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Words They've Lived By

For children at the Optimist Home, the glass-half-full message of the organization's Creed has been an inspiration through the decades.

October 21, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Promise yourself ... to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

As boys they saw it hanging from the walls of the dining hall, recited it in unison with other boys, heard it intoned at every special event like a prayer:

Promise yourself ... to think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.

At the 100-year-old Optimist Home in Highland Park, the Optimist Creed has been passed down to generations of wayward kids even if they didn't understand it right then, even if it seemed corny. The 106-word Creed sums up the worldview of Optimists International, a nonreligious service organization with chapters worldwide. Former President Ford is an Optimist. So was former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Mostly, the members share the view that the glass is half full, that dark clouds have silver linings and that serving community is of value.

Long before there was Aid to Families with Dependent Children or other public assistance, Optimist clubs in Southern California put the force of their beliefs -- and their finances -- behind the boys' home started by Jacob Strickland and his wife on a five-acre chicken farm in 1906.

In advertisements published in this paper early in the last century, the Stricklands proudly offered "Consistent Home Training." After the home opened, writer Christian D. Larson composed the Creed, and it soon became a part of life at the home.

Today the home, the only one of its kind in the U.S. still operated by the Optimists, cares for about 550 youths, including girls, through Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services.

About 100 boys -- referred and paid for by county probation departments -- live on the site of the original home, which now includes a high school. There are six group homes off campus -- including two for girls -- and foster care and adoption services.

Each generation raised at the Optimist Home faced different problems. Their memories vary of who helped them and what impressed them, except for one constant: Even decades later, they remember the Creed.

'The Sunny Side'

Promise yourself ... to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

When 12-year-old Abe Cooke showed up at the home in 1952, the only thing the farm raised was boys. Gone were the days when founder Strickland -- known as "Pa" or "Uncle Strickland" -- had the boys tending chickens, berries and vegetables.

The home's neighborhood was more urban by the time Cooke arrived, but the family atmosphere had survived. And a family was what he needed. His mother died giving birth to him; his father was a U.S. serviceman who walked away.

He spent his childhood in youth homes and with foster families -- including one in which the mother forced him to hang his head in a toilet for taking a carrot slice from the refrigerator. The Optimist Home was the last stop on that journey.

Cooke recited the Creed and sang "Ave Maria" during the annual Christmas plays held in the barn. He met Optimists who would take him home for Thanksgiving.

He was the only Jewish boy in the home of 60 children. Saul and Sadie Cohen, a Jewish couple who owned a fabric store in the neighborhood and belonged to the Optimists, found a rabbi who gave Cooke a copy of the Torah, recordings for practicing Hebrew and weekly tutorials. Every day for four months, the boy raced home from school and studied, thinking he was headed for a bar mitzvah.

But three weeks before the ceremony, a judge determined that Cooke, a ward of the court, could not go forward with his bar mitzvah plans. It was unprecedented, the judge said, and he was not willing to set a precedent by allowing it. Even today when he tells the story, it is not with the bitterness of a disappointed 13-year-old denied his heritage, his gifts. He remembers the pride of learning Hebrew -- "I can recite some of it to this day" -- and the kindness of people such as the Cohens, who wanted to give him that gift.

The Optimist Home was the place where life seemed to make amends "for all I had to deal with as a child," he said. "I lived there for five years. 'Most all the kids I grew up with, the ones still alive, we had good times there."

Like every other boy, he learned the Optimist Creed by heart. In 1984 he took the creed -- think only of the best -- to heart.

Rather than dwell on the family he never had, that year he symbolically created one for himself. In court, Cooke changed his name to Abe Schemmer -- after Art and Mary Schemmer, "house parents" who supervised youths in his dorm and showed him kindness he never forgot.

The name change occurred on the Schemmers' wedding anniversary in 1984. For the couple, who had no children of their own, the gesture was a kindness returned.

"We were like a family, the three of us," Schemmer said.

Today he is 65 and retired from a career at Thrifty Drug Stores. The Creed is still with him.

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