Trucking a lifesaver after reform school abuse

Updated Jul 1, 2011

Stealing a car could wreck a kid’s chances to get a job. But retired trucker John Brodnax high-tailed it as a teenager in 1960 from north Florida to Ozark, Ala., in an Oldsmobile he hotwired. In OverdriveRetro’s, “A night run and a lifeline,” Brodnax describes the escape he made from an abusive reform school.

That wild run may have saved his life. 

Then 16, he took the car to escape beatings he’d endured at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. The bravura required to carry off a heist as a teen may be part of the same that prompted him in 2008 to join more than 350 men, all former detainee at the school, to protest abuses that state authorities ignored for more than a century.

The school, renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the late ’60s, was shuttered June 30. Its close came in part because of the men’s public outcry against years of injustice and torture, documented in national media reports and at length in a St. Petersburg Times series, For Their Own Good.

The newspaper series “uncovered evidence of mysterious deaths or abuse in nearly every decade of the institution’s existence,” a May 27 St. Petersburg Times editorial says. The reports described youth who were flogged with leather straps and made to lie on isolation room floors with their hands tied behind their backs.

Brodnax thrived despite the upheaval in his youth. As a trucker, he shared a sense of humor with others, adopting the handle, “The Blue-Eyed Indian,” when he drove for Navaho Truck Lines.

But the brutal beatings and treatment of his peers at the reform school still haunt him. “I’d just like to see them pass a law that no one can put hands on a boy like they did on us.” Since the group waged the class-action suit, he’s become friends with several of the school’s former detainees and they see one another at reunions, he says.

Happy times are poignant for him. Commenting on Robert Ward’s account of Iowa truck stops on OvedriveRetro, Brodnax wrote: “It was nice to see some pictures from the good old days when truckers had a lot of respect. Also, it was nice to read the stories. Thank you very much for the memories.”

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In addition to the the Times’ series, For Their Own Good, the book, “The White House Boys: An American Tragedy,” by Roger Kiser provides first-person accounts of longtime abuse at the reform school from which Brodnax escaped.