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A Man to Lean On

Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town

The bedrooms on the second floor of the large brick house at 525 Maher Circle are changed the moment-Lawrence Burton walks through their doors. He brings a seriousness with him. The posters on the walls are of Michael Jordan dunking basketballs and of airplanes flying through the sky and of race cars taking high-banked turns, but now there is a man in one of the rooms. He stands amid the Legos and magazines and adolescent daydreams and insecurities. A man talks with a boy.

"You had your head down at dinner," Burton says. "Was there something wrong, Raymond? Did something happen at wrestling practice?"

"I hurt my knee," the boy says.

"How did you hurt your knee?"

"I moved one way, and my knee didn't move with me. I heard a crackle in there. The coach had me put some ice on it."

The dishes have been washed and put back into the cupboard. The duties and domestic pleasures of the night have begun. Homework. A favorite television show. Reading. A game of pool. Whatever. Every morning a family comes apart, the pieces drawn to separate endeavors in separate places, work and school and meetings and commitments, but every night the pieces are put back together again. This is a time for counsel and advice, for fathers and sons, the best time to talk about the woolly behemoths and snarling infidels and great gobs of 20th-century goo that can be found outside the family door. How was your day? What happened? This is the time.

"How is the wrestling going?" Burton asks.

"Not great," Raymond says. "It's hard. I like baseball better. I did pin a kid, though. Two days ago."

"How about yourself? Have you seen the lights on the gym ceiling?"

"Oh, yeah. I wrestled Todd. He pinned me good."

"Of course he did. Todd weighs about 168 pounds. He's a lot bigger than you. You have to expect him to pin you. How much do you weigh?"

"I'm wrestling 112, but I weighed 108 today."

"Well, there."

Burton is not the father; then again, he is. Certainly for now, he is. In the search for Ozzie and Harriet moments in an Ozzy Osbourne time, Burton is a needed alternative. The place is Boys Town, the nonsectarian sanctuary for troubled youth in Omaha, which became black-and-white famous in 1938 when Spencer Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan successfully rehabilitating a cigarette-smoking, wisecracking Mickey Rooney in the movie Boys Town. The motto of the institution still is Flanagan's belief that there is no such thing as a bad boy, and in the middle of the wide entrance to the 1,380-acre grounds you can find the famous statue of a handicapped kid named Howard Loomis being carried by a healthy Ruben Granger above the inscription HE AIN'T HEAVY, FATHER...HE'S M' BROTHER. Burton is one of the modern-day Flanagans, working against a surge in youth violence, neglect and abuse.

For almost 13 years Burton has lived in this house on Maher Circle. He is not a priest. He has been married to his wife, Ida, for 23 years, and they have three children and two grandchildren. They raised their children in this house while helping to raise as many as 10 other children each year, everyone thrown together. Lawrence and Ida Burton are "family teachers," part of a reconstructed Boys Town approach that puts kids in need into everyday family situations. The idea is to put blown-apart young lives back together with the traditional glue of love and discipline. The recipe is heavy on love.

"A kid recently told me that he wanted to love me, but he said he didn't think he could afford it," Lawrence says. "He had an idea that each of us has only so much love inside, and to give some of it away to one person meant that there wouldn't be enough left for someone else. He was afraid to give that love away. I told him I didn't go along with that. I said I love my wife, I love my kids, I love him, I love everyone inside the house, and I love a lot of people outside. I said love is infinite. You can give as much as you want."

In his daily rounds Burton talks with all of the kids in the house. He asks one to show him his daily report card. What is this negative check mark for talking in class? Burton talks with another kid about his weight. The kid, who was too heavy, has lost 40 pounds since coming to Boys Town. A smaller kid—the youngest in the house at 12 years old—offers a joke. Burton asks first if the joke is "appropriate." The kid says it is and tells it in the involved, wordy fashion of a 12-year-old. Burton laughs at the punch line.

