Kole Riffell takes time to smell the flowers during the Marsh Foundation’s centennial celebration.
Kole Riffell takes time to smell the flowers during the Marsh Foundation’s centennial celebration.
By Brian Hess

Times Bulletin Editor


VAN WERT — A long time ago, on a cold winter night George Marsh and his wife Hilinda were coming back from an evening in Fort Wayne. As their commuter train slowed to a stop they noticed two boys huddled together in a doorway for warmth. Hilinda, moved to compassion, told George their money should be used to help children like those boys. He agreed, and so was born the legend of the Marsh Foundation.

That was the late nineteenth century, and the couple made provision in their wills for the Foundation, whose campus is on the site of the Marsh family’s original Civil War-era homestead. Hilinda died in 1900, and it would take another 22 years before the Foundation opened its doors to orphans and wards of the state. In honor of this 100-year history the Foundation hosted a 2-day celebration this past weekend.

The festivities began Friday afternoon with a special banquet in honor of local alumni that was closed to the general public. In attendance were City Councilman Jeff Agler and Keith Allen, former Chief Deputy of the Van Wert County Sheriff’s Dept. a student of the Foundation himself from 1968-1971. Former students were encouraged to tell their stories, which were recorded for posterity. After the dinner there were formal speeches by Executive Secretary/Treasurer Jeff Grothouse, Director of Education Robbie Breese and Executive Director of Child and Family Services Kim Mullins.

Mr. Grothouse addressed the financial status of the Foundation and the sources of its $6 million/year operating budget, while Mr. Breese explained how that money was used for improvements in education such as maintenance of the grounds and physical plant, group therapy available throughout the day, new technology classes for the students and the new gym/cafeteria building in which the banquet was held. One of the most important programs is Bridges, a project in conjunction with the state that extends support to foster youth after they leave the Foundation at 18. This helps them to become self-supporting adults without the need for additional help.

Institutions and programs are only as good as the people they serve. People are the reason for the Foundation, and without people it would not exist. Mr. Grothouse and Mrs. Mullins both addressed this fact. He noted the absence of an important figure at the banquet named Ron Bagley. Mr. Bagley was the Foundation’s pastor, historian and Director of the School from 1972-1991, spending four decades of his life in the service of needy children before his death in 2020.

Mrs. Mullins’ own mother was reared in an orphanage, and she began her speech with a letter from a 1939 alumnus named Ruth who could not attend the centennial due to poor health. Ruth spent 11 years in ‘the Marsh,’ graduating in 1950 with the skills she needed to live a successful life. “I had everything I needed except the love of a parent,” Ruth says, “however, I had some very loving and caring house-mothers. A few of them I kept in touch with until their deaths.”

The Foundation no longer has house-mothers. Corporal punishment is no longer allowed either. Dave Rable remembers those days well. He and his friend Ricky Johns were students from the early 1960s until their graduations in 1974 and both lived in dread of ‘the board,’ a long wooden paddle that would be used on their backsides whenever they rebelled against Marsh authority. “It taught us how to behave,” he noted. When asked his impressions of those years Rable was candid: “I had a lot of bad memories, especially when I was young. That’s because I felt abandoned by my family, but that had nothing to do with the Foundation. I did feel safe and many of us came from families that weren’t safe.”

John Fedele remembers the Marsh fondly. He was there from 1969-1975-the same time as Rable, Johns and Johns’ brother, Barry. So were Yvette Newman (69-76) and the former Mullen sisters: Nancy (65-72), Christina (65-74) and Lucille (65-75). “We didn’t realize how good we had it until we left,” says Newman. “I can remember fellowship, friendship” says Rable. It was these friendships and shared memories that are most important to the former students. Like the time the cows broke through the fence. “That was in 1971 or 72,” says Johns. “We spent hours rounding them up.” Or role-playing their favorite characters from The Justice League of America, a comic book popular at the time. Or the apple and cherry orchards long since gone. “They used to pay us .25/hr. to pick the fruit.” The money was then kept in savings accounts for the kids to use whenever needed. If they behaved they would be given privileges like time unsupervised in downtown Van Wert.

The Foundation currently uses the Teaching Family Model of behavior training, which fully replaced the house-mother system by 1990. The Foundation no longer takes legal custody of the children, but works in conjunction with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Under these guidelines children are given choices of options and encouraged to choose the best option for their own wellbeing. Students are not punished, but can be restrained in extreme cases. “I have been spit on and severely bitten,” says Megan Tuttle, Director of Residential Services. That is not typical when dealing with troubled kids, she says but may occur in cases of violence or self-harm.

Until recently the campus was still coed. Although boys and girls each had different dorms, “it was very difficult to keep them in such close proximity,” notes Mullins. She recently spoke to a female alumnus who admitted sneaking out of her dorm to see her boyfriend back in the 1980s. Mullins’ department made the recommendation to the Board of Trustees and it was approved last year, ending a 99-year practice. The Foundation still serves female clients through their foster home and counselling programs.

On Saturday the Marsh gave the public rare glimpses into their inner workings: the dorms, the Marsh family homestead, the administration buildings, and their horse therapy program. Mrs. Universe 2021, Tori Hope Petersen was there to sign copies of her book, Fostered (2022) and the evening ended with a concert by the Denver Mile High Orchestra and a fireworks display. It was a fitting end to a fitting weekend.