The Story Of Fr. Frank Hans And The Lives He Saved
As Authored by Larry Sloan~ Proudly, one of Father's Boys.
Lost Boys of OLIH
As my mom once said (actually, many times), “His birth was a piece of cake. The next sixteen years was the hard part.” – Betty Jean Sloan, 1966
A month after I was born, my dad left my mom and moved back to Iowa, his birthplace. I like to think I wasn’t the sole reason…
After a couple of months, my mom with my older sister and me in tow, followed him there. They reconciled and bought a house and acreage outside of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, near Sioux City. We lived there for a few years when my dad got a job offer with Wright Printing in Des Moines. We moved to a fourplex in Ankeny, Iowa, a young growing community with around a thousand citizens. It’s there that I grew up… or at least got older and went all through school there.
We could skip a lot of years, but those years were what ended up pointing me to become one of, “The Lost Boys of OLIH.”
I was precocious in school. Way too smart for my own good. I absorbed knowledge like a sponge and quickly got ahead of the rest of the class. I’d read my textbooks in advance and retained a great deal. For each class, I knew how the story ended, so rehashing it bored me to tears. That left me time to entertain myself, that quickly got me in trouble with the teachers. I hated homework. I considered it “busy” work. I refused to hand in homework and had to rely solely on my test scores to pass the grade. That didn’t endear me to the teachers. I was a social kid. Loved to talk to my friends (or anyone that would listen). This drew the ire of my teachers, who couldn’t let me flaunt their rules.
We didn’t have Talented & Gifted programs back then. We had “show them who the boss is” programs, which I became a frequent recipient of. I was smart and probably even a likeable kid, but they couldn’t tolerate me breaking the rules, so they made an example of me by kicking me out of the classroom, putting tape on my mouth and making me sit in the hall. When I got into Junior High, some “old school” teachers like old Mrs. Gerhardt, who would take me out into the hall and pinch the underside of my upper arm or grab my ear and twist it. Apparently, the old gal grew up on a farm. That’s what you do to horses that won’t behave.
Eventually they started sending me to the principal’s office. Our principal was Mr. Crosser and he made sure I saw the fraternity paddle hanging on his wall. At first, they just made me sit there until the bell rang for the next class, but I ended up missing too many classes, so then we began having, “The talk”. He would explain how boys like me grow up to be criminals and end up in jail. When that didn’t impress me, his frustration would boil over, and he’d slam me against the lockers. Everyone within earshot knew I was in the office again. He never really hurt me, but I’ll bet to this day, he wishes he had. They even called the state school phycologist to see what made me tick... they did a battery of tests which frustrated the psychologist and prompted the principle to sit down and explain what was happening. He said they found that I was "too smart" to fail, but that I wouldn't follow their rules. He threatened to label me as "educably retarded". As far as I could tell, they were just trying to trick me into doing my homework.
In junior high I wanted to get into sports, but because I was such a pain in the ass, they used that against me. If they couldn’t exclude me, they would ensure that I lost. In track, I was one of the fastest kids in the school, but my teacher/coach put me in a relay with the three slowest kids in school. He made sure I couldn’t win. That same teacher coached Jr high football. I was fast and had good hands, but he put me in as a guard. I weighed a featherlight 75 pounds, against guys three times my size, who he gave orders to “chew me up”. I played little league baseball, and I was pretty good at it, but the coach disliked me, so instead of playing me, he played his own son, who wasn’t even on the team and would leave me sitting on the bench.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it was from these “role models” I learned that I couldn’t trust adults to be fundamentally fair. I learned I couldn’t trust adults in places of authority. That led to the events of my life unfolding differently than most children.
By the time I was 14, my mom had divorced my dad. I’m afraid my 5’3” mom was not an imposing figure and eventually she pretty much stopped parenting. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine. I had no respect for adults. I was running with a pretty tough crowd. There were parties every weekend and in the summer, we would stay out at the river for days on end. Mom told me I had to get a job, so I got a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, the Breeze House.
Allow me to digress here, because this really did me a lot of good and it needs to be said that the owner earned my trust and respect. He was a really decent guy. If I did my work, he left me alone, gave me raises and overlooked a little horseplay between the workers. His name was Harold Endquist. He was one of the first adults I began to cautiously trust. On my birthday, he invited me out to the local airport, Sexaur Field, to take a ride in one of the club’s planes. I jumped at the chance. I had never flown before and this sounded great!
He took me up, and the feelings and view were the most amazing things I had ever experienced. Floating among the clouds, looking down at an entirely new world I never dreamt existed.
He asked me if I wanted to take the controls and I almost screamed “YES!”. Fourteen years old, and I was flying!