He is an enthusiastic man, one of those 24-hour bright lights. Married early, he is only 41 years old and looks younger. His body is tailored and athletic. He rides a bike everywhere, spinning off for 65-mile expeditions into the countryside. He runs. He lifts. There is a grace about him that, together with his energy, makes it obvious that he has done something somewhere in an athletic way, but he does not talk much about it. The kids ask, but he talks with them about the present. What about you? What are you doing now? There is the touch of mystery to him that is attached to all fathers and what they do and what they have done in the outside world.

Only in the little challenges that sometimes arrive does he reveal his past. A kid will suggest a race. A competition. A certain distance. The race will be held. Burton will be a streak, disappearing into the distance.

"A kid wants to try, all right," he says. "But I don't believe in letting someone just beat you. That is not how life is. Nobody lets you beat him. I run, and I run as fast as I can. Then I let the kid know he's running against someone who ran pass patterns in the National Football League and once tied the world record for the 60-yard dash. The world record. It's hard to beat someone who held the world record in anything."

A world record? Pro football? Burton talks about none of this as he tells Raymond that maybe another bag of ice on that knee would not be a bad idea.

"Larry Burton was the subject of one of the greatest quotes I ever read," former New Orleans Saint quarterback Archie Manning says, going back to another time. In 1972, he remembers, Burton finished fourth in the Olympic 200 meters. In '73 he had a great game as a junior at Purdue against Notre Dame, caught a 53-yard pass for Purdue's only touchdown. The next fall, a sportswriter went up to Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian before the Purdue game and said he thought it would probably be tougher for Burton to catch passes because Notre Dame had a much better secondary. Parseghian said, "I don't know about that. There are only three people in the world who are faster than Larry Burton, and they are not in the Notre Dame defensive backfield."

Burton was a genuine bullet. In high school at Mary N. Smith in Eastern Shore, Va., he was a flanker back fast and elusive enough to bring the college scouts to his door. Six-one, 175 pounds. A dasher and a darter. At Purdue he was an All-America, sound enough to have the Saints spend their No. 1 draft choice, seventh pick in the land, on him in 1975. In track? He didn't run track until he went to college.

"He came up to me as a freshman, said he wanted to try out for the track team," former Purdue coach Dave Rankin says. "I sent him home. I said it was too late in the season. The next year he came up to me again. It was during the indoor season. December, maybe even early January. I can remember him coming up to me on the track, saying, 'I would like to come out for the team.' This time I let him. I was a great recruiter, huh?"

Eight months later Burton was in Munich. Who does something like that? Novice to Olympian in eight months. He was as natural as natural could be. He had the high knee lift of the power runner. Natural. He had the good reaction time at the start, fast out of the blocks for a tall guy. Natural. By the time he qualified for the Olympics, he was no fluke. He had tied the record for the 60, at 5.9 seconds. He had beaten Herb Washington of Michigan State—later to become Charles O. Finley's designated pinch runner for the Oakland A's—in a celebrated 100 in a dual meet. He had won the NCAA 200. A fluke?

In the Olympics, Burton qualified for the 200 final in the same heat as the Russian favorite, Valery Borzov. They talked bilingual trash to each other on the way to the finish, Borzov in front, Burton second. In the final the moment somehow escaped Burton. That is what happens sometimes in Olympic sprints. One moment can mean everything.

"I was in Lane 6 in the semis, and Borzov was outside me, in Lane 8," Burton says. "I knew exactly where I was and what I needed. In the finals, it was the reverse. I was in the sixth lane, and he was in the fifth. I was out in front on the turn. I thought I was running the best race of my life. Never felt better. Then everyone came up and went past. Once that happens, there's no getting back. There's one shot."

No matter. He went back to Purdue as a junior and led the team with 15 receptions, 271 yards and three touchdowns. As a senior he caught 38 passes for 702 yards and four touchdowns and was tapped by the Saints. He was part of the team that led the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers at the half of the 1975 college all-star game. Natural. It was only in the pros that success eluded Burton.

