105-year-old fondly recalls his days as a Pullman porter
When Andrew Isaacs read a recent Times article about Lee Wesley Gibson, a centenarian believed to be the oldest surviving Pullman porter, he knew something was amiss.
“I have to tell them about my brother,” he recalled thinking.
Ben Isaacs was also a Pullman porter. He began his railroad career in April 1936, according to the Chicago-based Newberry Library, which keeps data on Pullman employees. Isaacs retired in December 1968, records from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board show.
Most important, Isaacs was born Sept. 8, 1904 — six years before Gibson. That would make him 105.
“Any porter that was older than I am now, they have probably passed,” Isaacs said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Victorville.
Isaacs, who is now blind, spoke fondly about his 32 years as a porter, although he acknowledged that “it got quite hard sometimes.... Sometimes I would have a full car, and the car had 30 or 50 berths.”
The Pullman Palace Car Co. was founded by George Pullman in 1867 and was most famous for development of the sleeping car. The company primarily hired African Americans, whose job elevated many to middle-class status.
The challenges of the job didn’t take away from the allure of being a porter, Isaacs said.
“I just kind of liked traveling around and seeing the country, and helping people,” he said.
Isaacs recalled some of his encounters with the rich and famous, such as prominent silent film actresses Anita Stewart and Gloria Swanson. His favorite celebrity was cowboy singer and actor Roy Rogers.
“I had a chance to talk to him,” Isaacs said. “He had a car all by himself, for him and his friends, from Los Angeles to Chicago.”
The Windy City was Isaacs’ most beloved location. New York was also nice, he said, but it seemed “closed in.”
“The buildings were so tall, they looked like they were falling in on you,” Isaacs recalled with a chuckle.
The 100-year-old Gibson said he was pleased to learn that Isaacs — a man he once knew — was still alive.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I’ve had no contact with him since we retired.”
Lyn Hughes was equally thrilled about the discovery of Isaacs. Hughes is founder of the Chicago-based A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which celebrates the contribution of African Americans to America’s labor history and whose records showed Gibson to be the oldest living Pullman porter.
“It is an interesting development, and an exciting one,” said Hughes, whose book “An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porters National Historic Registry of African American Railroad Employees,” references some 4,000 Pullman porters.