On Feb. 26, 1909, a 19-year-old Russian immigrant girl dropped off her 10-day-old baby at New York’s Foundling Hospital and never returned. At 2, that child was placed on the Orphan Train and sent west to be adopted.
At the age of 27, Anne Harrison discovered she was adopted.
She was in her late 70s before she figured out she was among the 200,000 Orphan Train children sent west from 1854 to 1929. And she was in her 80s when she learned the identities of her parents.
“I’ve always been told it’s an interesting story,” says Anne, who turned 97 Thursday. “And it’s made a lot of difference in my life.”
But there is so very much more to Anne Harrison. Hers is a story of a determined, independent and naturally optimistic woman.
The story of a woman who sang in burlesque shows, vaudeville and night clubs while chasing her dream to become an opera singer.
A woman who raised two children and earned two college degrees in her 40s and 50s.
A woman whose secret to longevity is walking, eating her vegetables, avoiding most sweets except for ice cream, and never failing to see the silver lining in the darkest of life’s clouds.
A woman who, despite being blessed with wonderful health, knows her story must be told soon — before time runs out.
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She was born Mabel Rubin Cohen on Feb. 16, 1909 in New York City. She was renamed Mabel Anne Gruele upon her adoption in 1911.
“But I go by middle name,” she says. “I’ll be darned if I will go around being a Mabel.”
Anne recalls her upbringing.
“My mother worked real hard to make me a lady,… to see that I had manners,” she said.
Her father was a lot of fun, she said. “He taught me how to shoot marbles and do boy things like flipping a knife in mumbletypeg.”
Anne was 11 when her adoptive mother died after a long, financially draining battle with tuberculosis.
Her father was overprotective; she had to turn down the football captain’s offer to take her home from a high school dance, because her dad was waiting outside for her.
However, in 1935, her father decided his daughter must see the World’s Fair in Chicago.
He bought a round-trip train ticket to Chicago, and gave Anne strict instructions: Check into the YWCA. It’s unsafe to be a young woman alone in the big city.
“I thought, I’m 25, he doesn’t let me do anything, I’m not going back,” Anne recalls. “I turned in my ticket and didn’t stay at the Y. …”
She went to the fair one day. Then she started looking for a singing job. Her dream was to be an opera singer.
Chicago didn’t have an opera, so Anne auditioned at night clubs, always receiving the same rejection: “No, you’re not what we’re looking for.”
Finally she had enough. At her last stop of the day, she told the club manager she wouldn’t leave without the job, and sat down.
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“At 4:30 p.m. he came out and said, ‘OK, I haven’t filled it. I’ll take a chance.’
“There were no complaints,” she says with a chuckle.
Her goal was New York and the Metropolitan Opera. Her music took her eastward — singing in a burlesque show in Indianapolis and then another show in Boston.
Too ladylike for the Boston show, Anne quit and hopped a train to New York City.
She didn’t have the experience the opera wanted, so she auditioned for night clubs,
It was in her search for work that she found herself on Lexington Avenue staring up at St. Vincent Ferrars Catholic Church. When she was young, her father told her she had been baptized there.
At the time, she wondered what her family was doing in New York.
“But I didn’t dare ask,” Anne says. “In those days you didn’t ask questions.”
But here it was 1935, and she was 27 years old. She marched up the steps and asked the priest if he had any record of her baptism. He found none, but suggested she walk two blocks to the New York Founding Hospital, which had brought the church hundreds of orphaned children for baptism.
“Up I went,” Anne says. “They put me in the parlor. I waited. They came back and said, ‘yes, you were here.’
“I remember walking down the street afterward,” Anne recalls. “I looked in a window and saw my reflection. I thought: ‘I don’t look any different.’
“I thought it was a good joke and went on my way. To me it just didn’t make any difference,” Anne says.
Not long after, Todd Harrison met Anne over coffee. She had been described to him as “the cutest old lady.”
“I was 27!” Anne exclaims.
They married, had two children and moved around the country for Todd’s work.
Anne was in her 40s when she went back to college — attending six different colleges before earning her degree in music and art performance. She taught voice and directed choirs in a church school.
In her early 50s she decided she needed another degree. Anne received a master’s in audiology from Vanderbilt, and became chief audiologist for a clinic in Tennessee; later she worked with hearing-impaired children in Florida.
In 1991 she moved to Lincoln to be closer to her children, and continued to fill her spare time with volunteer work.
“I just have a tendency to do whatever comes my way to make life interesting,” she says.
So what every happened with opera?
“I sang with an opera one time in California … ‘Carmen’ … I was one of two gypsy girls,” Anne says. It was my one and only experience. I loved it.”
Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.