To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Paul Fabry on WWNO radio, click here.
In any city in America, one can discover people of an age whose lives have encompassed extraordinary experiences, life lessons valuable to all. Some have high name recognition; others do not. New Orleans has its share of such elders. One is Paul Fabry, an elegant, Hungarian-born, 94-year-old gentleman of the old school who lives with his wife Betsy in a 170-year-old house on Bourbon Street. It’s the house where the idea of World Trade Centers was born.
Fabry, a former diplomat and journalist, was recruited to New Orleans in 1962 by the Board of Directors of International House. It was, at the time, the leading civic group dedicated to trade and port promotions for this city. Founded in 1943 with such active leaders as Hale and Lindy Boggs, it had a membership of 3,000 business people when Fabry came, all anxious to expand trade within Central and Latin American countries. Their 1906 building at 221 Camp Street, originally built for the Canal Louisiana Bank and Trust, was turned into a boutique hotel in 1998.
“They were believing, for decades, that Central America was the future of New Orleans,” Fabry says of the International House leadership. But he thought their vision was too limited; he pushed for extended trade throughout the world. It was his idea to create a series of centers on all continents that would globalize both business and tourism. It took almost a decade for Fabry’s concept of World Trade Centers, organized by private business people, to take hold.
By 1968, Fabry was holding meetings in his Vieux Carre home with representatives of other countries to form the first World Trade Center. Not long after, the International House organization changed its name to the New Orleans World Trade Center, the first organization of its kind in the world, and moved into the iconic WTC building, at the foot of Canal Street. Today there are almost 300 similar organizations in cities around the globe, none more important or more famous than the New York World Trade Center, which was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.
Over his life and during the process of creating his new concept, Fabry traveled to more than 100 countries and organized trade missions on all continents for thousands of others in Louisiana and New York.
“In 1962, we had a telephone, and that was a big technological advance to talk to somebody in Paris or Argentina,” Fabry recalls with a laugh. “And we couldn’t talk to people in China or people in Russia. At that time, it was a modern concept that we should work with all the countries regardless of their political system.”
Now 94 years old, and as up on current affairs as anyone a quarter his age, Fabry still maintains that doing business with all countries, wherever possible, is good for everyone; although, he recognizes that the ways of communication are different. “Now you can sit in a little boat in the middle of the Hudson River and do it on the internet,” he says, sitting in front of his own computer in his second-floor office.
Fabry, who spends half the year in Aspen and half in New Orleans, can look back on a life that includes a doctorate degree in law from the University of Budapest; service as a reserve officer in the Hungarian army and as a war correspondent on the Eastern Front during World War II; and as a key member of an anti-Nazi resistance unit that saved the lives of thousands in his home country, for which he was honored with Hungary’s Presidential Gold Medal.
All of his experiences — but most particularly those during the Holocaust in World War II — have strengthened his belief in always being respectful of other people’s ideas, even if they are the complete opposite of his own. He saw with his own eyes how that concept disappeared with the Nazis in Europe and, later, with the communist takeover of the Hungarian government.
So what is the lesson learned? “The key word is tolerance.” Fabry says. “What it teaches you is to accept other people’s opinions, way of life, and other people’s taste. It gives you a philosophical basis, and that is my great lesson.”
This article is part of Lessons From Their Lives, an occasional series of interviews by culture writer Sharon Litwin with elder statesmen and women in New Orleans.