ST. PETERSBURG — Those first few seconds, as John Brodnax had just opened an April 2009 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, he assumed the story he was about to read had something to do with presidential politics.
Beneath a photo caption was the phrase that made him think so: "White House."
Then he took in the photo of a squat, white building used for corporal punishment, and the words, "Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys."
Mr. Brodnax had told his children of prolonged beatings with a strap at the school, then known as the Florida School for Boys. He had spent the rest of his life trying to forget, and to provide a stable environment for his own children.
But anger about the past still burned inside him.
He showed his family the story. "It was one of those, 'I told you I wasn't lying,' " said daughter Mary Brodnax, 39.
Mr. Brodnax, one of many "White House boys" who have come forward to tell their stories, died Nov. 29, of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 68.
"John was beaten and beaten and beaten again," said Jerry Cooper, 66, who as a boy shared a cottage at the reform school with Mr. Brodnax in the late 1950s.
Offenses ranged from getting a boy an extra cup of coffee to another boy's use of tobacco, for which Mr. Brodnax took the blame.
In 1960 he stole a car and escaped. He married and drove a semitrailer truck, driving across the country under the handle "John the Baptist."
His children say they were almost never spanked, and that their father stood behind them even when they got in trouble. At Christmas, Mr. Brodnax dressed up as Santa Claus, carrying presents to his grandchildren in a red sack.
But certain things bothered him a great deal. For example, he could not abide the sound of slamming doors.
"I went through life being a mean, nasty, irritable person," he said in 2010. "I've come to realize that all of us were a lot alike when we come out of there."
Mr. Brodnax was born in St. Petersburg. His mother gave him away as a young child to another couple, his family said.
Five years ago, a genealogist in the family discovered that Mr. Brodnax had a half-brother living in Brandon.
"John showed up at my door," said Bill Goggio, 62. "He said, 'You're not going to believe this, but I'm your brother.' "
Mr. Brodnax attended several reunions of boys who had been held at the Dozier school, which was closed in June after a state investigation.
Two years ago, he and his wife, Mary, passed near Marianna on a trip to Georgia. Mr. Brodnax considered swinging by the school he had not seen in nearly 50 years.
"They were going to stop," his daughter said. "And my dad just couldn't do it."
Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.