Then he asked the question I never expected to hear, “Would you like to learn to fly?” I almost started crying. I was hooked! He made a deal with me that if I worked for the FAA mechanic doing odd jobs, changing lights, filling fuel tanks, etc., for every seven hours I worked, I’d get one hour of flight time with instruction. The only caveat was that I needed to keep working at the Breeze House for him. As I said, he was one of the first adults I respected and trusted. He never did me wrong. I joined the Civil Air Patrol, went through ground school, and for a short time, did better in school. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most of my teachers, and I never learned to trust many of them. There were a few that I liked. Mr. Sharp, my electronics shop teacher, was cool. I took a real liking to Mr. Pederson who was my business law teacher. I loved that course! A surprise for me, was that I really liked my speech teacher, Mr. Troxel. His class gave me what I had wanted all along… a place to talk, not just to one person, but to a whole class! There were rumors Mr. Troxel might have been a little “light in the loafers” but it made no difference to me. He was just a great teacher with a great sense of humor. Later in life, I found out that he was straight as an arrow, just a little effeminate in his mannerisms. That taught me a good lesson about “book covers”.
At the beginning of my junior year, I dropped out. School was no challenge, and all I ever did was get into trouble. It wasn’t worth getting up for.
At fourteen, many of my friends older brothers. By running around with my friends, we frequently got to hang out with their brothers as well. Casey Johnson’s older brother Kelly was a local tough guy. He drank, fought, cussed, smoked and was generally a hero to us all. Don Morningstar’s brother, Lance, was also constantly in trouble with the law, for the same reasons as Kelly. Two other "old" guys, Denny Rice and Randy Dillon, let us hang around with them. Almost every time we’d see our friends, we’d see their brothers. Needless to say, we admired them for being tough guys and rebels.
I won’t say they encouraged us to be bad… okay… yeah, they did. It was a matter of being accepted into the “gang”.
It was running with this “gang” where I met my best friend, Steve Moore. Steve was a year older, but we just hit it off. He was into music and played bass guitar, and I played guitar. He was wicked smart and I respected that. Most of my regular friends were good guys, but not exactly "Phi Beta’s", if you know what I mean.
We became fast friends and what one of us didn’t think of, the other would. That’s a recipe for trouble if there ever was one.
By this point in time, my mother would begin dating again. She found a nice guy, named Howard (Howie).
Also at this time, Steve had been kicked out of his parent’s home for various infractions of the law, so it seemed right to invite him to live with us. Mom didn’t mind because she had her own social life now.
Howard was a horn dog. He used to try and get Steve and me out of the house whenever he came over. He had a small apartment on 2nd avenue and he would let Steve and me use it to stay overnight, so they’d have the house to themselves. Looking back, that was probably an error in judgement to let two teenagers run wild in an apartment. Inevitably, we started having parties at Howie’s place.
One afternoon we were standing out in front of the apartment waiting for our friends to show up, when we were approached by a stranger. He said he was the owner of the apartments and wanted to know if we’d been having parties there. We solemnly swore that it wasn’t us, he must be mistaken.
At that point, our friends pulled up to the curb in front of us, in a convertible with several girls, and began unloading cases of beer and liquor. Awkward!
That was our last party at Howie’s place. The landlord kicked Howard out. Amazingly Howard wasn’t that mad. He explained to my mom, that since her son got him kicked out, the only right thing to do was for him to move in with my mom… To this day, I swear to God, the bastard planned that.
After that, Steve began staying with other friends in Ankeny or sleeping in garden sheds or abandoned cars.
At some point, the Breeze House closed, and I lost my job. I tried several other jobs, but most never worked out. Mom, who was now blissfully cohabitating with Howie, informed me that I had to go back to school or get a job. If not, I’d have to move out.
Next thing I know, I’m packing a backpack and heading out the door.
And there… the real story begins:
I hitched into Ankeny from Des Moines, enjoying a newfound feeling of independence. I was a scout, so I knew I could pitch a camp somewhere and survive, so it wasn’t scary at all. When I got into Ankeny I was walking down the west side of highway 69, and lo and behold, Steve was walking the other way on the east side of the highway. We yelled at each other and I explained I was now homeless.
After that we were almost inseparable. People rarely saw one of us, where the other wasn’t in proximity. We either hitch-hiked or caught a ride with a friend when we wanted to go to Des Moines. Occasionally we stayed at a friend’s house. Sometimes under a bridge, in a garden shed, or an abandoned car. Steve had found most of the places when he left mom’s house.
