Many Omaha citizens may not have realized that two mayoral elections took place last month in the community. One was for the City of Omaha, and a second election voted in 17-year-old Maddie Hagan as this year’s Mayor of Boys Town—a tradition the small city has held the majority of the past 95 years.
Boys Town Founder Father Edward J. Flanagan believed that every student should have civic responsibility. His hope was that when kids left Boys Town, they would go on to hold office in local government as a way to foster change. To prepare kids for that duty, he wanted Boys Town to be a place where kids could share their ideas and were treated with respect in doing so. Boys Town’s first mayoral election took place in 1926, and William Roach was its first Mayor. More organized elections were held throughout the 1930s, and Tony Villone became its second Mayor.
Candidates created campaigns and gave speeches to the other students. Every boy voted, and Fr. Flanagan was the only adult who voted. A voting area was set up on campus. Kids filled out a paper ballot, dropped it into a ballot box, and adults on campus counted the votes. This system occurred annually through the 1980s.
Thomas Lynch, who has been Boys Town’s Director of Community Programs for the past 35 years and the Boys Town Historian, said elections have grown to become full campaigns. “Boys would organize political parties, campaign rallies, and post signs around campus. All boys would vote regardless of race or religion, even when laws in the country prohibited from doing so.” There is a famous scene from the 1938 movie Boys Town, starring Mickey Rooney, in which his character runs for Mayor and a band marches through the Village as part of his campaign rally.
During the 1930s, Fr. Flanagan set up his own “Supreme Court” system at Boys Town. If a student had an infraction, they went before a court of peers, in which Fr. Flanagan served as judge. Penalties might include having to do extra chores on the farm or not being able to watch a movie on movie night. Lynch said it’s similar to the reward system Boys Town still uses today. When the population at Boys Town grew to more than 900 in the 1940s, it wasn’t feasible to retain the court system, but the Mayoral election remained.
Fr. Flanagan worked with the Truman administration as a missionary on fact finding missions to Asia and Europe, setting up communities for war orphans. Following World War II, allied forces visited Boys Town, learned about its student election system, and then brought that system to children in Germany, Japan, and Korea to teach children the importance of a free election. “It was such a unique concept at that time,” Lynch said. “Father looked at kids as individuals, and he changed the way kids were perceived across the U.S. and around the world.”
Today, all Boys Town students have Civic as part of their social studies curriculum so they understand the importance of voting. On election day, time is set aside for every student to vote. Hagan is one of many female Mayors, the first of which were elected at Boys Town in the 1980s. Paper ballots and ballot boxes are still used. Candidates begin campaigning in April, and the election is held in early May, with the winner announced during the annual awards convocation. Hagan, along with Vice Mayor Jay Ballard, will spend the next year working with school administrators to implement students’ ideas. Hagan’s campaign slogan was “We are better together through discussions, encouraging, and being kind to everyone.” Hagan said, “Boys Town has changed the trajectory of my life. I want to be an encouraging leader and lead the campus towards a more inclusive and proactive Boys Town.”
The Boys Town Mayor doesn’t just represent the students but represents Boys Town as a whole as well. When dignitaries visit Boys Town, such as when former Second Lady Karen Pence visited in 2020, Mayor Hazakiah Williams welcomed her when she arrived. In the 1930s, Fr. Flanagan arranged to have the Boys Town Mayor, who was the mayor of the smallest city in the U.S. visit the Mayor of New York City—the largest city in the U.S.
True to Fr. Flanagan’s vision, Boys Town has had many of its students go on to hold civic offices, including state representatives, law enforcement, and many who have been instrumental with social movements and social equality. “Going out into the world and helping your fellow man is an important concept that Fr. Flanagan had,” Lynch said. “We make sure to carry that on with our boys and girls today.”