Louisiana loses last living orphan train survivor

(CBS News)

LAFAYETTE, LA – Louisiana just lost its last known living Orphan Train Rider. Alice Kearns Geoffroy Bernard started life at the New York Foundling Hospital on March 19, 1916 and was adopted by a French couple from Delcambre, LA at the age of three. After a long and rewarding life, she died in Lafayette at the age of 98 on Saturday, January 17.

The story of the Orphan Train movement came into prominence after movies, documentaries and books were written on the topic. In the early part of the last century, thousands of children were shipped from the orphanages of New York to rural communities in the Midwest and South. Typically, the train would stop at a small village along the route and the children would be paraded around the town square in front of the locals. Some children were adopted on the spot, while others were taken on “contract” as indentured servants or field hands.

Alice Bernard’s story was somewhat different. Named after her birth mother, Alice Kearns, she started life at the Foundling Hospital, a few blocks east of Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Her only memories of those days were “rows of iron beds with white sheets” in the dormitories where the orphans slept.

In 1919, at the age of 3, she rode the Orphan Train to her new life in Cajun Country. A French immigrant farmer and land holder named Auguste Geoffroy had lost his wife and three-year-old daughter to yellow fever. After remarrying to a Cajun woman named Constance Melanson, but still childless, he and his new wife “special-ordered” a dark haired, brown-eyed girl to be shipped down from the Foundling Hospital. Alice was hand-picked, and rode to Louisiana with a special escort. She was picked up at the train station in New Iberia by friends of the farmer and spent her first night “shivering with fright” in the bed between them.

As a young girl, Alice soon discovered that her orphan status was the subject of some derision and teasing from her classmates. “I never felt accepted,” she would later say, “or that I was one of them.” Her homelife was also challenging  – the hard truth was that she had been taken on contract as an “indentured servant” and was only adopted as the couple’s legal child 11 years later, at the age of 14. While the farmer was warm and accepting of her, his wife was cold-hearted and strict, truly treating Alice as one of her servants.

As a native English speaker, Alice had to learn the French language to communicate with her new parents. But when she started school, her deficit turned into an unexpected advantage. French speaking was forbidden by the public schools in early 20th century Louisiana, so while the other kids were struggling to learn English, she was already there. She remained bilingual for the rest of her life.

After attending school in Delcambre and graduating from Mount Carmel Academy in New Iberia, Alice continued living at home with her adopted parents. Her mother felt that college was not appropriate for a young woman, and would not allow her to advance.

Meanwhile, Alice’s adopted father started developing health problems — pains in his left arm were the first signs of an impending heart attack. That condition took his life in 1939, leaving Alice at the mercy of the strict and demanding Constance.

Soon after, Alice met a young man named Reuben Bernard at a dance in Youngsville, LA. Bernard was himself the son of a Vermilion Parish school board president and the matrilineal descendant of a large landholding family that was instrumental in the founding of Abbeville, LA and the small community of LeBlanc, about 10 miles south of Lafayette.

In 1942, Reuben and Alice married, had their first child, and moved to Port Arthur to take part in the enormous oil boom after the discovery of Spindletop. This also would not last. Constance died in 1949 and with her death Alice inherited Geoffroy’s 160-acre farm south of Erath and several rental properties in Delcambre.

Before long, the farmer’s (adopted) daughter and the school board president’s son found themselves adopting a new lifestyle. The two moved into a traditional Acadian settler’s shack on their inherited farmland and started growing cotton, corn, and sugar cane while raising a small herd of dairy and beef cattle.

During their successful life that followed, through successive remodeling sprees, the small cabin set amid the cane fields turned into a lovely home on 2.2 acres of mowed lawns adorned with stately live oaks. There they raised a family of seven children – Alice wanted a large family to fill the hole left in her life by her own lack of brothers and sisters.

In their spare time, Alice and Reuben loved to travel. A member of the Cruisin’ Cajuns and Bayou Rambler RV Clubs, they crisscrossed most of North America in their Allegro RV, from the wilds of Alaska to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and from San Diego to Nova Scotia, checking out every shoreline, lake, and mountain range in between.

Back home, Alice was a devoted member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and Catholic Daughters of America. She was a charter member of Les Travailleurs, as well as the Demi Tasse  and “Twelve & Go” social clubs in Erath.

In her later years, Alice became somewhat of a celebrity as Louisiana’s last living Orphan Train Rider. Many newspaper articles and TV interviews followed. When the Orphan Train Museum opened in Opelousas in 2009, Alice became its “living” exhibit and had been honored every year since. The tiny dress she wore when she arrived at the New Iberia train station in 1919 is still on display at the museum. She was concurrently declared a Living Legend by the Acadian Museum in Erath.

Alice continued to live at home, driving her own car, and hosting coffee parties until she was 95. Afflicted with osteoarthritis, she finally accepted assisted living and spent the last few years of her life working her puzzles, reading novels, petting her calico cat Menou, and winning prize bingo games at Garden View Assisted Living in Lafayette. Healthy until the end, though increasingly frail, she continued to joke and entertain her children until a few weeks before her death. She would have turned 99 in March, leaving behind seven children, eight grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

Funeral services are set for 11 am Tuesday, January 20, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Erath, followed by interment at Our Lady of the Lake cemetery in Delcambre.  A wake is scheduled for 5-8 pm Monday at David Funeral Home in Erath with a rosary at 7 pm and additional visitation starting a 8:00 am Tuesday.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, 233 S. Academy Street, Opelousas, La. 70570 (www.laorphantrain.com).

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