When the late Dick Cowen, author of a history of the Good Shepherd Home called “Papa Raker’s Dream,” began his research, he started with Conrad “Connie” Raker, the son of its founder, the Rev. John Raker, and himself administrator of the home from 1941 to 1980. It was from his lips that Cowen got the story of how Good Shepherd’s founding came about, delivered from memory with the “inflections, head shaking and all” used by Raker’s father when he told it.
At the start of the 20th century, Rev. John Raker was the director of the Lutheran Orphan Home at Topton. One day a woman he knew, last name Deaner, came knocking at his door. Her family had been the ones who had sold the land for the Topton Home to the Lutheran church. A horrible thing had happened. While traveling to Chicago they had been in an accident. Her husband and two of her sons were killed. Her third son had survived but had lost his right leg above the knee. All alone in a strange city with a “crippled” son and a newborn baby, the only thing she could think of was to return to Topton. But she received no solace from her family, who told her that it was all they could do to take care of their families and that they had no place for a “crippled” child that would have to be taken care of. In her grief she came to the orphanage.
Rev. Raker was a deeply religious man and heard her tale with compassion. But when the widow Deaner concluded with a request to admit her son, he knew what that answer would have to be.
“Mother, we cannot receive your boy,” he said.
“Because he is crippled,” Raker replied.
“That is the very reason you should take him,” she said.
Then as gently as possible he read to her from the charter on which the Topton Home was founded. “Only healthy children between the ages of 3 and 10, who have all their limbs and senses, can be admitted to this home,” it read. But the desperate widow was not to be put off by the legal language created by lawyers and clerical bureaucrats.
“You have no child in your home that is as needy as my child,” she replied.
Raker knew in is heart that the woman was right. But as an official of the Lutheran church in his position he also knew that what she was asking was beyond the rules his superiors had established and felt his hands were tied.
“Mother,” he replied, ”I know it, but I cannot help it.”
Cowen does not tell us what the fate of the widow and her disabled son was. Perhaps Raker himself did not know it. Or maybe he tried to do something else for them. But this meeting had created a seed of something in his heart and head in the form of a question. “Has the great Lutheran Church, the church of orphan homes, the church of Franke, Mueller, Bodelschwing, and Passavant (prominent historical figures of the Lutheran Church), the great Church of the Reformation, no home for a crippled orphan child in America?”
Raker and his family left Topton in 1907. He received a call to Grace Lutheran mission just outside the south side city limits of Allentown. It was a life-long dream. But he had insisted in his acceptance of the call that he be allowed to do mission work among children with disabilities, as long as it did not take time from his other clerical duties.
Although he did a lot that first year at the mission, he found it harder and harder to get time in the busy whirl of fundraising and adding new members to the church’s rolls to keep his commitment to people with disabilities. But events took him back to his original plan. Shortly after coming to Allentown and moving into their home at 630 St. John Street, his wife gave birth to a baby girl who they named Viola. But as it had once before, tragedy in the form of death struck the Rakers when their infant daughter died. Returning to the personage following Viola’s funeral, they found waiting for them a single letter. It came a colleague in East Bangor. There was a little child with a disability in his congregation that he had hoped someone would take in. Her name was Viola Hunt. John Raker was not a superstitious man by nature. But he felt that the death of his daughter named Viola and the arrival of this letter about a child named Viola on the date of his child’s funeral was not just a coincidence. “Papa felt,” Cowen writes, “it was an omen.”
The Rakers decided to take little Viola in. She was to stay with the family for 5 years and was taught reading and music. She was placed in the public schools in the city and attended Allentown High School until she was in the 10th grade. When her mother remarried, Viola Hunt returned to her family.
It was on February 29, 1908 that the local press had a story about what the headline writers called “A SPLENDID CHARITY” whose purpose was to be “an orphanage for invalid children.” The property purchased for the home was done at a “ very reasonable price” from a Mr. Yeager as a donation in memory of his wife, who had died the previous fall. This was added to by the Kline Homestead, the site on which Good Shepherd’s administration building is today.
When it came to publicity Raker was in the forefront, starting a publication called “Sweet Charity.” It was designed to inform the public of the purpose of the home, to show what its surroundings were like and not incidentally to attract those who might want to make a donation.
Innovations came thick and fast at Good Shepherd. In 1910, an infant’s cottage was purchased. The year 1911 saw the purchase of a cottage for the elderly, and in 1915 farm land in Salisbury Township was purchased where potatoes were picked for use at the Home. In 1918 the Good Shepherd Band posed for a picture dressed in nautical looking uniforms. Among their ranks was John Raker’s son Connie who had been born in 1912.
John Raker died in May of 1941. By then Good Shepherd was a thriving Lehigh Valley and eastern Pennsylvania institution. In the September following his father’s death Connie Raker was named Good Shepherd’s administrator, a post he was to hold until 1980.
As the world of medicine changed, Good Shepherd changed. Today it’s an institution Raker could not have imagined on that long ago day when he had to turn a sorrowing woman away.