Hendrick Home’s new building will highlight the home’s history and the legacy of benefactors Tom & Ida Hendrick.
Few Abilenians have failed to notice the imposing building that has graced the corner of South 27th and Treadaway for more than 80 years or enjoy seeing the horses that roam the grounds along Sayles Blvd.
But for the generations of children who have breathed life inside the walls of Hendrick Home for Children’s Main Building, the structure is far more than an interesting piece of architecture; it is a source of love, comfort and security.
Now, thanks to an initiative by Hendrick Home’s president and CEO, Dr. David Miller, as well as the creativity of Bird Thomas and Judy Godfrey, members of the community will finally get a hands- on look at what the home is and has been, as well as get to know the personalities of those who served the area’s children with selfless devotion and care.
The Hendrick Legacy
Thomas and Ida Hendrick were generous with their fortune – a result of the success of the vast Hendrick oil field – donating massive sums to the West Texas Baptist Sanitarium, which in 1936 was renamed Hendrick Memorial Hospital, as well as contributing financially to Hardin-Simmons University and the Salvation Army.
However, it was Hendrick Home that author and historian Oscar Kimsey Bowen described as the couple’s “greatest achievement.” The 52-acre tract of land on which the home was built was not intended as an orphanage, but rather as a place for children who could not reside with their parents, which was common during the Great Depression.
In his 1962 book “Mr. Hendrick: Rancher, Oilman, Philanthropist,” Bowen said it was the couple’s wish that “the children attend Abilene public schools, have daily responsibilities, maintain ties with their families if possible and attend church regularly.” The author goes on to say that “although their love for children and their desire to help those who needed it reached around the world, it was best manifested in Abilene, where Thomas G. and Ida Hendrick built and endowed Hendrick Home for Children.”
Building for the Future
Although the building fostered and cultivated many a life and was a monument to the Hendrick’s benevolence and generosity, Miller said it became increasingly clear that the structure had become functionally obsolete.
According to a 2017 Abilene Reporter-News article, Miller said even though Hendrick Home’s beneficiary ensured that the structure was “built to standards far beyond its time… the Main Building is no longer up to construction standards, despite being well maintained and updated throughout the years…(It) is tired and worn out, and it no longer matches the function of what we do in our mission.”
As a result, the multi-phased, $25 million Building the Future campaign was born. Miller said the iconic building will be constructed as a virtual facsimile of the original structure. In addition to having more space and cost-effective utilities, as well as – among other amenities – 12 Family Care Suites and four college apartments, the new construction will also feature a Heritage Display, the goal of which is to preserve artifacts that are as much a part of Hendrick Home as are the residents and staff.
In a 2018 KTXS report, Barbara Dahl, vice president of community development, said the decision to raze the building was “not taken lightly.”
“We feel like taking her down and putting her back up, that she’ll be more efficient and we will be able to serve more children and single parents,” Dahl said of the structure. “She has served us well; she’s had a lot of children underneath that roof.”
Curating and Preserving
Keepsakes, photographs and letters were salvaged and stored for safekeeping to be displayed on a timeline, as well as in six Vignette Rooms that are being designed by Thomas and Godfrey.
Miller, who has served as CEO since 1994, tasked the two with “curating eight decades of artifacts and the stories they represent, in order to create a multisensory experience for the community, the exes and the current ‘Homers’ to enjoy.”
He said when the Main Building’s basement flooded, ruining Tom’s desk, he knew something needed to be done to preserve what he described as “80 years of artifacts.”
“It wasn’t doing anyone any good for these things to be in a basement or attic,” said Miller, who added that in 2017, as he was watching a downtown parade, an idea occurred to him.
“I was standing near the Grace Museum, and I saw Judy’s name and realized then that I wanted her to be the one to curate these artifacts. She agreed as long as I brought Bird along on the project,” he said. “Judy has a great sense for history and Bird has so much creativity. When you put those two together they are so professional and really fun to be around.”
