Back to his boyhood home
Return to Thornwell Greer man comes back to boyhood home, remembers baseball, brogans, raking leaves
He held a picture, and it was like the years just melted away.
Darvin Fleming, of Greer, took a trip back in time last Wednesday, just by riding in a white stretch limo onto the campus of Thornwell Home for Children. It was his first trip back since 1964.
“The last time I was here,” he said, “I went to get my brother at the Broadway Theater to tell him we were going home. We went to our mom in Greenville.”
Fleming thought about coming back to the place he spent nine years of his boyhood – 1955-1964 – but never got around to it. His return trip was orchestrated through Second Wind Dreams, Pruitt Health Hospice and Thornwell. Fleming has a terminal lung disease. He said he has lost 70 pounds. Boyhood friend Keith Harp said he, too, needs to lose weight. Fleming said, “Not like this.”
Now that he has visited the Alumni House, the former home for babies on Thornwell’s South Broad Street campus, and the cottage of his youth, Fleming aspires to return for Thornwell’s Great Rally in late June – early July, maybe bringing his brother with him. His brother also faced a recent health crisis.
“I’ll be telling all my family about today,” Fleming said.
Harp showed Fleming some photo books he had made about Thornwell. Alumni cottage caretaker Charlie Nalley also had some photos laid out for Fleming to see in the spacious parlor that houses all the Thornwell photo albums and artifacts. Beside this parlor is another that contains the old Thornwell printing press, although Fleming said he never was part of the printing work detail. He didn’t remember working on the Thornwell farm, but he remembered raking leaves.
Today’s Thornwell kids do the same thing. The numbers there have declined significantly now from Fleming’s time, when the census was about 375 children at any one time. Often, brothers and sisters came together, and stayed until adequate arrangements could be made for them to leave with relatives. For some, that meant “aging out” – “My brother and I went to my grandmother’s,” Fleming said.
“I was here with my brother, Wayne. He was a red head, a real scrapper. I also have two half-sisters. My dad came to see me once in the infirmary. He brought me a black baseball glove and Krispy Kreme,” said Fleming, the memories flooding back.
“I was very fortunate to live here – me and my brother. It’s like this ain’t really happening.”
Fleming started playing baseball at age six and progressed through Pony League. He and Kemp remembered hitting homeruns onto the top of Georgia Cottage.
Fleming and his wife Lou have been married 46 years.
“All girls rule my house,” he said.
When he left Thornwell, Darvin was new in the neighborhood, and came by Lou’s mom’s house one day. He left his hat, “so he could come back,” Lou said. He signed the Alumni House guest book – Lou fetching his glasses from inside her purse.
Darvin said, “This is very heart-warming. I will think about it for a long time. I won’t forget, I know that. I will broadcast it to my family – I was lucky to be here.”
Lots of Thornwell’s children feel the same way, looking back through the glass of time and age. That at the lowest points of their young lives – because of death or the socially accepted situations of a bygone time - people took them in. Yes, it was an “institution.” But many times, the siblings were together. “I had six here at one time,” said Keith Kemp who, turning 67 in November, is a year older than Darvin Fleming.
Thornwell was established in 1875, and the current House of Peace was the home of Dr. William Plummer Jacobs, the campus founder and Clinton icon. It has survived through its days as an orphanage, to the current Department of Social Services, to closure of the well-respected Thornwell High School, and into the present as a 3K and 4K site affiliated with First Steps, and into a possible future re-opening of the school affiliated with Erskine College. The “Thornwell Kids” have been a fixture in Clinton, supported by the Kiwanis Club for many years, attending Clinton schools, being taken under the wing of countless Presbyterian College students and professors, and acting in and watching shows at The Gillam Center where, last weekend, “Seussical Jr.” had the second of its two-weekend run by the resident company, the Laurens County Community Theatre. Every once in a while, some will leave campus – and Clinton will be alerted to look for them – but it’s pretty rare.
“We played baseball at a field at PC, and loaded up on plums. We had Christmas parties,” Fleming said.
“That was by the Kiwanis Club,” Kemp said.
“Clothes Angels” from the community visited the kids, and there was a whole room full of hand-me-downs for the kids’ wardrobes as they grew into young man and womanhood. They got two pair of shoes per year.
During his nine years on the campus, Fleming lived in three or four houses as he “aged up.” Some houses came and went, felled by fire or age. The place has huge trees, but limbs crack and fall sometimes. The pool is still there. The back lot is still the farm. There’s an entry street between two pillars of solid, gray stone.
Kemp said the kids never left campus on their own, “We knew our boundaries by the sidewalks.” And Fleming flashed a boyish grin, “We knew how far to push them.”