Today many people know this phrase from the top-ten song by The Hollies
, or perhaps even from later hit versions by Neil Diamond
or Olivia Newton-John
. But it is getting to the point where you have to be a real old-timer to remember that this phrase was originally popularized by Irish-American priest Father Flanagan
as the motto of Boys Town
, the home for troubled youth he founded in Omaha, Nebraska
and oversaw until his death over 30 years later.
Even Flanagan himself was not the originator of the idea; in 1941, Flanagan saw a sketch in a magazine of an older boy carrying a younger boy on his back bearing the caption "He ain't heavy, Mr., he's my brother." Thinking that the phrase would be the perfect slogan for his boys' home, Flanagan contacted the magazine and eventually purchased the rights to the picture and the phrase, which he changed to "He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother," in reference to himself. The picture and phrase began to appear in Boys Town publications, and gained widespread reknown when it was featured in the 1941 movie Men of Boys Town.
In the picture, the older boy is clearly struggling to carry the younger boy on his back, but the caption suggests that there is no hardship too difficult to bear when you are doing it for your brother, whether a true blood brother, or a brother by shared experience, such as the brothers of Boys Town.