Him Mark Lai – 麥禮謙 (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai – 麥禮謙 (1925-2009), noted Chinese-American genealogist and local historian has passed away.

San Francisco Chronicle (CA) – May 29, 2009.

Edition: 5 star Page: B5(c) San Francisco Chronicle 2009. Reprinted here with permission.

by Carl Nolte.

Him Mark Lai, a noted historian of the Chinese American experience, died at his San Francisco home on May 21 after suffering from cancer and its complications. He was 84.

Mr. Lai was an expert on the history of Chinese and Chinese Americans from the time of the first Asian settlement in California just before the Gold Rush to the present day. He wrote and edited 10 books and more than 100 scholarly articles on Chinese American life – a field that was mostly ignored by non-Asian historians.

L. Ling-chi Wang, professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, called Mr. Lai “the dean of Chinese American history.”

“Him Mark Lai’s contribution to Chinese American history is immeasurable” said Philip Choy, an eminent historian. “He was a pioneer who legitimized Chinese American studies, whose influence will carry on for many more generations.”

Mr. Lai led a complex life, reflecting the racial, legal and political currents of his time. He was both a trained mechanical engineer and self-taught scholar. He was a quiet and unassuming man, but his demeanor masked a fierce devotion to civil rights and to telling the often ignored story of how Chinese Americans fought discriminatory laws to become successful in a new country.

Mr. Lai was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1925, the first of his family to be born in this country. His father, Maak Bing, was born in China, but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, could not legally immigrate to the United States. So he took the name of Lai, claiming to be the son of an American citizen.

These “paper sons” who had adopted false names, were among thousands of Chinese admitted to the United States until the Exclusion Acts were repealed in 1943.

His father, however, gave each of his five children the middle name of “Mark,” an Anglicized version of his own name, to remind them of their family heritage.
Mr. Lai attended Commodore Stockton elementary school and the Nam Kue Chinese School simultaneously, so that he had an education in both American and Chinese cultures.

While at San Francisco’s Galileo High School, Mr. Lai won a citywide essay contest in history; and he decided to go to college. However, his father discouraged that idea on grounds that racism would prevent him from being promoted. Instead, he urged his son to get a blue-collar job in the shipyards.

“San Francisco wasn’t always so liberal,” Mr. Lai said years later.
Instead, Mr. Lai worked his way through City College of San Francisco and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He then went to work for Bechtel Corp. as an engineer.

He also became interested in the civil war then raging in mainland China between the Nationalists and the Communist forces. His early support for the Communist-backed People’s Republic drew the attention of the FBI and political pressure common in the McCarthy era. His position was complicated by the fact that his father was a “paper son.”
“You had to be very careful,” he would later recall. “You did not want to bring problems on your family.”

However, Mr. Lai’s work in Chinese causes helped give him a new fluency in spoken and written Chinese, and he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant from China. They married in 1953.

In 1960, he took a course at UC Extension about Asian American history, and he realized that whole areas of Chinese American history had never been properly studied.
He began extensive research into what he called an “ignored past” and did careful landmark studies on the Chinese-language press in the United States and all aspects of Chinese American life.

He produced several volumes of monographs called “Chinese America: History & Perspectives.” His most important book is “Becoming Chinese Americans: a History of Communities and Institutions.”

His work is considered seminal in the studies of Asian American history.
He also taught at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. “Prior to 1969, when we taught our first class at San Francisco State University, ethnic studies did not exist,” Choy said.

“It was through Him Mark’s scholarship, research and collections that these courses now exist at major academic institutions in the country.”

Mr. Lai is survived by his wife of 55 years, Laura Lai of San Francisco.

A memorial service will be held at the Chinese Cultural Center, 750 Kearny St., San Francisco, at 2:30 p.m. on June 20.

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Obituary Reveals Identity of Homesick Boy from Orphanage – 65 years later

Genealogists want to find and document every member of a family. They don’t want even one child to be forgotten.

Thanks to genealogist Ed Hutchison of Mississippi a 78 year old Syracuse, NY man’s true identity has been uncovered.

Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) – April 5, 2009
Case, Dick. Death Uncovers Hidden Identity
.


We called him Louie.
He told us his name was Louis Ludbeck.
Mostly, his life seemed to be a blank slate.


It wasn’t until he died March 5, that the mystery that was Louie began to unravel.
Louie died in peace at Francis House. He was 78. A stroke took him.

We know now that Louie was born Gene Rollin Poffahl, Jan.17, 1931. He came into a family of farmers in Albany County. Likely he had five siblings.