In a letter to Hendrick Home executives, Thomas, formerly the Center for Contemporary Arts Curator of Fun Learning Experiences, and Godfrey, the former Grace Museum Executive Director, said that “preserving precious memories of all who have grown up at Hendrick Home for Children and all who ever will, is of the utmost importance in the mind of those whose responsibilities include making and holding those memories in their hearts.”
Godfrey, who describes Miller as “a visionary,” said she was immediately intrigued by the project.
“I told David, ‘wow this sounds huge,’” said Godfrey, who describes herself more of a “team member than a solo act.”
“I definitely wanted Bird on board, because I am in awe of her creativity and can-do attitude. Once we started going through every part of that old building, we realized the memories go back a long way and we kept finding treasures in the most unlikely of places,” she said, adding that “I know it was the Lord’s hand calling David to do this project because it was the right thing for me at the right time.”
Designing an Experience
Godfrey drew on years of museum experience and thought carefully about how to structure the museum, so as to provide visitors with the best all-around experience in order to breathe life into the artifacts.
“David felt it was very important to have a recorded history of the Home, its founders and the residents and out of that Legacy Hall was born,”Thomas said.
So in keeping with Miller’s vision, a timeline will be set up in the Hall and will acquaint visitors with the Hendricks’ life as well as the beginnings of the Home and those who were instrumental in its growth and success. Among the visual reminders are an 1889 photo of the couple’s Las Cruses, New Mexico, ranch house, a section of oil leases, and a photo of the 43,000 acre, three-county Hendrick River Ranch, which in the 1970’s would become home for children who thrived in a more rural setting.
One of the timeline’s photos is of the Hendricks’ residence in the 800 block of Orange in north Abilene, where Ida would sometimes invite the older girls to educate them on the “ways of polite society,”Thomas said.“Because these girls didn’t have mothers to help them with matters of etiquette, Ida would take on that role, inviting girls – and even some boys – to her home.”
In fact, it was quite likely Ida’s influence that was the nascence of Hendrick Home.
“Tom loved cars and between 1927 and 1928, he and Ida visited several children’s homes around the state,”Thomas said, who speculated that perhaps the reason for such visits was the tragic death of the couple’s only son, Joseph.
Thomas said she and Godfrey found photos of various children’s homes in Ida’s silver-padded keepsake book, and it is through artifacts such as this that the lives of those associated with the home are taking shape.
In keeping with the museum’s all-senses-on-board theme, visitors will have access to telephones that they can pick up and dial to hear a story narrated by actors portraying the Hendricks as well as the original employees of the home, Willie and Margaret Turnerhill.
“We thought long and hard about who would act the parts of the Hendricks and the Turnerhills, since whoever read the scripts would need to encapsulate the essence of these four people,” said Thomas, who described the two couples as “the four pillars of the Home.”
“These actors will give the listener a feel for the Hendrick and Turnerhill’s actual stories, which will in turn serve as an introduction into the heart of the home,” she said.
Thomas said Ida’s scripts, read by actress Celia Gesting, convey not only the acute pain of her son’s death, but also her wit and intelligence.
“Ida was smart, strong and independent and through Hendrick Home she was provided the family she never had,” she said.
Similarly, Tom’s scripts convey his no-nonsense, sometimes eccentric sensibility, his love of ranching and rural life, as well as his abiding respect for his wife.
Margaret Turnerhill’s neice Anna Davis will portray her aunt and Milton Turnerhill will read the part of his uncle, who began working for the Hendricks when he was 19 years old.
Thomas and Godfrey said the Hendrick and Turnerhill displays “encapsulate the essence of who the cornerstones are” and will provide the necessary backstory to appreciate better the Vignette Rooms that will house the actual artifacts.
“It is very important to engage people and keep them interested, and it is through this personalization and multi-sensory approach that we feel like we will be able to do that,” Godfrey said.
Thomas and Godfrey said the Vignette Rooms will be arranged around a central boardroom and will include Mr. Hendrick’s Office, The Ranch House, The Kitchen, a Dormitory Room, The Hospital and a Multi-Purpose Space that will house the barber chair, grooming accessories and the sewing machine.
