After 40 Years, Alum Recounts How Grafton Changed His Life

As Grafton celebrates its 60th anniversary, we’ve had parents, teachers, and alumni reach out to share memories of their time here. Many of those stories remind us just how much the organization has changed over the years. We recently connected with former Berryville student Mike McCauley, who attended Grafton in the late 1970s. In those days, a large population of our students – including Mike – came into our care due to behavioral issues, rather than those that are developmental in nature. We also lacked the modern technology we have today, such as a security system that ensures children remain safely on campus. With that in mind, we would like to share Mike’s experience at Grafton more than 40 years ago. 

Left: Mike McCauley shortly after graduating from Grafton. Right: A recent photo of McCauley with his wife.

Mike McCauley was a troubled 12-year-old. He smoked cigarettes, got into fistfights at school, and was in and out of juvenile court for petty crimes. His parents separated when he was a baby and his mother worked multiple jobs to support her three children. The family lived in a working-class Richmond neighborhood where violence and racist attitudes were commonplace, and he became a product of his environment.

“I was a punk. In that part of town, you had to be tough or you were going to get whooped constantly,” remembers Mike. “I had long hair, wore leather jackets, and I had racist views.”

In 1977, after being suspended from school countless times, the state took custody of Mike and sent him to live at Grafton’s Berryville campus. The transition wasn’t easy. For the first time in his life, he was subjected to a strict behavioral code and had to live in close quarters with black classmates. He maintained his tough exterior, but he often cried when he was alone and longed to go home.

Determined to run away, Mike asked a classmate on the autism spectrum – who happened to have a gift for maps – to draw the railroad tracks between Berryville and Richmond. The makeshift map worked, and he made the 130-mile journey home by hitching rides on trains and digging potatoes out of fields to eat along the way.

“In the beginning I was an absolute hellion. I got into fights fairly regularly,” he says. “But it didn’t take long for me to realize, the people I’m in here with are the same as me. They have the same problems.”

During his second year at Grafton, something started to shift in Mike. Despite his rebellious behavior, he realized the counselors truly cared about him.

He fondly remembers his favorite counselor, Tyrone Wilson, taking students off campus to watch movies and hang out. Spending time with Tyrone, who was black, made Mike rethink his prejudices about people of color. “He was an awesome guy. He made you feel like he was there for you.”

He also credits Ada Belle Yowell, a reading tutor who worked at Grafton for 22 years, with turning his attitude around. “She had a great deal of patience and was one of the primary reasons I mellowed out as much as I did.”

Once Mike’s behavior improved, he was allowed to go on overnight field trips with his classmates. He remembers hiking to Harper’s Ferry on the Appalachian Trail, visiting hot springs near Leesburg, and taking a canoeing trip down the Wisconsin River. In the winter the kids would go sledding on a hill behind the Manor House, and in the summer a local farmer would let them fish and swim in his pond.

“It was some of the best times of my life, it turns out,” says Mike, who graduated from Berryville when he was 15. “I started to feel like I was at home there, and I stopped missing home so much. I was honestly sad to leave.”

Today Mike is a successful airbrush artist with his own custom paint and collision repair shop in Richmond. He’s been married for 30 years and has a third grandchild on the way. Looking back, he insists that Grafton was the key to turning his life around.

“It changed my whole attitude about race. It made me look at people in an entirely different way,” he says. “Before I went to Grafton, nobody would have guessed that I would own a successful business, have my own home, and get married – but that’s exactly what I’ve done. I truly believe it’s because of Grafton that I am where I am now.”