"That's one of my great regrets, that we didn't bring a winner to New Orleans," Burton says. "It was an awesome town with rabid football fans. Archie was there. I wanted to be the savior of the franchise. It just didn't happen. It's the most frustrating thing of my entire career."

"There was just a lot of pressure on Larry," Manning says. "Too much. It's something I know more than a little about. You have a franchise like we had, always losing, and the new Number One draft choice always is supposed to make a big difference. That's the way people look at it. If Larry had been drafted by some other team, given some time, I think it would have been a lot different. If you came to New Orleans, everyone was watching you all the time. If you were a track guy and dropped a ball, they'd say, right away, 'Four-two speed with two flat hands.' I didn't think it was fair. I didn't think Larry had bad hands.

"Everything was constant change with the team then. Someone new always was coming in. One mistake I think people made with Larry was to measure him only by the number of catches. He was a threat just being there, and he opened up a lot of defenses for us. Plus he was a really good guy."

Burton played three seasons in New Orleans, catching 35 passes and scoring four touchdowns. He was injured for almost all of the third season—torn tendons in his left hand—and then released. The San Diego Chargers picked him up as a bit player in the Don Coryell air show, where he played two more seasons and learned how life could be with a winner, plugged into the excitement, making the playoffs in 1979. He certainly was expected to play another season and maybe a few more. His legs were fine. His speed was the same, maybe the best in the league.

Other things, however, were cooking inside his head. There has always been a serious quality to Burton. He had picked Purdue because on his recruiting visit, the players assigned to him said they had to study on Saturday night rather than take him on a round of parties. Marriage and the birth of his son, B.J., in 1970 gave him a maturity many college students didn't have. He was a sociology major, not taking an easy path through school. He got his degree. He had always thought he wanted to be involved in some kind of public service, to help people.

In the off-season, he took a job working with kids in a program with the New Orleans Police Department. He liked it very much. He and Ida also became born-again Christians after a man came to their house and asked, "Lawrence and Ida, if you died right now, where would you go?" Lawrence said he certainly hoped he would go to heaven. The man said there were ways to have more assurance than that. Football was important, Burton said to himself, but weren't other things more important? He thought a lot about the kids he saw during the off-season, thought about their troubles and their lives. What happened to those kids after he left? Who helped them? He found himself thinking more and more about them, wanting to do more.

In 1980, Burton went to camp with the Chargers for his sixth season. "I was having a good camp," he says. "At least I thought I was. This one day, we were in double sessions. I had as good a practice as I'd ever had. One-on-one. We finished the second practice, and as I was walking back to the locker room I finally decided I was going to retire. It was something I had been thinking about for a while. I remember I told Charlie Joiner. He couldn't believe it. I called Ida and told her what I'd done. She said, 'You just come home, baby. We'll get started.' "

His murky idea was that he would set up a home or some foundation to help kids. He would take them into his care and somehow love them into mainstream life. Wasn't that all they needed? Someone to show them love? He explained his ideas to some friends, New Orleans businessmen who had agreed to be on his board of directors. They told him that it was a bit more complicated than that. One of them suggested that he take a trip to Nebraska, to Boys Town, to see the program that had evolved from Father Edward J. Flanagan's celebrated beginnings in 1917. Nebraska? It sounded like the end of the civilized world. Lawrence and Ida went.

"We were supposed to be here for a week," he says. "We'd learn what we had to learn and then bring it back to New Orleans. You know what we learned? We learned that everything we hoped to do was being done right here already. At the end of the week, we were offered a job as family teachers. We took it. Why try to reinvent the wheel? It was already here."

Their own family had reached its final size. Lawrence Jr., called B.J., was nine. Shanaeya was five. Christie was 11 months. Ida's mother worried more than a little about whether living with 10 troubled strangers would have a bad effect on three untroubled kids, but weren't there risks in every life? Shouldn't somebody be taking the right risks? The two older kids lamented the loss of their New Orleans house with its swimming pool, but Lawrence took them to Nebraska and showed them the Boys Town Field House and the Olympic-sized pool. See? There would be a better pool, bigger. Everyone would just have to learn to share.

