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Harry Dean Smith, class of ’63, is carrying on. “There were 33 students in our class — 23 girls and 10 boys. We never won an election! We had our

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Harry Dean Smith, class of ’63, is carrying on. “There were 33 students in our class — 23 girls and 10 boys. We never won an election! We had our

Where the Heart Is

Harry Dean Smith, class of ’63, is carrying on. “There were 33 students in our class — 23 girls and 10 boys. We never won an election! We had our pick of women, but none of them picked us!” The classmates he’s hugging, Lynne Barnes and Carolyn Herndon, laugh. “We’ve been lifelong friends,” Smith boasts, and well he might: All three grew up at the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford, then known as Oxford Orphanage.

“My mother had passed away, and my father was in a TB sanitorium,” Herndon recalls. “My grandfather was a Mason, and he brought me here and threw me in the swimming pool, and that was it.”

Lynne Barnes (left), Harry Dean Smith, and Carolyn Herndon have been friends since they met as children at Oxford Orphanage. photograph by Eric Waters

High schools, colleges, the armed services, and sports teams — never mind families — hold reunions and homecomings, but few feature folks who grew to alums from diapers. This is homecoming weekend at the Masonic Home, which has, almost quietly, beneath the radar, been raising “any child that needs a home and care,” Board Chairman Speed Hallman says, from infancy to college and beyond. This year marks MHCO’s 150th anniversary, and during those decades, more than 10,000 children have called the campus home.

The Masonic Home was founded as St. John’s College in the 1850s by the Masons, a worldwide fraternity devoted to fellowship, moral discipline, and mutual assistance. When the Civil War doomed the school, the Grand Lodge held a vote to determine whether to sell the property or, because the war had left so many families shattered, create an orphanage. The Oxford Orphan Asylum opened in 1873. Masons are taught that “every human being has a claim upon our kind offices,” Hallman quotes the old-fashioned language. “Our kind offices means whatever we can do to help people. We are specifically encouraged to care for the widows and orphans in our midst.” Today, MHCO is not only the oldest children’s home in North Carolina but one of the oldest nonprofits in the state, as well.

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“Orphanage” often carries a negative connotation, casting back to Dickensian workhouses where no one had enough to eat. “Asylum” conjures an even worse image. But MHCO more resembles a bucolic college campus, with its long front drive sweeping up past a dozen two-story brick “cottages” named for teachers and donors. Towering oak trees cast a leafy shade over the lawns, which today are overrun with alums, their families and friends, and local Oxfordians. All are here to celebrate, eat, listen to music, and, most of all, reconnect with each other and their pasts.

Like any homecoming, there’s backslapping and bad jokes and bands. And although each alum’s story is different, and nearly no one was an actual orphan, each has a common theme: a family in distress, under duress. “My mother died, and my father couldn’t take care of nine children,” Smith says. “I was 10 when I came, 19 when I graduated.”

Amid the festivities, homecoming attendees can visit the Cobb Center at Dunn Cottage to explore the history of MHCO, revisiting its days as Oxford Orphan Asylum. photograph by Eric Waters

MHCO isn’t a treatment facility, but “even if there’s no trauma at home, it’s trauma to come here, to leave your dog and your bed,” says Rebecca Adams, museum director and archivist. A married couple lives in each cottage with the children and serves three meals, functioning as parental figures. Recently, one couple adopted a 5-year-old who’d been in 12 foster placements “before he found us,” says Kevin Otis, the MHCO administrator. “They do really want to stay here. They understand this is the right place. Instead of ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ our approach is, ‘What did that kid have to go through, and how can we help?’”

The Masonic Home for Children at Oxford was formerly known as the Oxford Orphan Asylum. Photography courtesy of SALLIE MAE LIGON MUSEUM & ARCHIVES & MASONIC HOME FOR CHILDREN AT OXFORD

Up on a stage in front of the St. John’s Administration Building, music thumps from the sound system. Harry Smith is still carrying on. He points. “That’s the bicycle repair shop, but it used to be the smokehouse. I slaughtered hogs, worked in the print shop. Everybody did something.”

