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'90S FAMILY

An Orphan's Life

Richard McKenzie Writes of His Childhood in 'a Home' and Says Its Time May Have Come Again

July 28, 1996|DAWN BONKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most of his life, Richard McKenzie kept quiet about the most basic fact of his life.

He grew up in an orphanage, left there at age 10 by aunts after his alcoholic mother committed suicide and before his abusive father could catch up with the family.

But put away images of Oliver Twist. McKenzie, 53, looks back fondly on his years at the Barium Springs Home for Children, a Presbyterian orphanage in rural North Carolina. He says he is grateful for the values, education, encouragement and, especially, the comfort of routine and structure for a child who had never had any.

Watch the crime show "Cops" and look at the faces of the children crouching in the background to see what McKenzie is talking about--"those domestic disturbance scenes, where the mother is drugged out, the father is drunker than a skunk. And you have these kids in this house that's a shambles and the kids are eating out of the dog food tray and you've got to wonder," McKenzie says. "What chances do these kids have? I just can't help believing they wouldn't be better off growing up the way I did."

So McKenzie, a professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine, is done being quiet about his upbringing. It's time, he says, that anyone who wants to talk about disadvantaged children in the ruins of shattered families needs to at least be open to a discussion of private orphanages as one part of the solution.

He has written a book, "The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage" (Basic Books / Harper Collins, 1996) that makes a thoughtful, nonpartisan argument that has been well received. A Books on Tape audio version is due in the fall and the screenplay rights have been sold.

McKenzie also surveyed 1,800 adults raised in 10 orphanages across the country and has completed an analysis of 1,600 of those responses from nine homes, including his own. The survey respondents overwhelmingly say their childhoods were good. Few would have chosen their relatives or foster care over their orphanages. Nearly all report being happy with life now and most of them are financially well off, thanks to college educations paid for by orphanages, the foundations that supported them and other donors.

The greatest shadow on the orphans as a group seems to be a high divorce rate, says McKenzie, himself once divorced and now remarried.

But as a professor of business management, McKenzie also knows statistics, like orphanages, aren't perfect answers to big questions. He had to rely on orphanages' alumni lists to conduct his surveys and says embittered orphans may have distanced themselves from any such associations.

"Every now and then I do get someone calling and telling me it was a very bad experience," he says. "And I don't want to discount that, but I think what I need to do and what others need to do is look at the batting average." Startling? Not when you consider where some children came from or where they were going before they went off to "The Home" (Even orphans shy away from the word "orphanage," McKenzie says.)

For McKenzie, the Home ended not just an ugly family life, but also a rough street life.

"It catapulted me from a life course that had no good end. I was given a chance to start anew. I didn't have to feign love and warmth any more when there was none. I could prove myself in a different way. I could give up the shadows I had been fighting. I didn't want to fight anymore. I had found a place--one with real, defined limits--at the Home, by no means a perfect place, but a place," McKenzie writes in his memoir.

McKenzie also paints the imperfections with wincing honesty in his book. He and his older brother grew apart at Barium Springs because children were housed by age, not family, and the relationship has never revived. McKenzie suffered from a panic-attack-like breathing difficulty that plagued him late at night throughout his childhood and into young adulthood. He struggled with what he calls "the hole" left in his heart by his traumatic childhood. He could have done with a few more hugs, a kind counselor.

McKenzie counts the work and religious ethic of Barium Springs as key ingredients of its success, but he also wishes the religion hadn't been so forcefully fed and the work on the orphanage farm so time-consuming. The children went barefoot until November and were given two baths and two changes of clothes a week. The girls had far greater restrictions and curfews.

The advantages still outweigh the disadvantages, McKenzie says. The children were well-fed. They had regular medical and dental care. The campus school was better than the county ones. The high school graduation rate for residents far exceeded that at the local schools. Farm work made residents strong; responsibility for individual farm animals gave them a sense of ownership and pride, McKenzie says.

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