Where He’ll Always Be 14.

Russ Filbeck came to the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch in 1959. He thought he’d run away. Instead, he stayed — and stayed out of trouble. Now, he’s trying to give back to the place that gave him a second chance.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Sarah Elms
published June 29, 2012

The Lawrence County Sheriff picked up Russ Filbeck when he was 14. He’d already been given his last warning; he was really in trouble this time. Russ had been living on and off the street for some time. Home just wasn’t a place where he wanted to be. Russ had been stealing, and the police were looking for him. It was December, and he was cold. He’d gone into an army surplus store and lifted a heavy coat.

Russ spent the weekend alone in a windowless cell in the Lawrence County Jail in Mount Vernon, Mo. “All I remember was being quite scared,” Russ says. That, and the hot pancake breakfast. It was the first hot meal he’d had in weeks.

Teenagers, in general, are wont to act out. It’s part of their nature, part of growing up. But for Russ, it was more than the standard teen angst. His home life was becoming an increasingly toxic environment, and rebelling became Russ’s only way to cope.

From the outside, the Filbecks seemed like a normal, hardworking American family. Two boys, two girls, a mother, a father, all residing on a farm in the small town of Marionville, Mo. But behind closed doors, all was not well in the Filbeck household.

Russ was the baby of the family, and his mother became sick with cancer before he was really old enough to understand it. When she fell ill, Russ says, is when relations in the house turned sour. His father became hot-tempered and mean-spirited. “I can remember him being so angry at her for being sick,” Russ says, staring, lost in the memory. “She got cancer and couldn’t help him, and I remember he was yelling at her, and I was just this little kid.” She passed away when he was five years old.

Russ’s home environment only got worse after that, as his father’s temper turned toward the children. Family members describe his father as being brilliant, but hardened. The way Russ remembers it, hardened is putting it mildly.

By the time Russ was in middle school, he was already finding trouble. His sisters had moved out, his older brother had run away – all Russ knew about his whereabouts was that he had joined a circus – and conflicts with his father were escalating. When high school rolled around, Russ only grew more angry and rebellious.

When the sheriff met with Russ after his weekend in jail, he told Russ he had two options: The Reform School for Boys in Boonville, Mo., or a newly opened group home in Brighton, Mo., called the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch.

For a smartass teenager like Russ, the choice was easy. “It just struck me that ‘good’ sounded better than ‘reform,’” Russ says. About an hour later, he and the sheriff pulled up to the ranch.

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Russ Filbeck works with a chair at the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch.
(Above) Russ Filbeck works with a chair at the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch. (At top) Photos from the original pamphlet for the Ranch. Russ is pictured in the photo in the bottom left.

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In the late 1950s, Rev. Bob and Mary Johnson were living a good life in southwestern Missouri. They were happily married, and he was a successful pastor of Seminole Baptist Church, a growing congregation in southeast Springfield. Although the two were happy, they shared the feeling that something was missing.

After working in broken homes and visiting reformatories, jails and courtrooms, the couple saw firsthand a need they could no longer ignore: Troubled children in their own community had no one to turn to for help.

It was a void they knew they could fill. Johnson left his post at the church, and the couple decided to pour their energy into providing a safe haven for boys seeking refuge from abusive, broken or non-existent homes. In 1959 they purchased farm property 15 miles north of Springfield and got to work. By September, the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch was open.

In the years since the Johnsons opened its doors, the Ranch has seen more than 4,000 boys come and go, along with the expansion of its campus from a lone farmhouse to a residential treatment facility with seven dormitories. It is licensed and approved as a child care facility by the Missouri Division of Family Services and the Missouri Division of Youth Services. The boys are placed from all over Missouri, but most come from the southwest region of the state. They are either placed there by state agencies, a judge or — in some cases — a private referral.

The ranch is an alternative to foster care that prepares its residents for life on their own. At the Ranch, the boys become each other’s family. There are currently more than 900 children in foster care in Greene County alone, according to the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) of Missouri. Because of the shortage of foster homes in the area, however, these children are placed in 59 counties across 12 different states.

Julie Conway, director of development and public relations at the Ranch, says some of the boys are still involved with their biological families, but the majority come from situations where parental rights have been terminated or both parents have died. The ranch currently serves boys ages 12 to 18, and the average stay for a resident is 12 to 18 months, depending on how quickly they progress through the program. When they leave, the next step is to move to another agency, a new family, or live independently.

