For Their Own Good

The women couched their words carefully, even apologetically.

True, their husbands have been quick-tempered, terrifying with their bullying and thunderous tirades and even beatings.

But at heart, these were good men. Men, who as boys had been sent to what is now called the Arthur G. Dozier School in Marianna, where they were thrashed bloody with leather straps, sometimes until they passed out. Men who still bore the emotional and even physical scars of the long-ago abuse.

Married 29 years, Lorie Moore, 46, accepts her husband Tom's verbal outbursts. "Look what he's been through. He has to take that anger out somewhere," she said Friday evening as her husband and other men who say they were abused at the reform school gathered with their wives at a Days Inn in Orlando.

Tom Moore, 62, is one of the White House Boys, so called because of the small white building on the sprawling campus they knew in the 1950s and 1960s as the Florida School for Boys. It was in the White House that they were made to stretch facedown on a mattress for searing floggings on their backs and buttocks.

This weekend marked the third meeting of these unwitting alumni who, after finding each other in recent months, gathered to talk about their secrets and pain, nightmares and night sweats and strings of failed relationships.

Peggy Marx, 59, helps to keep the reunions organized. Her purple and pink plastic bins hold files and name tags. Men call her to share their stories, but she can tell her own. Her marriage to husband Frank, 65, has had tumultuous moments. Two of their five children no longer speak to them, she said.

"I have two grandsons I've never seen," she said.

The children hated her husband's anger, said Marx, who added that she was physically abused during the first five years of the marriage. "He was always saying to the boys, 'I'd kill you before I'd see you in Marianna.'

"These guys went through hell, but they put their families through hell."

Babbs Cooper, 64, chokes up when she talks about her husband, Jerry, 65, and their 28 years of marriage.

"It is very difficult to talk about it," she said. "He'll tear a house up in five minutes. It would be the smallest of things that would set him off."

Jerry Cooper was a teenager when he was sent to Marianna. He had been caught riding in a stolen car with an AWOL Marine. He said he was flogged 135 times with a leather strap by a reform school employee named Troy Tidwell. Recently he took a polygraph test to prove that the stories he's told about his beatings are true. He passed. His wife was there to comfort him as he sat shaking when it was over.

"I have caused a lot of havoc in the family because of my attitude and temper," Cooper said.

The White House Boys' wives find comfort in each other.

Diane Fudge, an outgoing woman with a Long Island accent, said she's learned a lot about the men's common personality traits from discussions with other wives.

"They go from having very hot tempers to being overly passive," said Fudge, a 48-year-old Homosassa woman who has been married for 10 years. "There's no middle road with any of these guys. We learn what buttons not to push."

The wives also complain that their husbands have a difficult time showing affection, she said. "My husband's way of showing me he loves me is giving me jewelry, which is nice, but sometimes I think, 'Just go with me for a walk and hold my hand.' "

Her husband, Charles, 61, the owner of an antique auction gallery, said he and three brothers were all sent to the Florida School for Boys. He has been married twice before and was not "the loving, caring husband that I should have been," he said. "I'm sure that was a big part of my divorces. I didn't beat them, but I'm sure I gave a lot of verbal abuse. When my wives didn't do what I told them, I figured that I was in charge, the way my instructors were."

His present wife, who describes him as the most generous person she knows, is familiar with his past verbal abuse.

"Ten years ago, when I married him, I would never know when he would blow up," she said.

"One time, the big fight was what time we were going to have Thanksgiving dinner. The other time was how I was peeling the potatoes. … About seven or eight years ago, he became a Christian. If he gets angry once a year, that's a lot, and I'm not afraid of him anymore."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.