The decision was made in July 1980. The New Orleans house was rented. The Burton family was in residence in Omaha, the group substantially enlarged, by the opening of school in September. Lawrence Burton was 28 years old, taking his Bible at its literal best, putting away the things of the football world, following his heart.

The operation he joined was far different from the Boys Town of the Spencer Tracy movie. There were more buildings, more land but fewer residents than during the days of Father Flanagan, who headed the institution until his death in 1948. The kids had infinitely more problems. The Mickey Rooney character in the movie, Whitey Marsh, was only a kid with a lust for playing pool and stud poker, the brother of a notorious bank robber. Since those days the progress of society had given kids far more sophisticated lusts.

"The change came around 1968," Father Val Peter, the fourth director in the 75-year history of Boys Town, says. "Father Flanagan had been a pioneer in child-raising technology. He had a program that stressed alternative education, self-government and vocational training. For all those years, it had been fine. A model. By 1968 all kinds of things had happened. The Watts riots. Detroit and Newark burned. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, assassinated. Malcolm X was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead. The Democratic Convention took place in Chicago. All these things had happened, and suddenly we started to get different kids. They were on drugs, alcohol; they were considering suicide. All the rules were out. Father Flanagan's methods didn't work anymore. We were trying to cure these kids with Little House on the Prairie. It just didn't work."

The people who worked at Boys Town were confounded. Why should children now be so different? The familiar two plus two now added up to 2½. Maybe not even that. People had worked at Boys Town for 10, 20, 30 years, almost always with great success. Now their work didn't count? A natural resistance to change was overwhelmed by this rush of troubled kids. The precepts of Father Flanagan had to be broken down, reworked, sometimes even discarded. In 1975 the University of Kansas and the National Institute of Mental Health began a study of behavior-shaping techniques at Boys Town. The researchers asked important questions: How do you reach these new kids? What do they need? The needs were entirely different.

"There had been a change in the way people treated their children," Father Peter says. "In the '20s, '30s, '40s and even the '50s, children had been raised with very low tolerance, with much negative reinforcement. Kids who came to us needed the love that they didn't get at home. In the '60s, '70s, '80s and into now, it turned around. Parents were letting kids get away with absolutely anything. Kids now needed discipline."

Head somehow had to work a bargain with heart. That was the finding of the research. Heart without head is pure sentimentality. Head without heart is manipulation. These new kids needed structure as much as the kids of other generations needed a good hug. Not that these kids didn't need a good hug too.

The barracks approach was dropped. The original dormitories were converted into 23 residences similar to condominiums. The new model became family living. The new hope was that a functional present could overcome a dysfunctional past. The kids were spread around the campus in the condominiums and in 53 "cottages," middle-class homes with room for approximately 10 kids apiece. Each condominium or cottage had a married couple, plus whatever whatever biological children they had in residence. The couples were specially trained full-time parents. That was their job. The overall population of Boys Town was trimmed from 1,000 boys in 1968 to somewhere between 500 and 600 kids today. (Girls were admitted beginning in 1979, and this year there are 294 boys and 262 girls at Boys Town.) A daily reward system was established. Privileges such as using the telephone and watching television were tied to performance. The emphasis was on the positive, three positive remarks for every correction. Lawrence and Ida Burton were early additions to the program, pioneers in this behavioral wilderness.

"This place became the feedback capital of the world," Father Peter says. "We'd talk about everything. What we looked for in our family teachers were four things: One, a rock-solid marriage, because if that's not there, then what's the point; two, patience galore; three, natural parenting skills; and four, the people had to be trainable. They had to be willing to let go of some of their thoughts and use ours. That was Lawrence and Ida. They had all of those qualities."