“Our goal is family reunification if that’s possible,” Conway says. “But it kind of depends, you know, maybe if they didn’t do well here in this program, they might send them to another program.”

According to Childhelp, a national non-profit organization that serves victims of child abuse and neglect, 3.3 million reports of child abuse involving six million children are made in the United States every year. In the most recent Child Welfare Trends Report issued by the Missouri Department of Social Services in December 2007, Children’s Division staff responded to 53,080 child abuse and neglect reports involving 77,973 children in the state of Missouri in 2006. Many of these children are placed in foster care, but some, depending on the case, are placed at the Ranch.

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Russ was one of those children. The large campus spans more than 100 beautiful acres of trees, trails, hills and grass, a stark contrast to the streets and broken homes the boys usually come from. When the ranch first opened, the boys were housed in the original farm house. It had room for eight single beds, four on each side of the fireplace, and it filled up fast.

When the sheriff pulled up that night with Russ in tow, each bed was already occupied. Russ was the ninth boy to arrive at the ranch, so the youngest boy, a five-year-old, moved in downstairs with the two live-in house parents.

As one might expect, Russ was less than thrilled to be living in a new place with a new set of rules. “When I came here I was really, really angry and just in trouble and rebelling,” Russ says. “And I just did not want any authority figures. My plan was to run from here.”

But as Russ was formulating his plan to escape, something changed.

The ranch had several cows when Russ arrived, and three of them had calves. The calves would follow their mothers around all day, and they were getting sick from drinking too much milk. Russ grew up on a farm and knew how to care for calves and how to milk, so he took it upon himself to nurse the sick ones back to health.

“They were city boys,” he says of the other children at the Ranch. “I was the only farm boy that ended up here at the beginning.”

Russ separated the calves from their mothers and hand-fed them until they recovered. Not only that, but he began milking the cows and bringing fresh milk into the house. It was enough that the house parents could stop buying it at the store. The ranch suddenly started to feel like home.

“Because I had those cows to take care of and to provide milk for the table in the house, all of a sudden I had responsibility. And I forgot all about running away,” he says. “Then it was a matter of being part of taking care of the other boys and there was a reason for being here. And so that started quite a change, just having real responsibility.”

Russ stayed on the ranch for seven months, never once attempting to run away. He learned the value of discipline and accountability, of friendship and trust.

At only 14, how could he have known that 53 years later he would return, a successful man, to give back to the very place that gave him a shot at a better life?

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A chair in progress at the Good Samaritans Boys Ranch.
A chair in progress at the Good Samaritans Boys Ranch.

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“There’s just no end to what you can do with woodworking and be creative with it,” Russ says, as he’s filing down the spokes of what would soon be a kitchen chair. Seven boys, sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, are watching intently.

It’s June 2012, and Russ is standing in the indoor rec room at the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch, conducting a woodworking demonstration to a group of boys who have earned the privilege of being there, thanks to good behavior. A handful of his family members and other community members have come to see the demonstration as well. The room – usually used for games of pool, table tennis and foosball – now smells of sawdust and is littered with tools, wooden chair parts, bottles of wood glue and wood shavings.

At 67, Russ is as energetic as ever. The only attributes that give away his age are his thinning white hair and a few wrinkles near his eyes. He’s strong, quick-witted and funny, and he is always working on at least one project. His grandchildren describe him as the Energizer Bunny, always going and going and going. Since 2009, Russ has returned to the Ranch each summer to volunteer a few weeks of his time teaching woodworking to the residents.

Russ is dressed casually, wearing a T-shirt covered in fur from his Siberian husky, paired with cargo shorts and Nike cross-trainers. His calloused hands are busy with the spokes as he addresses his small audience. He talks about practice and discipline. About learning precise skills and then developing speed to execute those skills quickly and smoothly. He also talks about the satisfaction that comes from making something useful with your own two hands.

“I had one woodworking class in high school, and that was just something I always remember as being enjoyable and creative,” Russ says. And for teenage Russ, finding something enjoyable in school wasn’t an easy feat. He liked woodworking so much that it became his hobby throughout his Navy career, something relaxing to change the pace. Over the years, it has become part of his identity. Finding a creative outlet is important, he says, and he wants to share that passion with the boys at the ranch.

