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For the ISSCS 'Homers,' there really is no place like home

Four friends wrap their arms around each other's backs and smile at the camera
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
From left, Bill Merchant, Linda Busing, Bernie Latta and David Rine at the Normal Community Activities Center. Rine attended University High School with Merchant and Latta, who lived at the Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's school in the mid-1950s. Busing was a resident at ISSCS from 1967-1974.

East of Beech Street and north of Fort Jesse Road in Normal, there’s a neighborhood that looks different from the rest. Old brick homes — some occupied, some empty — are positioned on quaint, tree lined lanes surrounding the Normal Community Activity Center.

On the other side of the parking lot from the activity center, is another brick building — this one far more dilapidated — where a gymnasium used to be.

The gym is shut down, but it shares a wall with an old swimming pool. That side houses the Happy Splashes Learn to Swim School, in operation since 1989.

At the center of the 80-acre compound now called One Normal Plaza is a statue honoring this unique place’s original use: the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, or ISSCS, as the former residents known as “Homers” call it.

Before it was ISSCS, the Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans Home was established to care for children orphaned by the Civil War. The facility, owned and operated by the state of Illinois, maintained a commitment to caring for children of veterans who perished in wars. But in the century that followed, thousands of children would arrive at the school’s ominous administration building for all sorts of reasons.

“I was made a ward of the state," said Yvonne Borklund, who arrived at ISSCS in 1947. She now lives in Florida, and along with several other Homers, spoke to WGLT on Sept. 17 — at their first reunion since the pandemic began.

“When I came, I was 8 years old,” she said. “I turned 9 when I was in receiving. We all went to receiving for two weeks before we were sent to a cottage. My mother was allowed to come, and my birthday gift that year was a hairbrush.”

Unfortunate circumstances brought the Homers to ISSCS, but the folks attending the reunion agreed that living there was the best thing for them. By the mid-1930s, the children had every activity imaginable available to them. There were sports of all kinds and vocational training like woodworking and metalwork, plus Friday night movies, scouting programs and a 4-H club.

“There was never a time when you couldn’t find someone to shoot baskets with, play catch with, or just get in trouble with,” said Bernie Latta, a Twin Cities native who lived at ISSCS for five years.

Latta’s father was stationed in Iwo Jima and returned home when Latta’s mother died in 1945. On a walk through the grounds, Latta recalled the day his father brought him and his sister to the courthouse in 1954.

“I heard the judge say, ‘OK,” Latta said, and “A guy in a black suit came over and said, ‘Bernie, let’s go.’ He put me in the car and dropped me off here. That’s when I found out I was coming out here.”

Latta’s sister did not stay as long as he did. And while many ISSCS children were placed there with siblings, that was not always the case.

Yvonne Borklund has four siblings. She arrived at ISSCS with two of her sisters, who were later placed in foster homes. One returned to ISSCS and the other graduated high school in foster care. Her oldest sister was too old for ISSCS and went to a home in Peoria, while her brother, who had a disability, was sent to a foster home in Lexington.

“They kept trying to get me to go into a foster home, and I wasn’t into that,” Borklund said. “I wanted to stay here and I’m so fortunate and glad I did.”

As the former Homers age and inevitably pass away, the ones who are left remain committed to getting together. Reunions started in the 1980s and were primarily staff get-togethers. As they passed on, the reunion became an event primarily for Homers. The youngest alumni are in their 60s.

A pale red brick cottage shines on a bright sunny day. There is a hopscotch board etched into the sidewalk in front of the cottage. Two people walking in the distance are engaged in conversation.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
An area on the south end of the compound called "the villages" is where middle school boys lived. Hopscotch boards were etched into the sidewalks and can still be seen today.

Generational differences

Linda Busing arrived at ISSCS in 1967 and left in 1974. She now lives in Secor, IL, west of El Paso. Her experience at the school differed from Borklund’s in ways big and small: Borklund’s clothes were state issued. Busing had a clothing allowance and shopped on periodic trips to Eastland Mall with her cottage parents. In Borklund’s era, everyone was bused to University High School. Busing went to Normal High School. Borklund’s visits with her parents took place at the administration building. Busing went home to see her parents.

“It was not a very pleasant experience for me,” said Busing. “It was really dysfunctional.”

Busing said many Homers were acutely aware that they weren’t like other kids.

“I knew I was a Homer, and I associated with that," she said. "Reflecting back, I have no problem with it. I’m grateful for it. It taught us life skills I would not have received at home.”

Learning life skills

Bill Merchant — or Billy, as he was known at the time — lived at ISSCS from 1952-1960 and was cottage-mates with Latta. He now lives in Kansas. Merchant said ISSCS uniquely prepared him for life after high school.

“I remember leaving here and going to the U.S. Navy. We were used to living in cottages with 15 or 16 boys and it was a very easy transition to go from here to the military than it would be coming from a private home to the military,” he said.

Borklund said the adjustment to post-ISSCS life was more difficult for women.

“We were not prepared,” she said. “My middle school gym teacher took me in. I don’t know where I would have gone, to be honest. I was very fortunate in that regard. When I finally got my own apartment, I was afraid to go anywhere or be with anybody. I was very sheltered.”

Final years of ISSCS

In its later years, ISSCS was in decline. Linda Busing predicted that fewer than 100 children were still there when she left in 1974.

A brick and stone cottage has fallen into disrepair and is overgrown by weeds and ivy.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Many of the former ISSCS cottages have been repurposed into private homes. Several are unoccupied and have fallen into disrepair like this house on the north end of the compound, where high school-aged boys lived.

“I don’t know if I was wise before my age, but I was very aware that the type of kids that were coming out here were different, more needy and more challenging psychologically,” she said. “I wanted to get out.”

Busing did get out, going to a foster home for her final year of high school.

“It wasn’t the best experience, but it wasn’t the worst either,” she said. “Then after the foster home I was on my own. That was the beginning of my adult life.”

What the Homers most want people to know is that ISSCS was good for them. It was their home and they are universally grateful for their time there.

“When I come here, it’s like coming home,” Borklund said. “because this was my home for a very long time.”

The Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School operated in Normal from 1869-1979. State officials closed the school due to deteriorating facilities and rising costs. Its 96 remaining residents were placed into foster homes or with parents, relatives or friends. One was hospitalized, one turned over to the department of corrections, and two have never been located.

From 1998-2009, the ISSCS Historical Preservation Society was active in preserving the school’s history, publishing a book, “A Place We Called Home,” in 2007, and raising money to unveil the statue in 2008. The state of Illinois placed a historical marker on the grounds in 2002 recognizing ISSCS’s place in Illinois history and a small exhibit of photographs and artifacts is on view at the Normal Community Activity Center.

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Lauren Warnecke is a correspondent for WGLT, focusing on arts and culture.
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