Thomas said visitors will get to “experience” the museum as opposed to simply touring the museum.
“This is truly going to be multi-sensory,” she said. “In front of the Hendrick memorabilia visitors will hear old-time gospel music, which is what Tom and Ida listened to, and visitors can enjoy speakeasy jazz, which was a favorite of the Turnerhills.”
Thomas also describes what are in store for visitors in the Ranch and Kitchen rooms.
“In front of the Ranch Vignette you’ll hear all the things you would if you were on the banks of the Brazos River, such as crickets, cattle and the occasional sound of a rattlesnake. And on the back wall there will be over 200 revolving images which will give the visitor the sense of gazing outside,” said Thomas, who added that there will be movies showing children playing at the actual Hendrick Ranch.
Similarly, the Kitchen, over which Margaret served as supervisor, will feature sounds of vegetables being chopped, and soup boiling, while the smell of yeast permeates the air.
Connecting with the Community
Miller acknowledged that for many Abilene residents and visitors, Hendrick Home is something “they know is there but don’t know much about” and hopes the museum will not only serve as a way to reintroduce Hendrick Home to the community, but will also give the current residents a sense of their place in history.
Thomas agrees and added that the museum will be a way to create a bond between the Home and the community.
“About 1500 kids have benefitted from Hendrick Home for Children, and this museum is feeding the children’s spirits by establishing their place in history,” Thomas said. “At the same time it is feeding the community with information and helping them feel a part of the Home as well. This is too great a story not to be a part of.”
A particularly vivid and poignant script is one in which Ida describes life with her infant son at their ranch in New Mexico and the harsh conditions in which they lived.
“He was a beautiful and sweet-natured child, and was a great comfort to me…Tom and his younger brother, Bernard were almost always gone – either buyin,’ sellin’ or herdin’ cattle. My days were spent in that God-forsaken dugout fightin’ off snakes, spiders and other varmints, but when Little Joe was born, my attentions were all focused on him.”
She then goes on to describe an illness which resulted in his death and her journey to forgive her husband who was away at the time, leaving her to make the 40-mile journey to a doctor in El Paso alone.
“By the time we got there, Joseph’s illness had reached a point where there wasn’t much the doctor could do…I have to tell you that forgiving Tom Hendrick for the harsh conditions he had us livin’ in and then for not being home when we needed him most, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…God and I went around and around, as did Tom and I…and I finally came to accept this loss and make myself useful to others.”
Ida’s scripts, read by actress Celia Gesting, convey not only the acute pain of her son’s death but also her wit and intelligence.
“Ida was smart, strong and independent and through Hendrick Home she was provided the family she never had,” she said.
Tom’s scripts convey his no-nonsense, sometimes eccentric sensibility, his love of ranching and rural life, as well as his abiding respect for his wife, of whom he says, “I always thought I was good enough and smart enough to do just about anything I wanted to do…and then this girl came along who thought the same thing and I married her.”
Of her generosity, Tom said, “…she was generous – to a fault…a lot of people thanked the Good Lord for the blessings that were bestowed upon them. Little did they know that He was using Ida to put pressure where it was needed.”
So many families and generations are connected by Hendrick Home and this is apparent especially in the actors who read the Turnerhill narratives.
Margaret Turnerhill’s niece Anna Davis will portray her aunt and Milton Turnerhill will read the part of his uncle, who began working for the Hendricks when he was 19 years old.
Milton said he is proud to narrate the story of his uncle, whom he describes as a “true cowboy.”
He is also proud of the role his family has played in the history of the Home.
“I spent 21 years in the military and I’ve been several places around the world where, when someone found out my last name, would ask if I was kin to Willie. The first time was in Vietnam and then it happened in Germany also. Running into all these people who lived at Hendrick Home speaks volumes about the kids who were helped and just shows how many people have passed through those doors,” he said.
By Molly Hill