Smith helped sponsor and set up the fundraising golf tournament the day before, and as he explains how the Alumni Board raises money to send the kids to college, suddenly his natural hilarity ceases. Momentarily overcome, he looks down, away, to wipe tears from his face. “It makes me emotional,” he says of the day, the recollections, the good being done. Then, and still.

• • •

In the Cobb Center at Dunn Cottage, the Sallie Mae Ligon Museum & Archives is a remarkable display of life at MHCO throughout the decades. Depending on his or her age, every student worked as well as attended school. They learned a trade (chair caning, printing, shoemaking), worked on the farm or in the kitchen, or helped take care of the small children. “Violet’s Room” is a hands-on exhibit of school desks, toys, globes, and other items from the ’30s and ’40s. “Violet” is Violet Davenport, who arrived from Kinston as a 12-year-old in 1948 and eventually became a nurse. Now 86, she’s here today. “It was a happy experience,” she says. “My relative saved all the letters I wrote to her.”

MHCO alumni like Kathy Hayes Whitman and Allan Hughes find their own stories woven into the history on display at the Sallie Mae Ligon Museum & Archives. photograph by Eric Waters

MHCO alum Dan Rice. photograph by Eric Waters

Dan Rice has a part of the museum named for him, too. “My dad deserted my mother, and my mother dropped dead a month later,” he remembers. “I was 9 when I got here in 1959. You spent a few days in the infirmary getting the shots you needed, being checked for lice. We went to school half a day, worked half a day. We milked a hundred cows in a day. It was a tough place, but I knew I had nowhere else to go. I saw parents come back for their children, couldn’t manage, and have to bring them back.”

MHCO works with the ambition and ability of each graduate: Some go into military service; others choose to attend college, which is paid for by MHCO and the Masons. Sometimes, graduate school is paid for, too. Rice himself earned a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and eventually owned Piedmont Truck Tires in Greensboro.

“Our teams were called the ’Sylum Dogs,” he says, standing before a display of sports memorabilia. He didn’t find the moniker offensive at all — to the contrary. “We thought it was a great name! After all, it was the Oxford Orphan Asylum then, and the word asylum means sanctuary. Shelter.”

• • •

Now that baton twirlers and local dignitaries have cruised past in Corvettes and Cadillacs, backfire blats and revving motors announce the centerpiece of every Shrine parade: the miniature vehicles made of motorized tricycles and Big Wheels, even coolers. To the delight of the onlookers, grown men turn wheelies on the pavement, narrowly missing one another. One spectator is Eric Ledford, a 2008 graduate who came to MHCO at age 13, all the way from Cherokee County. “I’m in IT now because I rigged my dorm room to the Internet on the sly,” he says with a laugh. “Instead of corporal punishment, we did useful punishment, digging stumps. I love this place. It’s amazing.”

Held each October, MHCO’s homecoming is free and open to the public so that everyone can enjoy performances by the Sudan Cooligans (right), and Oxford’s J.F. Webb High School Marching Warriors. photograph by Eric Waters

Kannapolis-based band Too Much Sylvia performed at last year’s MHCO homecoming. photograph by Eric Waters

“We’ve had a great life,” Harry Smith declares, posing for a picture with Lynne Barnes and Carolyn Herndon — “the smart girls,” as he calls them. Smith is still teasing, still carrying on, capturing in words what the Masonic Home means to its students then and now, the mission and traditions that “carry on” as well.

“Sesquicentennial” is a six-syllable, 50-cent word. But 150 years is a long, long time and deserves a big, big celebration. So in the midst of music and memories, food and friends, go-karts and mascots, it’s no surprise when, before the stage, a young man takes a knee and opens a small box. Will she marry him, this former classmate, MHCO alums together? You bet your alma mater she will.

To learn more about the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford, visit mhc-oxford.org.

This story was published on Jul 25, 2023

Susan Stafford Kelly

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.