Melvin Claymiller was 5 years old in 1935 when he and his siblings went to live at the St. Vincent Villa Catholic Orphanage on Wells Street.
Claymiller’s mother had died in childbirth a few years before, and his father, who had been gassed in World War I, couldn’t care for his children. He ended up in a Veterans Administraton hospital in Dayton, where he died in 1938.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, Claymiller and his siblings grew up in the orphanage. It wasn’t bad, he says. It was the Depression and they got food and clothes. In fact, he says, they had it better off than the average person.
But there was a downside. One by one, Claymiller’s brothers would leave, and they would just disappear.
A boy might be taken in by a farmer, where he’d work as a farmhand. A girl might move out and get a job and eventually get married, her new name unknown to her family members. Another sibling might join the military.
It was that way with a lot of siblings. Few people knew where you went, Claymiller said.
Claymiller, in that respect, was lucky. It took time, more than 30 years, but he eventually located all his brothers who had passed through the place. There was a sister, though, that he didn’t even know about. He learned about her when he got a phone call notifying him that she had died in California. I only saw her in her casket, he says.
That didn’t happen for some of the orphans. In some cases, they still haven’t been able to track down all their brothers or sisters who lived at the villa, disappearing one at a time, and some are still looking.
Just last year a woman who had grown up there located a long-lost sister who she hadn’t seen in 45 years. The same woman, though, has two other sisters she still hasn’t been able to locate.
The villa has a reunion every year. It’s always the last Sunday in June. Orphans were always reminded of that date when it came their time to leave – the last Sunday in June.
For years now, Claymiller has been promoting that reunion, searching for former residents and sending out invitations to those whose addresses he knows, trying his best to get the word out.
Just the other day, he sent out 120 invitations.
This year, the reunion will be held at the Queen of Angels Church at 1500 W. State Blvd., about a mile west of the old orphanage. It will be a chance for former residents to meet up with friends they made during their stay, but it’s also a chance for siblings who have been separated to perhaps relocate each other.
The villa operated as an orphanage until 1971, meaning the youngest former residents could be as young as in their 40s.
Time, though, is running out for others. People who were children in the 1930s and ’40s are getting old now. The long-lost siblings are dying out, and the chances of reuniting are shrinking.
Some former residents have set up a Facebook page in the name of the orphanage where people can post old photographs, make comments and, in theory at least, look for lost family members.
Claymiller, meanwhile, has a wealth of information on the orphanage. He has a list of everyone who ever lived there and the dates. He says he still gets calls from people looking for information.
So people are still looking.