Even the approach to sports had to be changed. Until the mid-'60s, Boys Town had been an athletic powerhouse with its large, all-male enrollment. Its football teams had gone undefeated seven times between 1936 and 1964, had been named Nebraska State co-champions in 1945 and champions in 1966, and had journeyed around the country to play games against other celebrated high schools. Now there were far fewer boys and there was far less ability. And the new troubled kids often hadn't had much time for games before they came to Boys Town. Sports often had to be introduced at beginners' level, and there had to be a range of sports, from wrestling to basketball to Outward Bound-style training. The emphasis was less on winning championships than on establishing individual confidence.

To give an idea of the problems Boys Town faced, Father Peter takes case histories and changes names and hometowns and maybe even genders. For kids, Boys Town usually is a last chance. Sometimes they have been sent by the courts in lieu of going to prison. Sometimes they have been sent by child-welfare agencies. Sometimes they simply appear at the front gate, brought by their parents or drawn by the name, no place else to go. These drop-ins are called pilgrims. The door is open.

"We had a pilgrim just last week," Father Peter says. "His mother drove him here straight from Chicago. His brother had just been murdered in some kind of gang problem. His mother didn't know what to do, so she came here. I came down to the office, and the kid was sitting here. He said he wasn't staying, wanted to go home.... But, I don't know, there was a look in his eye. We can't keep anyone here. There are no fences. This isn't a prison, and we don't want it to be one.

"I took a shot. I told the kid that before we did anything, I had to ask him a couple of questions to see if he was the type of kid we could admit. I asked him if he knew the name of the place. He said, 'Boys Town.' I asked him if he wanted to stay here. He said no. I said, 'O.K., you're in. Sign here. Go to such and such a place. You'll eat dinner now, and we'll set up a school schedule tomorrow.' The kid said O.K. and signed and started moving around. I don't know, it was just a shot. I could see something—that he really wanted to stay but didn't know how to say it. Most kids really want some discipline in their lives. They just don't know where to find it anymore."

The goal at Boys Town never was to send a long line of kids to four-year colleges, though college is an option. That has not changed. The methods have changed in an attempt to take these shattered kids, who are often not just touched by grim headlines but also involved in them, and put them back into society as everyday contributors with jobs and families. Every kid at Boys Town has been through harrowing experiences. How can those experiences be put into the past? How can low self-esteem be overcome? A poor self-image was and is the one constant with all of these kids. How can they be shown there are better ways to deal with that than through chemicals or suicide or antisocial behavior designed to gain attention?

There have been failures, to be sure, kids who could not adapt. Father Peter talks about one kid who told him, "I don't want to be good bad enough." Father Peter named a prison in the kid's state and told the kid that was where he would wind up. The kid said that was where he wanted to be. His father, two brothers and an uncle all had been there. Why shouldn't he be there too? Father Peter admits there was nothing further he could say. The kid was gone.

Most kids stay. They become attracted to something as basic as the good meals or the coziness of their rooms, or they make one friend. They build from there. The average length of stay at Boys Town is two years, but it could be shorter and could be considerably longer. Success means the kids not only graduate from high school but also return to their biological families and use the skills they have learned at Boys Town to deal with whatever forced them to leave home in the first place.

"I sometimes compare this to an NFL team," Father Peter says. "We have a playbook, blocks that have to be made, pass routes that have to be run. I say it's fun to follow the playbook, to be part of a winning team. And that's what we are. We may lose some, but we win a lot more."

"What you learn right away is that trouble has no boundaries," Lawrence Burton says. "I've had a kid living in this house who came here with nothing to his name except one comic book, and I've had a kid whose father made three million dollars a year. There's no difference. If there's trouble, there's trouble. You try to help."

He had a 20-year-old kid in his house, part of his first group, when he started. He thinks about the craziness of that now. Burton wasn't much older than the kid. He was learning and the kid was learning, and somehow it worked out fine. The kid is out there in the world. The kid has kids.

"Isn't that what it's about?" Burton says. "If you can make one kid better now and if he has kids and if they have is something that grows and grows. Think about it that way and it's glorious. A lot of those kids in that first family have their own kids now."

