James E. West: Orphan and Hero

Ogdensburg. City Hospital and Orphanage
Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphanage [courtesy harvardartmuseums.org]
When my son was six he begged me each day not to leave him on the steps of the large Brooklyn school house. He hated his teacher. Fair enough. When the bell rang and the kindly police officer took my son’s hand and led him inside, my son looked back in panic and I’d have to turn away. I ended up homeschooling him that year but that’s another story.

When our foster kid was taken to a mental health facility after finding out her mother had given her up to the system she cried for days. We’d visit and she’d beg us to take her home. When she said “home” it was expressed with such  profound yearning and pain it was hard for us to bear. Home meant with us or with her mother or with the last foster family who decided they could keep only her siblings.

A long time ago a six-year-old boy named James E. West took his last walk with his mother. I imagine it a quiet, tense one. Maybe James sensing his mother’s anguish held her hand a little tighter. Maybe Mother didn’t say where they were going for fear that young James would make it more difficult than it already was going to be.

Coughing blood into her soiled handkerchief Mother knocked on the orphanage door in Washington and left her boy with his large, panicked eyes on the steps as she raced away, unable to look back. She died three months later of tuberculosis.

When James complained of hip pain it took a while before he was treated for a tubercular infection in the hip. It took two years (one of those years strapped to a painful leg brace intended to straighten his bones) for him to be strong enough to get around on crutches.

Most boys were loaned out to work, but poor James with his weak leg was sent to sew with the girls in the sewing room. Across the street was a real school for normal kids and James spent many a sewing afternoon gazing out in envy at the kids with books and nice coats. A friend of his mother’s made the effort to lobby for James to attend school. And so he went and excelled.

James was one of those exemplary people who when fortune smiled his way he shared it. He begged the orphanage to open its library to the children and when they said the books would get too worn out James organized the children to cover every single book. Using the money he earned sewing he offered his fellow inmates a penny for every book they read. He taught himself how to ride a bicycle, graduated high school and left the orphanage as a staff member at age 19.

James studied law and passed the bar, never forgetting the children. When Theodore Dreiser hired him to oversee The Delineator Magazine “Child Rescue Campaign”  for orphaned children James found his calling. Each issue  featured an orphan and their needs. The response was tremendous. Requests to adopt poured in. People all over the country wanted to help.

I wonder what James thought. He was no longer a child and no one had begged to adopt him yet he worked tirelessly for others. Eventually he met the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington at The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He asked this question which revolutionized the way Americans looked at child welfare: “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents–aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”

The question is loaded, isn’t it? Worthy character, temporary misfortune, suitable homes . . . we still struggle with the messy, horrifying realities of child abuse, neglect and poverty, yet there are little known boys and girls who rise up despite their misfortune. There are men and women who nudge the system to send a child to that school across the way.

James West gives me hope.

Essay inspired by The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage by Dale Keiger





15 responses to “James E. West: Orphan and Hero”

  1. Movingly written, Adrienne. It is to our shame that we still struggle so badly with these messes and that such situations increase by the day with current governments not giving a tupenny for the poor.


    • If we are the government then what does that say about us? I wonder if we’ll ever find the balance between personal responsibility and government programs. Sometimes it seems the programs only make matters worse, yet relying on charities and individual compassion didn’t seem to work either.

      I suppose the only thing to do is to take the world as it is and do our small part. We never know how a small kindness will change a person’s life.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This really touched me Adrienne. The Ethel Harpst Home where I once lived in is no longer called an orphanage and it only takes troubled kids now. They don’t send the kids to public school, and they all undergo treatment with drugs and behavior therapies. I don’t like that. Siblings are torn apart and it was once family friendly, keeping siblings together, if not on the same unit, at least on the same grounds. I raised three of my own, but often had thoughts of taking in foster kids. My health wouldn’t let me now. But I think my nursing career was, in part, my own way of paying back society.


    • I’ve had so many (too many lol) amazing experiences with nurses. Two of my aunts were nurses. They were also sent to live in an orphanage until they busted out! You’ve definitely given back!!

      We are our foster kid’s “visiting resource.” Isn’t that a horrible way of putting it? The poor kid is in a place where she goes to school “on campus.” We’re hoping not for too long. But it seems once the system gets their hands on a kid (even with the best intentions) it’s hard getting the kid out. The drug part upsets me for sure.

      Did you find any positives to your time spent at Harpst Home?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Many, amny positives. I have had expeiences with all cultures and different sociao-economic backgrounds that I would have never been exposed to had it not been for foster care. It taught me tolerance, acceptance and the value of love. I was introduced to religious faiths from all over the world, all faiths, many cultures who brought back artifacts from their missionaries abroad. I learned to paint in watercolors and oils and learned to throw on a pottery wheel. None of those experiences would have been afforded me if not for the orphanage. And the people, from a variety of peers to mentors. I would not want to change anything about my life except for having become estrabged from my sisters over the years…and that, too, may be a blessing.


      • Sisters. They’re funny creatures. Sounds like your life experience was amazing in so many ways. While you were going through it did you feel positive about it or did that come later?


      • At the time I felt frustrated and lonely, misunderstood. Getting through college, after all the turmoil of what I felt like were failures in my life, changed my world. After years of hard work and tears, I had finally accomplished it all. I had a lovely family with three children and a supportive spouse and a good paying career. We lived on a farm and had a two and a half acre garden, animals. My kids could be difficult at times (aren’t they all) but they were very happy and had a good childhood. I missed my parents terribly when I had my own kids, but was able to reconcile with my father in my adult life, and for that, I was grateful. Of course, my mother’s suicide could never be undone and that really scarred me for a very long time. It was not until I divorced when my kids were in college, that I really began to look back on my life with enormous gratitude for my life experiences. From about age thirty-six to the present, I cam to the understanding that I am a much better person for having lived the life I did, and I would not change a thing. Everything happens for a reason. And I am happier now than I have ever been able to be. I have a loving, kind, and supportive husband who makes me laugh every day, a comfortable home with a daughter and three grandkids close by. Even though I was disabled a few years ago, having both career and family, and being able to comfortably focus on my writing, make me feel highly successful…even if I never sold another book. I’m surrounded by people who care, and I love my life. I would not go back and change a thing. Serenity is knowing the good doesn’t last forever, but neither does the bad. Sybil said that in my book, and I live by that motto.


  3. Read a statistic recently that I thought was stunning — and relates to the story: Throughout the 1800s, 1 out of every 7 people in Europe died of TB. This includes all other causes of death, from war to other diseases. TB was the monster. It is still a major health threat worldwide, but now it is primarily gaining ground in crowded cities where other factors cause weakened immune systems. So still out there and still killing people.


    • TB is a very scary thing. Yes, a huge killer. I went to school with a girl who died when she was only 12 of cystic fibrosis. She came to school and coughed all day long. We were all afraid of her (stupid kids). But of course we all felt sorry for her as well. She lived such a sad and lonely life. I know it’s not the same as TB but lung disease is so terrifying.


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