When we needed some money to eat or to buy beer for a party, we would head to Des Moines and pan-handle in the malls. The first time was a little hard, but back in the 60’s it was not uncommon. Any money we’d get would first go to buy cigarettes for Steve (I didn’t smoke), then we would go to a fast-food place and eat. Any money we had left over, we would either donate to our friend’s party or try and find an adult to buy beer for us.
We did find that if we took our girlfriends and had them pan-handle, they always made a lot more money than Steve or I ever got! The girls had a ball. They’d smile and flirt and guys would donate generously.
In the late 60’s the city of Ankeny was growing like a weed. Getting very progressive and proud of their clean little city. Steve and I didn’t fit well in their plans. The Chief of Police back then was Art (Barney) Doubleday. He hated seeing us in town, so he gave the order to all the cops that if they found us in the city limits, they were to take us out to Orlabor Road (that was the city limits back then) and drop us off. No questions asked. That came back to bite old Barney in the butt a year or so later. Ankeny was our town. I had grown up there and Steve lived there long enough to call it home. It’s not we were bad kids. We just got bored easily. We were always looking for some way to entertain ourselves, and they frequently involved a party somewhere. One of the reasons we were invited to so many parties is because we hated showing up empty handed. We always tried to represent ourselves well, either by bringing some alcohol with us, or girls! The girls were always up for a party. It was good for their ego, to be hit on by every guy there. Or at least that seemed logical to us.
We were trying to scrape up some money for beer one time, and Steve said, “Hey, let’s go ask the priest at the church for some money for food.”
The priest here is always giving bums passing through money for food, or even putting them up at a local motel. He’d give them coats, shoes, gloves and a good night’s sleep. We figured we’d try cashing in on that!
So we headed for the church. We decided that Steve would go ask for the money because he looked older. He had a full beard, receding hairline, and was about 60 pounds overweight. I waited across the street.
Twenty minutes later, Steve came walking out. Our conversation went like this:
“How much did you get?”, I asked.
He said, “I didn’t get any money!”
Me: “That bastard!”
Steve, “He offered me a job.”
Me, “THAT BASTARD!”
Then Steve went on… “Now wait a minute, let’s think this through… We could work here for a week or two and have a bunch of money to buy booze!” Me: “Do you think he’d hire me too?” Steve, “I’ll bet he would!” And that… is how we met Father Frank Hans, our unlikely “Father” figure. Shazam…! We began work at the church as janitors. The work was fairly easy… sweeping, wiping, mopping, and following Ed, Father’s deaf brother around. Ed was a great guy. All smiles and stone deaf, Ed knew the most about the church and equipment. The guy was totally deaf, but could fix the squeak in a fan, just by the feel of it. That was pretty impressive to us. Father also had a special needs guy working there, Mark Williams. Mark stuttered a lot and had the mentality of a twelve-year-old. Although we teased Mark, and often had fun at his expense, we grew to be quite fond of Mark. He came to be like a little brother, although he was four or five years older than we were. As typical of brothers, we would step in and defend him when he was being picked on by others. Picking on Mark was our job, and we made sure that our buddies knew we would step up for him. Mark could be annoying, especially when he told everyone that he taught us all we knew… Technically, he’d been working at the church for several years before we started, so in his mind, he trained us.
We formed a long-term relationship with Mark, looking after and taking care of him, whenever possible. He stayed like family to us for decades after Father Hans passed away.
Let’s talk more about Father and his methods of raising two delinquent teenagers.
Steve and I weren’t used to people treating us well. We weren’t used to people trusting us, and admittedly, probably for good reason. Our parents had basically given up on us. They threw us away. The city of Ankeny didn’t want us around. When we were in school, the teachers gave up on us. Don’t get me wrong, we knew why. We knew we deserved everything that happened to us. We knew we were losers. So we stayed on the same path that got us there. We expected to be treated like dirt. But we also learned to fend for ourselves, since we knew no one else would raise a hand to help us. We accepted that life.
While working at the church, we got curious looks, outright hostilities from the parishioners, and people were afraid that Father was going to get robbed or worse by having us there. They knew they couldn’t trust us. But an odd thing happened… Father kept us anyway. We worked for a couple of weeks, thinking we’d bail as soon as we had enough money to throw a huge party. But an odd thing happened. We didn’t mind the work, and Father began inviting us to eat lunch with him, and even dinner. Father’s sister-in-law, Theta did all his cooking, cleaning, and household chores for him, She and Ed were great people. They didn’t judge us, they cared for us. Ed would teach us things about the church, and Theta would feed us and ask us if she could do our laundry. I guess we might have been a bit gamey, as we only changed clothes once a week or so and had been bathing in the Des Moines river when it wasn’t frozen. Father didn’t know we were homeless. He found out when he caught us sleeping in the church bus, out behind the church. He told us we needed to go home and get a good night’s sleep and we had to admit, that we didn’t have homes to go to.Out of the blue, he told us we could sleep down in the classroom. He gave us pillows and blankets that we would put away in the closet when we started work for the day. He also invited us for breakfast to, “get a good meal in us” so he could get a fair day’s work from us. This was a kindness we didn’t expect. We had since decided to keep working for Father. The work was easy, flexible and it allowed us to work alone and mostly unsupervised. That was a big change for us, so we stayed a bit longer. We always knew that we would screw it up somehow, but for now, we just enjoyed having a warm place to sleep and good meals.
