© 2022 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Family Finally Able to Bury Brother Who Died at Dozier (video)

"They brought him here today to be with his brother."

Those were the words of Richard Varnadoe, 86, who was at last able to put his brother Thomas in his final resting place alongside a third sibling, Hubert, at a service at Hopewell Memorial Gardens in Plant City last week.


Hubert Varnadoe's son, Gene, told a small crowd of family and friends, including University of South Florida anthropologists, that it was fitting to place Thomas alongside Hubert for eternity.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
Gene Varnadoe eulogizes his uncle, Thomas Varnadoe, at a memorial service in Plant City.

"Now we lay Thomas beside his brother Hubert to attempt to give sense of peace to a very, very wronged family and hope that the healing process can begin for those of us who are left," Gene said.

Thomas and Hubert were sent to the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna in 1934 for allegedly stealing a typewriter.

Hubert returned home after a nine-month stay. Thomas, 13, never did, reportedly dying from pneumonia barely a month after arriving at the school.

School officials didn't notify his family until weeks later. By that time, Thomas had been buried in an unmarked grave on school property.

For years, the family didn't talk about his death. When they finally raised concerns with school officials, they couldn't provide the Varnadoes with answers that satisfied them.

Gene's brother, Glen, eventually took court action to prevent the state from selling a portion of the school grounds. He also helped get USF anthropologists involved in an investigation of Dozier. The reform school closed in 2011 after decades of allegation of physical abuse of students by school officials.

The researchers exhumed Varnadoe's remains, along with dozens of others, late last year; DNA from Richard helped positively identify Thomas in September.

Speaking a few days before the ceremony, Glen expressed concern for how his uncle Richard would hold up, particularly with 80-year-old memories still haunting him.

"It's going to be a fairly traumatic event I think for us cause while this was an uncle most of us never got the chance to know, it certainly was a brother that my Uncle Richard, the last thing he heard from him was, you know, screaming and hollering as the car hauled him off to go to Marianna," Glen said.

But Richard closed the ceremony by speaking briefly to those in attendance.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
USF Professor of Anthropology, Erin Kimmerle, talks to Richard Varnadoe at a service for Varnadoe's brother, Thomas. Richard was 6 years old when Thomas was taken to Dozier School for Boys in 1934. He died at the school about one month later.

"I just want to make sure everybody knows how much they mean to me for finding my brother," Richard said, his voice breaking with emotion. "If there's anything I can ever do for any of you, please let me know."

A second set of remains identified at the same time as Varnadoe, those of Lakeland resident Earl Wilson, reportedly have not been buried yet. However, Wilson’s family plans to eventually bury him at Lakeland’s Oak Hill Cemetery next to his brother, Jimmy Lee.

The first set of Dozier remains identified, those of George Owen Smith, was reburied this past September at an Auburndale cemetery next to his parents.

USF officials continue their efforts to identify the more than fifty other sets of remains exhumed from the school's cemetery.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.