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 John Ochsner, who died last week at age 91, insisted otherwise.
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 dad had been a surprise Rex. I have also checked with members of the Rex organization who could confirm the story, 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.
Alton Ochsner, who was born in South Dakota, and whose family was not socially connected locally did not fit the typical profile of Carnival royalty, but he was a hot number in 1948. In 1942, he had opened the pioneering Ochsner clinic and had already built a national reputation by linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. He was about as honored as an honored citizen could be. Darwin Fenner, who was Captan of the Rex organization at the time, was very innovative. It would have been consistent with his style to fill the vacancy on the throne with a big name but one with the civic credentials honored by Rex. In a sense, twenty years before Bacchus, Alton Ochsner may have been Carnival’s first celebrity king.
John Ochsner would recall that he and a male friend watched the Rex parade dressed in a spoof of drag costumes. As a member of the royal family he did have the proper attire for the ball that night.
In 1990 John Ochsner also wore a crown having been chosen to be Rex 48 years after his dad’s reign. This time there was no Mardi Gras morning surprise.
Finally, my favorite story about John Ochsner: His 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 form 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.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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