I met Lori Mahfouz at a bar. She is tall, blonde, and beautiful and just recently back in New Orleans after 30 years living in New York City and London. Putting her in a little box, I asked if she’d met her husband in London…read…London…lots of Middle Easterners…Mahfouz…pretty blonde…marry.
No, this was her maiden name and she’d been born and bred in Berwick, Louisiana. Her father had arrived there, she told me, via the Orphan Train.
Lori’s father, Louis Mahfouz, had been orphaned in New York, and was part of a convoy that had distributed 200,000 homeless and orphaned kids to destinations around the country and to Canada beginning in 1854 and ending in 1929.
After learning of this, I emailed a Syrian/Lebanese friend, Schaffer Mickal; had he ever heard of the Orphan Train?
“Heard of it?” he replied. “My father was on it!”
My own parents had been in the Jewish Orphans Home of New Orleans, so I set up a meeting. And there we three sat, nibbling fried gizzards and hotdogs with sauerkraut in, appropriately, The American Sector Restaurant.
Abe Mickal’s immigrant story was typical: Father comes over first, works and makes money, which he sends back home; brings over the kids as money allows, leaving the eldest son in the old country with the mother, who come over together at the end to complete the family. But there was a hitch for 7-year-old Abe (the eldest): His papers were refused at Ellis Island. Days later he boarded The Orphan Train in his tunic and turban, now with a sign around his neck that read, “McComb, Mississippi.”
A woman on the train felt sorry for this hapless kid and gave him a banana, a fruit Abe had never seen before. Around Atlanta, starving, he took a bite, of course not knowing it had to be peeled first. It would be many years before he ate another banana — but some time before he became the LSU football hero of 1933-1935 and was inducted into the national College Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He was a downright fan of bananas by the time he became Chairman of the Department of OB-GYN at the LSU School of Medicine.
The General Store in McComb, his father’s store where he was expected to work, couldn’t contain this force of nature.
Louis Mahfouz was one of the lucky ones. At every stop on The Orphan Train, the kids were marched off and lined up so townspeople could have a look at the merchandise. Louis’s adopted mother, Mrs. Mahfouz, was a mother of three grown children who had left the nest. She desperately wanted another child, but was past child-bearing age. Her husband, a Syrian translator stationed in Berwick, acquiesced, and they adopted Louis.
Others on The Orphan Train, chosen because they looked like they’d make good farmhands, were not so lucky.
This YouTube video with a great song tells all.
It would be a long and wonderful life for the outgoing, charismatic boy randomly plucked from that train to 1962 until the day he sold his bank, First National Bank of St Mary Parish, to the Whitney Bank of New Orleans. Louis started out by importing dry goods from around the South and then from around the country to Berwick during the WWII years. A busted eardrum meant he couldn’t serve. He went on to buy property, rental properties, and was there when the offshore oil business turned nearby Morgan City into a boomtown.
Makes you wonder if a trial by fire at an early age isn’t all bad.