I didn’t care for. Elizabeth was allowed to remain at Grant where she graduated from the 8th grade.
There were things, of course, which we didn’t have, things of a personal nature, since almost everything was done in groups and most things were community property. Every now and then on the way home from school, we would stop at Quigley’s drugstore. This was the typical drug store of the ‘20s, complete with now- called ice cream tables and chairs with bent wire backs. Beside one of these tables was a large wire basket filled with unwrapped cakes of soap of every shape and color. More than anything in this world I wanted a cake of that soap to call myown. At the home we shared the soap which was either white or tan, what was then called common soap. Now that I can have any cake of soap I wish, what do I use? White Ivory 99-94/100% pure.
My sister and I were actually second generation orphanage residents. My father and my two uncles lived at the German Orphan Asylum in Southeast Washington when they were boys. If life at St. John’s was any indicator, children living in orphanages, at least in Washington, D.C. were treated very well, not only by those responsible for their care, but by the general public as well.
Once a year Thurston, the magician, came to the home and put on a show. Every Easter Monday we went enmasse to roll our egges on the White House lawn. One day each summer Wonder Bread, Fussels Ice Cream and other local companies took over Glen Echo Amusement Park in nearby Maryland, and brought the children from all the city’s orphanages to the park for the day. All rides were free and refreshments were plentiful. I remember the Fussels ice cream which cme in pre-wrapped squares of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate or vanilla, chocolate and orange ice combinations. There were hot dogs served, of course, on Wonder Bread rolls and plenty of other goodies.
During the school year when we lived at the city home, we went every Saturday to the Circle Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., where we were admitted free of charge. Allan B. Scott of Commerce, Georgia, who lived at St. John’s from 1915 through 1923, shares this memory. “The Circle movie theater allowed us to come on Saturday’s free. We only had to say ‘St. John’s’ to be admitted. They never seemed to notice that kids from the neighborhood also joined the St. John’s line.”
|St. John's Orphanage Country Home|
In order to attend the movies, we had to “get our marks.” This meant that during the week we had behaved ourselves and and had received no bad marks against our record. You had to do something really bad to lose your marks, but I remember one time half the girls lost theirs for one foolish act.
When we returned to the home every girl who had been on the shopping strip was asked if she taken anything from the store. It was amazing the items which appeared out of lockers, out of “jewelry” boxes, from under beds. Almost every girl had lifted something, most of it things for which they had little use.
Sister Cora lined us up to have our bottoms tanned. I went to the end of the line reasoning that by the time she got to me she would be worn out. How wrong I was. When it was my turn, she was just warming up. At age 71 Sister cora could still wield a pretty strong strap and though I realize that in today’s world taking a strap to a child is considered abuse worthy of a jail sentence, a few whacks on the bottom truly did no harm. We had committed a crime and to escape with only a few strokes of the strap made us feel fortunate. In the five years I lived at St. John’s this was the one and only time I received corporal punishment. (Sister Cora died in 1947 at the age of 88).
Of course, I was an outcast for a while having been the one who got caught. Hech’t forgave us once all of the loot was returned to the store, even telling us that when we grew up they might have jobs for us. I never took them up on this offer but I did a lot of shopping at the store over the years. This was my first and only infraction with the law; that hand on my shoulder was heavy enough to steer me straight.