Rex’s reign this year will mark the 30th anniversary of John Ochsner, Sr. serving as King of Carnival. By all accounts, Ochsner (1927-2018) served his constituents well and events went smoothly. The day could not, however, have deviated more from tradition than his first brush with royalty, 42 years earlier.
Feb. 10, 1948 was already going to be a big day for John Ochsner. First it was his 21st birthday and, as the calendar would have it, the day also happened to be Mardi Gras. The combination of the two was enough to keep a guy festive, but then from the front of his parent’s house there was also some commotion. Something unusual was happening. His dad, Alton Ochsner, was being hauled away in a limousine. He had, the family was surprised to learn, been chosen to be Rex, King of Carnival.
Adding to the surprise, John Ochsner would recall, was that at the time his dad did not even belong to the Rex organization.
Usually, whenever someone is chosen for Carnival’s highest honor, the family knows it at least a few days ahead of time, and most often the person who is selected is an honored member of the Rex organization. In his father’s case there was neither.
Through the years, whenever I would see Ochsner, most often at a luncheon or social event, I would ask him about the story just to be sure I had not misheard, but he always insisted that his dad had been a surprise Rex. I have also checked with members of the Rex organization, but there is no written record of how Alton was selected nor is anyone who would know still around. One former Rex did say that he heard that one year the chosen Rex had to drop out and the organization scrambled for a replacement. Ochsner, who had recently opened a clinic, had built a national reputation by linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
In a sense, 20 years before Bacchus, Alton Ochsner may have been Carnival’s first celebrity king.
John Ochsner remembered that he and a friend watched the ’48 Rex parade while dressed in a spoof of drag costumes. As a member of the royal family, however, he did have the proper attire for the ball that night.
This issue looks at Carnival from many directions, including defining super krewes; the longest reigning Queen and the all-important question of what to eat along the parade routes. There is also this story to share: John Ochsner’s medical career was distinguished in many ways, but he was best known for his heart transplants, of which he performed many. I once sat across from him at a luncheon and gushed about how great it must feel to have the ability to transplant a heart. Ochsner merely shrugged his shoulders and replied, “it’s just cut and stitch.”
There are many people who are still alive today because he was the one to make the stitch.