Although the original house where Russ lived during his time at the ranch no longer exists, the spirit of the campus is still the same as it was when it all began. The organization continues to provide a home for boys struggling with broken or nonexistent home lives, mental and physical abuse, and the unhealthy behavior that comes with it.

The greatest differences between Russ’s time at the ranch and present-day are the amount of children the ranch can take in and the counseling sessions now incorporated into their schedules. The ranch has seven dorms, split between secure dorms and open dorms [1], and houses 76 boys at a time.

In addition to daily chores, school, and recreation, each resident has an individualized counseling treatment plan. The ranch has trained therapists and psychologists that conduct individual, group and family counseling. It also has a resident psychiatrist.

“Until 1982 this was more like an orphanage where the boys were just housed,” Russ says. “… Every time I come back here I tell them how happy I am that the ranch has the trained therapists and psychologists to help the boys while they’re still young to work through all these issues.”

The ranch also has on-site schooling. Although some of the boys attend the public Pleasant Hope Schools, most go to school at the ranch so they are able to have more individualized lesson plans. The Pleasant Hope School District receives state funding to run and staff the ranch’s school. Each instructor is trained in teaching children who are learning disabled and behavior disordered.

The ranch also has a multi-purpose gym, indoor swimming pool, rec room, indoor and outdoor horseback riding arenas and a chapel. [2] Most importantly, though, the ranch is a home.

“I tell them, ‘I realize you can’t comprehend this yet,’” Russ says, “‘but at some point later in your life you are going to look back on this little part of your life as an oasis where you weren’t being abused and you were safe.’”

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Russ, pictured here at age 14, standing with Larry and King, their horse.
Russ, pictured here at age 14, standing with Larry and King, their horse. (Photo via a Ranch pamphlet from the 1960s.)

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The staff at the ranch works with CASA-appointed specialists to monitor the boys’ progress. They also collaborate with other residential treatment and child care facilities across the state through the Missouri Association of Child Care Agencies.

The ranch provides specialized treatment for boys who exhibit behavior problems as a result of their experiences. “We do have kids who have been in trouble,” Conway says. “And that’s kind of why they’re here.” According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, children who experience abuse and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult and 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime.

“The suppressed anger and rage, if it’s not dealt with, will come out,” Russ says. “And it will come out later in life, and generally it will be very inappropriate when it’s finally expressed. You may kill somebody, you may be a mean, angry person, so it’s important that this be gotten out.” If it wasn’t for the ranch, Russ says, he would have ended up in prison, “no question.”

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As the afternoon winds down, the boys start asking Russ more personal questions about his own life. “How do you feel when you leave here? After you’ve been here with us for this time?” one boy asks.

“I feel buoyant,” Russ responds. “I feel like a balloon. I feel light as a feather because I feel like I’ve just had a great time spending some time with you boys.”

There are smiles all around. It is clear at this moment that the boys are starting to view Russ as part of the group. Russ puts down his tools, switches off the sander and takes a seat with the boys.

“I stopped the woodworking demonstrations, and I’m just sitting there in front of the boys, and we’re just talking,” Russ says later. “And the rest of the visitors were just nonexistent to us. And so we had these really deep conversations.”

Russ opens up about the apprehension he first experienced when he sought therapy to work through things in his past. He tells the boys he knows it’s scary to allow oneself to become so vulnerable by exposing one’s inner emotions, but talking about them is the first step to dealing with them and moving on.

“I tell ’em it’s a hell of a burden to have to carry it and keep it a secret, and if you can get rid of it now while you’re young, it will be so much better,” Russ says. “And then you don’t carry that weight the rest of your life. Every one of them has anger from being abused, but yet you look at most of the boys and they smile and they’re quiet, and they’re not exposing that anger to you. You don’t get to see that.”

Russ had his own anger and depression to deal with that stemmed from his childhood experiences. However, it was only recently – five or six years ago – that Russ finally sought help in dealing with these issues. He worked with mental health professionals to get through it all, and now he says he has “peaceful, relaxed thinking.”

“Only somebody that’s been there can know how to talk about that,” Russ says. And that’s exactly why he shares his experiences with the boys.

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Russ shows some woodworking techniques to boys on the Ranch.
Russ shows some woodworking techniques to boys on the Ranch.

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After his seven months at the ranch as a teenager, Russ left to live with his older sister and her husband. “I was really hesitant because I was really starting to feel good here,” Russ says. “I hated what was going on in the family.” Even so, he agreed to live with his sister for one year, after which he decided to move back in with his father in Marionville so that he could graduate with his senior class.