The life has been everything Burton expected it to be. More. He has tried to lead by words but also by example. Many of Boys Town's kids come from female-dominated families. Burton has tried to give the boys a male role model in their lives. Doesn't every boy find a role model, good or bad? Isn't there always some guy in authority who dispenses what seems to be very sound advice?

Burton says he has had many role models. Coaches. Teachers. Older friends. He remembers his father mostly as a provider, a quiet man who went to work and came home and did not say very much. That was his way. Burton's more important model was his brother-in-law, a minister in Eastern Shore. He had played some college football and knew the answers to some important questions. He was not only a relative but also a friend and an authority figure. That is what Burton has wanted to be.

He has shown his kids the virtues of exercise, of good diet. He has watched the games and the shows, all the events that have involved his kids. He has cheered and applauded. He has praised his kids for the way they stood up, the way they sat down, the way they answered the telephone. There have been harsh words, sure, but they have been more than balanced by the daily range of kind words. He has been around for the colds and fevers and twisted knees. Maybe that is the most important thing he has done. He has been around.

"You try to create an environment for these kids," he says. "That's so hard these days. It's so different. When I grew up, there were always people around. If it wasn't your mom, it was your dad, and if they both were gone, it was your Aunt Polly. Well, that's over. Mom is gone during the day and Dad is gone and Aunt Polly's never around. Kids come home and turn on the television, and they can see anything they want. There's no one there to turn it off. Latchkey kids. They can do anything they want. They are going out the door and being exposed to things I wasn't exposed to until I was in my mid-20's—things that maybe I never was exposed to. Where does it stop?"

He says that the kids in his care always have choices to make. Burton simply gives guidance in those choices. Some of the kids still might make the wrong choices, but at least that's not because they did not know the options. He is around. He describes the options, tries to sell them.

"What we've tried to do is offer an opportunity to change behavior," Burton says. "Mom always was around for Beaver and Wally. Mom always is around here. Kids can choose something else, but at least they have seen this. In my time here, most of the kids I've had have made the right choices."

The news is that Burton is leaving Boys Town. He and Ida have been selected to head a new satellite facility in Long Beach, Calif. This is part of Boys Town's future. It does not mean Lawrence will stop working with kids. He probably will work with even more of them. Boys Town plans to have established satellites in 17 major metropolitan areas by the end of 1995. The satellites, under the name Boys Town USA, are intended to deal with kids on a residential or short-term residential basis, depending on the facility. In Long Beach and the other short-term residential satellites, there will be room for kids to stay for a maximum of 30 days. The long-term solutions will come through working with the kids' families, bringing the lessons of Omaha into their homes. Already there are short-term residential facilities in Brooklyn, San Antonio, New Orleans, Orlando, Fla., and Grand Island, Neb. Long Beach will be another place to spread the message.

The Burton home in Omaha has become the Key home, where Rob and Gail Key make the rounds after dinner, talking about the vagaries of the day. Lawrence and Ida have been house-hunting in Long Beach but will stay at Boys Town for Christmas, in a guest cottage on South Lake. They will be in Long Beach by the end of December.

"It's funny," Lawrence says. "I'd been worrying a lot about the disruption in the kids' lives at the house, but there seems to be more disruption in mine. Whew! I really will miss those kids."

His time as a family teacher was one of the longest in Boys Town history. The job has a high burnout rate. The average family-teacher couple stays for two to five years and then moves along. Lawrence and Ida never felt an urge to move. The same fire that made Lawrence leave the practice field in San Diego is with him now. What can he do to help these kids? If anything, the fire is greater. He knows better how to help.

"I think there was a sign from the Lord about a year ago," Burton says. "He sent us a kid from Los Angeles—a kid who had been associated with a gang. We'd never had one of those, at least not from Los Angeles. His father just put him on a bus and sent him here. You know what we found? He was a kid like any other kid. There are no bad boys. It's environment. This gave Ida and me confidence when this chance in Long Beach arrived. Because these are the kinds of kids we're going to be helping."