Once we let Father know we’d be hanging around a while longer, he gave us the keys to the church. ALL the doors, including the rectory and the wine storage. However, he gave us this caveat, “Don’t steal the altar wine.” Steve asked, “is that because it’s been blessed?” Father said, “No, it’s just really crappy wine.” We weren’t used to that kind of trust or honesty. We broke up laughing. after the first month of sleeping in the classroom, Father had us come in for a “meeting”. We figured that this was it. We made some mistake, and he was going to fire us. Instead, he asked us if we were going to stay a while longer, and we said that we’d like to, if it was okay. To our surprise, he surprised us with what he had to say, “Boys, I’ve been watching your work, and you’re quick learners. Without you knowing it, Ed and Theta have also been watching you, and they’ve become fond of you. I’ve gotten to know you and if you’d like… I’d like you to come live in the rectory. I have a spare bedroom and a fold out bed. You already eat with me most of the time, and I think you’d sleep better if you had a real place to call home.”
We were astounded. We didn’t expect this. We had become fond of Ed and Theta, and Father was a good boss. He was patient while we learned and even handed when we screwed up. Steve and I looked at each other and didn’t know what to say… what was the catch? That night, we talked about it. It sounded too good to be true. We figured there had to be a catch somewhere. Was he going to start preaching to us? He never had up to that point, but in our experience, no one was ever nice without expecting something in return. We had given Father a fair day’s work, for fair wages, and a good working environment. Finally, we decided to give it a try, but if he started imposing curfews, too many rules, or treating us like kids, we could be packed and out on the streets again in nothing flat.
Initially, nothing changed. We woke up, ate breakfast, and started working. Father would give us a heads up if something special was going on, so we could get the church ready. We kept waiting for the sermons that never came.
That summer, Father left for a week to on vacation with Father Bacon to Clear Lake. We figured we’d have to leave while he was gone. He left us with a list of things to do, and said, “Take care of the place.” Once again, we were flabbergasted. He left us alone in the church! We both knew how important this was, so we agreed, no parties, no drinking, no anything. This was a chance to earn that trust, and we wanted that very much. On the second or third night, we were sleeping when we heard noises up on the roof. At OLIH, the church had beams that ran from the ground up to the roof. Anyone could walk right up them. We thought that someone was up there screwing around. So, we gathered up Father’s blackjack and a broom and headed up the beams to the roof. After getting up there and looking around, we found nothing, except a vent cap on a ventilation vent to the dryer and kitchen exhausts that moved as the building breathed. That was our noise.
We sat for a while up there, looking over the town and all the stars, traffic, and lights. It was beautiful. After a while, we went back down, satisfied that we did our job in looking after the place.
A few days later, Father came home, and we were actually glad to see him. The strain of being good was getting hard to bear!
Father got a call while we were working, and after hanging up, he called us in for a meeting. This time we were confident that we’d been good. That all changed when we saw Father’s face. He wasn’t happy. We asked if everything was okay, and he said, “I don’t know.”
He told us that he got a call from the Diocese. They got several calls that there was a party going on in the middle of the night, on the roof of the church, while Father was away.
The Diocese was questioning Father’s judgement in having us there.
We explained to Father exactly what happened and that it wasn’t a party at all, and that we thought we were defending the church. Then, the unexpected happened. He believed us. We still thought he was going to have to fire us and kick us out. It’s what we had come to expect from people.
Father called the parishioner's council in. Father told them what happened. He told them he believed us and despite what people thought they saw, they were wrong.
I can’t begin to tell you how Steve and I felt at that moment. No one had ever done that for us. In the past, we were always guilty, no matter what we said or did. Father was sticking up for us, taking our side. We had so very few advocates that were willing to stick their neck out for two long haired, teenage, hoodlums.
We became closer to Father after that. We trusted him. We began listening to him more closely after that, to his stories, and to his advice and counsel.
A corner was being turned, even though we didn’t know it at that time.
More to come… Next,
Lost Boys of OLIH