He didn’t hang around long, though. As soon as he got his diploma, Russ bid his family goodbye and immediately joined the U.S. Navy.

He served for 23 years in the Navy, 18 of which were spent in the submarine service. Russ describes his time on submarines as the best years of his life. “The submarine duty was awesome for me, because it was such a tight-knit family, which is what I really needed as a kid and didn’t have,” Russ says. “I found it in submarines, and so then it was like I was home.”

When Russ retired from the Navy, he used the G.I. Bill to go back to school at age 41. He got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Diego State, where he majored in industrial arts. [3] He graduated with honors and then started his own furniture restoration and repair business in San Diego, called Wood it be Beautiful, which he still operates today.

“So going from a problem kid with below average grades, I turned that around,” Russ says. “As an adult, I understood the importance of studying and working hard, and so, it worked out great.”

Soon, the woodworking instructors at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., noticed the things Russ was building in his shop and the finishing skills he possessed for restoration work. They asked him if he would teach at the college, and he accepted.

Russ stayed at Palomar College for the next 21 years.

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Russ has always loved woodworking, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1995 that chairmaking caught his attention. He was intrigued by Brian Boggs, a chairmaker from North Carolina, who was visiting California at the time to teach a class. Russ decided to check it out, and he was immediately hooked. “It was just total fascination,” Russ says. “And then I realized, these are the same kinds of chairs I grew up with as a kid.”

So, Russ learned how to make ladder-back chairs and began incorporating them into his curriculum at Palomar College. But there was one problem. In order to get the amount of oak, cherry and walnut that he needed for approximately 60 students each year to each make a chair, he had to drive across the country, usually to Kentucky or Pennsylvania, to harvest it.

Coincidentally, it was these cross-country trips that reconnected Russ with his Springfield roots. Each summer, he drove through Missouri on his way to collect the wood, so he started stopping in at the ranch to see how it was doing and to make a small donation. “I would just stop in and give them a little money periodically, but I didn’t make any contacts with anyone,” Russ says. “I didn’t tell people I was a former resident.”

In the summer of 2009, however, Russ met the Ranch’s Conway, and things changed. Conway told Russ about the 50th anniversary reunion they had just celebrated and showed him a copy of one of the initial newsletters sent out by Rev. Bob Johnson.

As Russ flipped intently through the photos in the newsletter, he saw his 14-year-old self staring back at him. He was stunned. “I didn’t even know any of this existed,” he remembers. “So all of a sudden it was like, I need to do this.”

He told Conway about his connection with the ranch and his passion for woodworking, and asked if there would be any way for him to begin doing woodworking demonstrations for the boys at the ranch to give back to the place he once called home.

“They’ve totally encouraged it from the very beginning,” Russ says. “I’ve just started making it bigger and bigger and bigger every year, and they never say no.”

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Now, Russ is working on establishing a woodworking shop at the ranch. He already had the space set aside back in April – a large room in the front of the maintenance building – but he needed enough equipment to outfit the shop. Russ is well connected in the woodworking community, so he pulled a few strings.

“I went back to California and told my friends in the woodworking community that I needed some help getting the machines and the tools together to outfit a full woodworking shop,” Russ says. “And they just overwhelmed me with all of their donations.”

Russ says he’s received about $50,000 worth of woodworking machinery, all of which is the latest technology. Once the shop is outfitted, Russ will be able to return to the ranch any time – most often during the summer – and teach without having to haul tools and equipment with him like he does now. “Now the shop is going to be awesome,” he says. “It’s going to be fabulous.”

During the holiday season, Russ ships a giant package full of toy cars out to the ranch, one for each boy. He hand-crafts each car out of various woods left over from larger projects, so no two cars are the same.

Since Russ’ own days at the ranch, he’s made quite the name for himself. He’s written a book, met President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter [4], traveled extensively, taught, opened his own business, served his country and started a family. Now he’s created a sort of extended family and reconnected with his roots.

“I didn’t think much about the boys ranch until many, many years later,” Russ says. “Only with some maturity in life do you come to realize how valuable something in the past has been for you.”

Now, Russ says, it’s something he can’t imagine his life without.

“I don’t care how old I get,” Russ says. “I will still be 14 on that ranch.”