Two of his own kids—B.J., now married, and Shanaeya, just accepted to med school—will stay in Nebraska. Lawrence and Ida will take 13-year-old Christie with them. They have a sense of renewed adventure. Everything is new. When she shops for her family, Ida is amazed that food actually comes in packages smaller than colossal or super-giant. Peanut butter. Did you know that peanut butter is sold in jars smaller than a galvanized drum? Lawrence is making plans to hire people for the new facility in Long Beach, seeking people who speak Vietnamese and Khmer and Spanish and the other languages of his new neighborhood.

There has been a round of farewells in Omaha, and no doubt there will be more. Christmas is a tough time around Boys Town, "the worst day of the year," according to Father Peter. Many kids return home for the holidays. A few stay on the grounds. All of the earlier emotions, the troubled feelings and situations, can return in a flash, everyone's stomach churning. Burton will be around to help over Christmas because help is his business, the business he has worked at for 13 years.

"You think about what he's done here and it's amazing," one of his Boys Town kids, Chris, says. "He didn't brag about the things he'd done in the NFL. He never even talked about any of it. You look at him and you say, 'Here he is, this man took time to be with me.' What's better than that? You look at Michael Jordan, and he's fine. He's a great player and he does a lot with kids, but I don't think he'd give up his career to be with kids. Lawrence did."

"He was wearing a Rolex watch one day," another kid, Damien, says. "I said, 'Is that a Rolex?' He looked at it. He seemed almost embarrassed. He said, 'It's just a watch.' I never saw it again."

"Lawrence has been someone for me to look up to," another kid, David, says. "Just a wow sort of thing. He's really helped me keep my head up. Because of him, this has been the most beautiful fall of my life. I saw all the trees, all the colors changing. I'd never seen that before, because I always was looking at the ground."

The praise does not stop. At one of the goodbyes, the kids brought out various gifts for both Lawrence and Ida. One was the sign from the front yard at Maher Circle, framed. Another was a picture frame. Another was a pile of photos. Lawrence's favorite present was a small table clock. A brass plate on the front was inscribed: LAWRENCE BURTON AN INSPIRATION. The kids bought it with their own money.

Burton holds the clock in his hands as if it were a Fabergè egg. "Isn't that something?" he says. "What would you rather have, this or the Heisman Trophy?"

There is no doubt about his choice.



The greatest change at Boys Town since Father Flanagan's day has been the transfer of kids from dormitories (above) to homes headed by family teachers such as Burton (opposite).



[See caption above.]



Like the older youth in Boys Town's signature statue, Burton gives kids a lift, both in the gym and at home.



In the 1920s, after Boys Town had moved from Omaha to nearby Overlook Farm, boys would appear at the gates on their own, drawn by the promise of love and shelter.



To Burton and to Boys Town, the aim of sports is not just to win titles but also to build self-esteem.



In the Depression-era movie that made Boys Town famous, a brawling boy played by Rooney learned the ropes from Father Flanagan (Tracy).



The days of Boys Town's big-time sports heroics are past, but athletes are still encouraged to reach high.



In October 1927, shortly after the New York Yankees had won the World Series, Father Flanagan and his boys were visited by two idols in cleats: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.



Every year Christie has shared her house—as well as her father's hugs—with 10 of Boys Town 's kids.



In 1920 the staff and kids of Boys Town celebrated Christmas at the institution's second location, Omaha's German-American Home.



By year's end Ida and Lawrence will have exchanged Nebraska's winter for the warmth of Southern California.



Although Burton (in glasses) could not catch Borzov (932) in the Olympic 200 in '72 (bottom), he caught his share of passes for San Diego in the NFL.



Under Father Flanagan's gaze, his nephew Jim (above) organizes recreation in the gym; Father Peter, who runs Boys Town, gives out candy after church.



The sight of Burton on his bicycle riding the roads around Boys Town will be missed by all who have worked with him for the past 13 years.