Rufus Little took a significant risk in moving to Independence nearly 20 years ago.

Rufus Little took a significant risk in moving to Independence nearly 20 years ago.

Besides driving through the state, Little, an East Coast native, had never visited Missouri and knew little about the area. He applied for the job of executive director at a then-shuttered Andrew Drumm Institute, an establishment he had read about in the memoir of one of the institute’s most famous graduates.

After more than 60 years of operation, the institute closed its doors in November 1991. The board of trustees severed ties with the Evangelical Children’s Home, which had operated the farm since 1983. Board members said they wanted to take Drumm Farm in a different direction, and they set out on a nationwide search for the institute’s new leader.

Less than one year later, in September 1992, Little was hired and moved to Independence.  

“You could see that it was a wonderful place at one time,” Little says of Drumm Farm. He had read and had heard the testimonies of how the institute had saved the lives of children. “You could feel the potential of the place. You knew there was great potential here. It really captivated me.”  

It was almost as though the situation facing the Drumm Institute was designed for someone like Rufus Little. When he left the East Coast for Missouri, he was the athletic director at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, and Little had spent his summers working with children through programs like Outward Bound, an outdoor education organization.

“I always had an interest in helping develop new experiences that would help children grow,” Little says, “so this place just represented all of that.”

After 19 years, Little, 66, will turn over his executive director duties Friday to Brad Smith, the former Family Services Department director for the Independence School District. In May, Little will move back to the East Coast.

“Working here every day, you are doing something good, regardless of how your day goes because this is such a good place and does such good work,” Little says. “It’s been a privilege to work here. This is a special place. It’s been way more than a job.”

In his late 40s, Little and his wife, Caroline, moved several thousand miles across the country to begin a new job.

“I was nervous about it. It was a big gamble,” he says. “I felt when I got here and saw it for the first time that it’s a special place with a real special history. For me, it was an opportunity to really shape something, and in the process, do something that I’ve always wanted to do.”  

Little’s first exposure to Drumm Farm came while he was reading the 1990 book “A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes’ memoir of an American boyhood during and after World War II, including his life at the Andrew Drumm Institute.

Little was living in Connecticut when he came across an advertisement for the executive director position at the Andrew Drumm Institute. That listing came by Little’s desk, “and it dawned on me that this was the place I had just read a book about,” Little said. “So, I was really curious about it. I’ve always had an interest in helping kids who didn’t have a lot of opportunities in their lives.”

The new direction slowly took shape at the Drumm Institute, which was established in 1929 as a home and working farm “for the maintenance, care, education and protection of orphan and indigent boys,” its website states. Under Little’s leadership, one building was renovated at a time, and the housing changed from dormitory living to family-style homes. In 1992, six students enrolled in the new residential program. For 10 years, the Independence School District administered Andrew Drumm High School, an alternative education program on the Drumm Farm campus.

During Little’s tenure, girls lived on campus for the first time.

The board of trustees also pursued a golf course development on Drumm Farm acreage, and a new subdivision, The Villas at Drumm Farm, was constructed.  

“That was a real milestone at Drumm Farm,” Little says of the golf course, “because it answered the question of ‘how will the land be utilized?’ That was a significant move on our part because it helped to bring income in that we needed in order to run the program.”  

About 25 children within the foster care system live with house families on campus and attend Independence schools. Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association also has its headquarters on Drumm Farm. The institute’s mission is to provide family-style homes for foster children and be a center for services to foster families. Former Independence city manager Larry Blick, who is now president of Drumm Farm’s board of trustees, called Little “one of the key people in the community.”  

“Rufus embodies that,” Blick says of the mission statement, “and that seems to be his passion in life.”

In separate interviews, Blick and David Rock, former superintendent of the Independence School District and a former president of Drumm Farm’s board of trustees, both described Little as a father and grandfather figure for children at Drumm Farm. Little is a kind, gentle and approachable person who possesses the right temperament in working with children, Rock adds.  

“That is the true essence of a true leader around children. They have to feel comfortable, especially since they’ve been removed from their homes,” Rock says. “He’s been an incredible leader in being able to do what he’s done and taking it from nothing – literally nothing. He’s basically taken it from no activity to where it is today: It’s vibrant. The air is filled with the sounds of happy children. He’s basically been able to provide a quality, happy setting for children in need.”

One change on campus serves as the final piece of Little’s tenure: the renovation and rehabilitation of the 130-year-old Swinney Hall. Every building on campus needed attention when Little began his work, and Swinney Hall was often put on the back burner because of its magnitude and the finances needed to renovate it, he says.

“Now, we’ve come full circle. The rest of the campus buildings have been upgraded and renovated, and so we’ve come back around to Swinney Hall,” Little says. “It really had reached the state of deterioration where the choice was ‘Do we tear it down or do we rebuild it?’ As I move on, I’m very happy to know that Swinney Hall has a future and will be – once again – the centerpiece of the campus.”