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Alumni effort preserves memories in museum


The Children’s Home’s massive, red brick buildings on an expansive, green carpeted campus always will be home for thousands of TCH alumni. But as TCH approached its centennial celebration in 2006, alumni realized that a century of change threatened to fade their memories of where they grew up.

Growing from a seed planted by Brian Harris then watered by Fred Tanner, Ruby Burnett and her husband Richard and Debbie Belk Edge, the Alumni Association created a museum to preserve those memories.

Alumni donated trophies, pictures, footballs, books, era clothing, laundry equipment and a dental chair. Turner, who has wrote books about his experience growing up at TCH, built all the cabinetry and hauled it here from his home in Elizabeth City.

The Ogburn sisters – Cindy, Kit and Carol – provided early seed money. Caretaking the museum fell to three Dowell sisters who have nurtured it – but now are ready to hand the keys to younger alums.

Maxine, Bonnie and Brenda (Bo) Dowell came to TCH with siblings Nita, Leroy and Robert in March 1946. Their mother – abandoned by an alcoholic husband – took a job and an apartment in town so she could be near her children. Nita shortly left TCH and lived with mom.

Coming to TCH was like moving into a mansion for the Dowells. As tenant farmers their housin was “wherever somebody would let us live on their land.” That sometimes meant tobacco barns where snow drifted in through the slats onto the kids who lay four across an old mattress.

And yet, said Maxine, or Mac as she’s known even through her career as a Girl Scout executive, “others had it harder.”

Although Bonnie climbed into a favorite tree and “cried a lot,” she said it didn’t take long to feel at home.

mac and bonnie dowell

Mac Dowell and Bonnie Dowell Paschal

The Dowell sisters share the memories of so many alumni: the age graded chores, graduating to more responsibility from bed making to laundry to kitchen to the farm for the boys. Everyone lined up to go to meals in central dining. One year when the snow was almost waist deep to the smaller children, the high school boys carried them into the dining hall.

Everyone learned financial responsibility. In fourth grade a child “earned” 20 cents a month. The child got a dime for his pocket and TCH put the other dime into a savings account.

As a senior Mac’s honorarium was $10, of which she received $5. When she graduated she was given $147 from the TCH account, enough to pay her share of rent in the Broad Street apartment she would share with three other TCH graduates.

As do most TCH alumni, the Dowell sisters remember their years with great fondness: wiener roasts on Saturday nights when they could wear jeans and sit with their boyfriends; a quickly flickered porch light signaling time for the lucky to grab a kiss; roller skating in the gym; movies in the school house; piano lessons; putting on plays, learning to set a proper table and all the sports opportunities.

Ron and Brenda Higgs

There he is! Ron and Brenda Higgs discover his brother’s picture on a museum tour with TCH staffer Kim MacPherson.

They recognized they had more security and opportunity than did their family members who were not at TCH. When they took their two-week summer vacation with family, their cousins would say, “I want to go back to The Children’s Home and live with them – Leroy’s got two pair of shoes.”

The Children’s Home is the very best thing that ever happened to us. – Bo Dowell Hutchins

Lee and Robert have died. Mac, 81, is retired from Girl Scouts and lives in Davie County. Bonnie, 75, who has written many poems about her time at The Children’s Home, retired from Kroger and lives in Winston-Salem. Brenda (Bo), 73, retired from teaching and lives in Winston-Salem. Nita, 82, worked for Davie County Schools and is retired in Kinston.