Times Past

Dan Krieger: Oliver might have felt at home in ex-Cuesta dean’s orphanage

“More? You want some more?”

The line spoken by Mr. Bumble, the furious director of the workhouse-orphanage in Lionel Bart’s wonderful musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic “Oliver Twist,” epitomizes the cruelty of such institutions in times past.

Ernie Cementina of San Luis Obispo and his brother, Al, were placed in the Deaconess Home in Everett, Wash., when Ernie was six years old.

Ernie, the longtime dean of instruction at Cuesta College, recalls his 12 years in the home with a great deal of equanimity. He does write that “One of the reasons the Home is no longer in existence is because it was out of step with the enlightened practices of accepted child rearing today.

“The discipline received at the orphanage was sometimes harsh and unfair, and individuals react to discipline in various ways. … I reacted to it in a way that caused me to turn within myself … I closed my mind to what was going on around me … when I would have been better off expressing my (feelings) openly.”

There were whippings, although the terminology “spanking” was used. Ernie writes: “I don’t think they would qualify as spankings today.

When a boy was to be whipped, he was required to pull down his pants, exposing his rear end. Not only was one’s rear exposed, but one’s ego was also challenged, as we were whipped in front of everyone. Usually (we) would receive nine or ten lashes. Often the person being whipped would start hollering, ‘Ouch, I won’t do it anymore!’ The housemother would then back off…. Al and I, in an attempt to be macho, would grit our teeth and hang in there, not making any noise or saying a word.

“I think this frustrated the housemother, and she kept hitting us longer.

“The children at the orphanage attended Garfield Elementary School, where (my favorite teacher) was Miss Jackson. She was the sister of Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, [later] the senator from the state of Washington…. Miss Jackson had a small ivory elephant on her desk. She noticed me admiring it one day and asked me if I would like to have it. I took it home to the housemother in hopes of getting a few brownie points, but she made me take it back to the teacher. I think she thought I swiped it.”

“On the day before Christmas, we would gather in front of a Christmas tree in Apartment One and eagerly await the appearance of the bearded one. Suddenly, we would hear the sound of sleigh bells coming from the dormitory, … with heavy footsteps as Santa descended the stairway…. It seemed as though there were at least a hundred packages under the tree” for “Santa” to hand to the children.

“One day, on the way home from school… I came across Al on the ground doubled up in pain. He couldn’t walk so I picked him up and carried him home. He…had a stomachache for the past few days. I thought he had been ill from trying to win a bet that he could drink a gallon of water all at once without stopping….he was in bad shape. He was rushed to the hospital where he immediately underwent surgery.

His appendix had burst and we just about lost him but he had his angel on his shoulder!’

Al Cementina went on to become a member of San Jose State’s “Hall of Fame.” Playing for the Spartans, he set a record for punt returns: 327 yards in 24 returns.

Al died in 2003 as Ernie was writing his account of the Deaconess Home.

The Home no longer exists as an orphanage. It has emerged as Deaconess Children’s Services. It has won major awards for promoting child welfare and family stability.

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