On February 12, 1965, 12-year-old Howard arrived at Orchard Place, the first admission to the fledging psychiatric facility on Des Moines southwest side. Howard's father, his hero, had died several years earlier in an automobile accident. The oldest of five children, Howard's mother secured the blessings of a priest to put young Howard out of her home. Howard was guilty of occasionally playing hookey from school and other juvenile mischief, and his mother wanted him gone. And so he was. To save face, she said that Howard had been sent away to attend a private boarding school.
Howard Deever (fifth from left) stands with Civil Air Patrol cadets at Offutt Air Force Base in Sarpy County, Nebraska. His son Daniel (far left) is the Cadet Deputy Commander.
In reality, Howard had been sent to live with friends of hers in Wisconsin, a move that he despised. He ran away and then was sent to a Franciscan orphanage in Dubuque. In dismay, Howard ran away again, and again. He terribly missed his brother and sisters and didn't understand why his mother didn't love him.
Today, Howard has long since accepted the rejection of his mother. From a wealthy background, she came to loathe his dad, who despite his business success could never measure up to her expectations. She was ashamed of him and ridiculed him repeatedly in front of Howard and his siblings. He couldn't do anything right. Howard adored his dad. He had been an Air Force pilot in WWII, later flew jets in the Iowa Air Guard, and Howard dreamt of doing the same. His death devastated the son who was not yet 11 years old.
From the Franciscan orphanage Howard was sent by Catholic Charities to the University of Iowa Children's Psychiatric Hospital for a 90-day evaluation. The evaluation came back with a simple finding: all Howard needed was love and discipline. He had neither. He lost them in the death of his father and the rejection of his mother. And so it was with little hope in his heart that Howard arrived at Orchard Place on that cold winter day. But surprisingly, it was unlike anywhere he'd ever been.
"Orchard Place was a refuge. When a child experiences one unstable situation after another, anything that appears to offer emotional stability is a great refuge. Orchard Place was just that. The staff was kind and it was obvious they loved us. They didn't take our juvenile crap and we couldn't manipulate them. They gave us a sense of security. They cared about us as people. We weren't viewed as specimens, some type of lab rats like we were in other places."
At Orchard Place Howard quickly became fond of Grant Jordan, the activity director assigned to work with the boys. If they misbehaved Grant, a former All Marine boxing champ, would take them to the basement where they boxed out their frustrations. He introduced them to classical music, painting and pottery, and taught them that cultural activities were not unmanly. He took them out to the yet-to-be-developed Saylorville area to tear down abandoned houses and barns with sledge hammers. It was hard work, but the boys immensely looked forward to these treks, and others for things like camping or river rafting. It got their aggressions out and it was great just being boys!
At that time, the Orchard Place program was quite different from today. The organization was transitioning to a psychiatric facility, and in its early days few of the children had severe mental health issues. They were referred to Orchard Place by families and different sources that were required to participate in their care. If parents were considered "nonredeemable" kids were sent by their referring agency to foster homes upon discharge. Many of the youth admitted were belligerent, mischevious and wrapped up in the growing chaos of the 1960s. Most of them attended Kurtz Junior High across the street. They were often bullied and called names for living at Orchard Place and not having a home. Fights would erupt.
A typical day included going to school, doing homework, eating together and regularly meeting with Grant for individual time that meant the world to Howard. "Everywhere I've been, even in the worst of situations, there's always been one person who has connected with me and loved me. I've found this true in life so many times. Grant Jordan was that person at Orchard Place. He was an amazing guy."
After a year and a half Howard was discharged to a foster home in Des Moines. At the time, it was felt that there was less stigma living in a foster home than at institutions such as Orchard Place. It was in a more real sense a home. You weren't quite as much an oddball. You were more like the rest of the kids with parents, even though they weren't your own.
His first foster home after Orchard Place proved to be yet another nightmare. His foster mother was mentally ill and eventually committed violent suicide. Howard's caseworker moved him to a foster farm, a home with four foster children near Roosevelt High School. Howard's new foster mom was verbally abusive and after six months, he ran away again.
One bright spot in his life at the time was Babe Bisignano, a renowned Des Moines restaurateur whom Howard met while hitchhiking downtown. He told Babe he didn't have any money and really wanted a job. Although “legally” too young for restaurant work, Howard was hired by Babe to bus tables at $1.25 an hour. He paid him in cash. When the restaurant closed on Saturday nights the waitresses would pool their tip money and give Howard $10. He felt rich. He could buy his own clothes and dress like the other kids. And he had spare change in his pocket to boot.
Howard ended up in Eldora Training School. He vividly recalls being sent to solitary confinement for three days for an infraction of the rules. He was put in an eight-by-ten-foot cell and left there with only his underwear and a blanket for clothing. A UNI social work class toured the facility, a tour which included the full class gawking at an embarrassed and humiliated Howard in his underwear. He recalls the pain of that day 40 years ago as if it were yesterday. He wonders what the students learned from his humiliation.
In early 1969 Howard was given a choice: join the military or go to college. With the Vietnam war raging on, Howard chose college. He was offered a full scholarship in Journalism at the University of Iowa but wanted to go back home to Sioux City, so he enrolled at Briar Cliff College, majoring in Liberal Arts. Eventually, by the grace of God, Howard found a measure of normalcy in his life. He moved to Colorado, Oregon and then to Omaha where he lives today.
Howard and his wife, Kathryn, have four children, ages 17-22. He works as the risk manager for Hansen Mueller, an international grain commodities and distribution company. Life is good. His kids have excelled in school and in life. Howard's volunteer service has included Scouting, working with cadets and serving as an Emergency Services Training Officer with the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
A measure of adversity in his life has given Howard a keen sense of empathy and compassion for people who have been damaged. He unabashedly values family, stability, love, and home life with his wife and children, all the things he missed in his own young life. And while he did learn to fly light airplanes over 30 years ago, Howard self-effacingly says, “I still want to be a fighter pilot when I grow up!”