Grove City, PA
Every day was Father’s Day
It’s a great thing to receive a card or a phone call on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day from kids who have grown up to live good lives away from home. It means you must have done a few things right that your kids continue to appreciate.
How much more of an honor would it be to get a call every Father’s Day, for years and years, from someone who isn’t your child, but who chooses to honor you as his father? That’s what happened to Dick Lichtenberger of Jackson Center.
The caller had been one of the countless boys whom Dick nurtured during many years of working with youth. His life headed in that direction from the time he graduated from Franklin High School and Welcher’s Business School in the mid-1930s.
“All my life I was interested in encouraging boys and young men,” Dick said.
Just out of high school, he served on the National Commission to Combat Juvenile Delinquency. That gave him an early opportunity to learn about some of the challenges faced by young people growing up in disadvantaged circumstances, and to meet national leaders who were working to help them.
“We met in large cities,” Dick said. “When we went to a dinner in Cleveland, our minister arranged for me to sit beside Dr. Clawson. To me he was the Billy Graham of his time.”
Dick got a job with Mobil Oil, which he kept for 25 years. All that time he continued to work with young people in church, Sunday School, dramatics, sports, and scouting. He established the first Cub Scout troop in Franklin. He also served as Director of the Youth Center at the First Baptist Church in Franklin and became an ordained Baptist minister.
When the Mobil plant where Dick worked burned down, he applied for a job at Polk Center. Tom Jones, the farm manager there, hired him to work in his office.
After working at Polk for about three years, Dick learned of an opening for recreation director at George Junior Republic.
“About the middle of January I was interviewed by Mr. W. T. Gladden. He said, ‘When can you start?’ I said, ‘How about the first of February?’ He said, ‘How about tomorrow night?’ So I worked both jobs for a while, at Polk and George Junior Republic.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, George Junior Republic was a bit different from what it is today. Now there are many cottages, with four or five boys in each cottage.
“There were only nine cottages at that time for about 400 kids. I was in charge of personnel for all the cottages, and I was the admittance officer who assigned the boys to the cottages. I had one cottage myself with 75 boys in it.”
The kids were between the ages of nine and 17. Most were there as a result of a court order, and stayed for about ten months, one school year.
There were also a few students who were admitted privately by their families.
“Two boys were the sons of one of John Kennedy’s campaign managers. And one was the son of an army officer in London who heard about the cottage I happened to have. He said he wanted his son to be sent there.”
Supervising 75 boys, almost all of whom had been in trouble with the law, was quite a challenge. Dick’s approach was straight forward.
“I made them scared of me. It’s hard to believe, but I laid the law right down, and they believed me.”
At times the challenges could be intensified by the circumstances.
“One time a boy came down with spinal meningitis. I was quarantined with these 75 boys for a whole month.”
There were also very satisfying projects.
“One day Mr. Gladden called me in. When you got called in by him, it was usually because you had done something wrong. But not this time. He asked me to direct the drum and bugle corps. Somebody had donated a lot of drums and bugles and uniforms. We performed at parades throughout the area. It was a nice affair. It was my pride and joy. We won an Honorable Mention at one of the annual Zoo Parades in Erie. There were about 40 boys involved in it.”
While most of the boys grew from the experience, one took advantage of it in a different way.
“The first runaway I had from my jurisdiction was from the drum and bugle corps. He had worn his clothes under his uniform to the Stoneboro Fair. I found the uniform in a ditch. They never did find him.”
Enforcing strict discipline was a necessary part of Dick’s job, but he knew it wasn’t the key to helping GJR’s students. Boys may tolerate and even respect discipline, but what they appreciate and admire is the genuine concern demonstrated by Dick and the other staff members at the school.
“There was one kid, Billy Martin, who was a problem out there. But he seemed to turn out pretty good. Every father’s day after he left he would call me. He never missed. One day I got a call from Philadelphia from my case worker down there. He told me Billy had died. He had no family. Among his possessions was a bundle of letters from me. I wrote a letter then to the church he belonged to down there to tell them a little about his life, and they put that in his funeral service.”
There were others who never forgot what Dick did for them.
“Every month or six weeks one student who lives in Grove City visits me. He was my first black student.”
Dick has recently heard from another of his former charges.
“He had lost track of me, so he wrote a letter to the school and asked them if they knew where I was. I answered his letter and he’s coming out here to visit. That’s after 40 years!”
Dick acknowledges the fact that the only things most people hear about George Junior Republic is sports and problems. He regrets that more people don’t know about the many successes achieved with the boys.
“We don’t win them all, but there are more victories than the other way, as far as I’m concerned.”
Before Dick left George Junior Republic, Mr. Gladden passed away and his son took over.
“They built a new office building. They asked me if I would like to have Mr. Gladden’s desk in my office. I said I would be honored. They put his desk in my office and it stayed there until I left.”
After working at George Junior Republic for twelve years, Dick went back to work at Polk in the Community Readiness Department, which was responsible for getting patients ready to leave the institution. Sometimes there were special challenges there, too.
“They sent a patient named Richard to a school in Oil City or someplace. One day he got in trouble. They called and said to come and get him, and bring a straitjacket. So I went up to the school. There was a teacher under the desk, scared to death. You can understand that. Richard was a big man. I said, ‘Now come on, Richard, let’s go.’ He just grinned at me and came over. We didn’t need the straitjacket.”
Dick retired from Polk in 1981. His service to others was not limited to his work at Polk and George Junior Republic. He served as the chaplain of the Grove City AARP and the Jackson Grange. He was president of the Mercer Area Senior Citizens, and program director of the Stoneboro Golden Agers. And he served as Jackson Center borough councilman, and was the town’s mayor for five years.
If all of that weren’t enough, he served as pastor of the Plum and Troy Baptist Church in Chapmanville and the First Baptist Church in Stoneboro. He has directed church choirs and plays, and established a Jackson Center community choir.
Through his work with the youth at the Baptist church in Stoneboro, Dick met a very special person. Among the class of 35 young boys was one whose best friend was a kid named Gary Anderson. Through him, Dick met his mother, a widow from Jackson Center named Thelma Anderson. They got married on July 6, 1970.
Thelma is well-known to the people of Jackson Center because she was a rural mail carrier there for 46 years. When she started, she was one of just seven women mail carriers in the entire United States.
“Today people will come up to her,” Dick said, “and say, ‘Do you remember me? You carried my mail.”
Thelma is a modest, gentle person who does not want to be in the spotlight. She would rather be behind it, shining it on her husband and supporting him in everything he does. She is quietly proud of his accomplishments.
He, in turn, truly appreciates her love and support.
When you have the love of your family, as well as the respect and admiration of others, you can’t ask for much more.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008