We know this because the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office came into the picture after Louie died. He went to Francis House, a hospice run by the Franciscan Order of Nuns, with no past: no government health insurance, no Social Security number, no record of medical treatment or military service. Just a limp, old man ready to die.

The nuns gathered Louie into their embrace, just the way Ann O’Connor and Peter King had, more than 30 years ago. He passed restfully, among friends.

Ann and Peter are two of the founders of Unity Kitchen of the Catholic Worker of Syracuse. They run an elegant soup kitchen, offering full-course, fully served meals twice a week, as well as brunch on Sundays after Mass. The kitchen gets by on alms and the good will of a small, devoted troop of volunteers, who support Ann and Peter with donations and the good will of their help, in-person sometimes twice a week.

They live in a house on Palmer Avenue, devoted to the Catholic Worker community. Years ago, Ann and Peter set their lives aside to serve the city’s poor in a very special way. My wife, Sandy, and I have been volunteers at the kitchen several years.

Louie drifted into Unity Kitchen maybe 30 years ago. No one paid attention to the exact date. Some say it was 1978. He was part of a continuous wave of needy folks who washed across the struggling agency every week. Back then, the kitchen was a literal soup kitchen, and a flophouse, holed up in two floors of an old sash factory tucked next to the DL&W railroad tracks about where Adams and South Clinton streets meet.

Louie settled in; he seemed to have found a home among the homeless. He said little, as became his way of life. Ann and Peter accepted his silence, knowing from experience that it’s not a good idea to poke at the psyche of a homeless person. If he wanted to share a story, he would. Louie didn’t. It was as if his life began when he arrived in Syracuse. The only clue he carried was a piece of paper marked Orwell,” where the affiliated Unity Acres shelter is located.

Peter recalls that Louie settled into a helping routine, taking on small jobs that seemed to give meaning to his life. He’d often stand fire watch in the building. When others refused to do anything but soak up the founders’ charity, Louie joined up, fit in.

“He seemed to have found his place,” Peter explains.

When Ann and Peter closed the old kitchen, and moved to new quarters in Syracuse’s only co-op apartment building on West Onondaga Street, Louie went with them. He was invited to join them in their home, moving into an upstairs bedroom in the house that’s not far from Unity Kitchen.

One time, Ann and Peter tried to bring Louie into the social welfare system. He told the social worker a fantastic story about owning a house at Split Rock and a car. No, he’s not eligible for help, they were told. You’ll have to apply to be his guardian.

Leave him alone, let it be, the couple was advised. Louie is Louie. He doesn’t want to reveal himself; maybe he can’t.

Louie kept to his routine at Unity Kitchen. He worked at menial things — taking out the garbage, dusting and mopping the floor, arranging chairs — and joining the other guests for meals. Louie asked for little and earned the love and respect of the community.

Like others of our readers, Ed Hutchison, a former county legislator who now lives in Mississippi, was intrigued by Louie’s obituary, which was published in The Post-Standard and the Albany Times Union. By then, the FBI fingerprint check had given him a new name and birth date. It also revealed he had been in the Army for seven years, discharged in 1957. Ed’s a genealogist and loves a mystery. He ran an Internet search.

The search revealed a number of folks with the last name of Poffahl, which is of German origin, in the Albany area. Ed also found a newspaper story with an Albany dateline from 1944: “A homesick boy, injured in trying to escape from the Humane Society for Children, fought for his life today. Gene Poffahl, 13, suffered critical back and neck injuries last week, when police said, he lost his grip on an improvised rope strung from a third-story window and fell to the porch steps of the shelter ….”

Gene Poffahl seems to be Louie Ludbeck. His age fits the FBI record. The accident also would explain Louie’s twisted body. “He was a pretty strong little guy,” according to Peter King, “but his motor facilities were compromised. He walked as if he was drunk.”

The mystery of Louie’s life continues to be peeled back. Peter’s been contacted by people who live in the Albany area who may be relatives. He’s being told his parents surrendered Louie and his brothers and sisters to an orphan home run by nuns in Troy; they couldn’t afford to raise the children. The Poffahls were vegetable farmers, supposedly.

His funeral service was held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Father John Schopfer, shepherd of Syracuse’s needy, presided. He was carried to his grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery by his friends from Unity Kitchen.

Louie obviously was a troubled man, hiding his history or leaving it where it fell. Peter says he sometimes overheard him “arguing with himself” in a loud voice in his room. He didn’t intrude.

I’m not sure we know how hard we should push our inquiry, either.

Dick Case writes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at dcase@syracuse.com or 470-2254.
Edition: Final

Page: B1
Copyright, 2009, The Herald Company