Miami Stories — Anthony Abraham

Lebanese family finds success here

 

My dad, Anthony Abraham, just turned 99 and lives in the same Coral Gables house he bought in 1952.

I wasn’t even born yet, but my mom, dad and my three siblings -- George (7), Marion (5) and Judy (3) left Chicago and arrived in Miami in 1950 along with my cousin Dorothy, who was 16 and planning to attend the University of Miami.

Rumor was that my oldest brother George had asthma and it was advised that he should live in a tropical climate. My dad wasn’t going to move to the Caribbean, so Miami was the best solution.

When my family first arrived, they stayed at The Casablanca Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Driving up to the hotel, there was an Arabian Nights-themed porte cochere featuring four giant genies (originally nude but eventually draped due to controversy).

The fun times for the kids was going to the movies at the Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables or swimming at the beach in Crandon Park.

Later, my family rented a house across from the hotel for one season. They used to go to Wolfie’s, the landmark restaurant at 21st Street and Collins Avenue. It was the family hangout; the place was always crowded and opened 24 hours. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2002.

Meanwhile, while house-hunting in 1952, my mom found a house in Coral Gables, perfect for the whole family. There was a fireplace in the middle of the living room, which is no longer there, nor the terrazzo floors.

My mom loved to cook Lebanese food and have the family over for Sunday dinners. I loved to help my aunts in the kitchen rolling up grape leaves. It would take two days to prepare our feasts -- kibbee, tabouli, grape leaves and cabbage leaves stuffed with Lebanese style rice and lamb.

On Aug. 24, 1956, a wonderful life began for my brother Tommy, who was 4, and me, age 5.

My mother and dad came to Beirut, Lebanon, to visit our orphanage, The Creche. They came to visit the children and brought toys. Tommy, who went by the name Ghattas, elbowed my dad while I tugged on my mom’s skirt. Without any hesitation or spoken words, they adopted both of us.

My other siblings were all adopted at birth. George came from Kansas City, Mo., Marion was from New York City, and Judy was from St. Louis, Minn.

When we arrived in the summer of 1956 on National Airlines, we were greeted by Ralph Renick, the legendary Channel 4 anchorman. We could only speak French or Arabic, except the words, ’Thank you, ’ which my dad had taught us on the plane. When we arrived at our new home, we saw the pool and our reflection in the pool. This was the happiest moment of our lives.

My dad owned what became the largest Chevrolet dealership in South Florida on the corner of LeJeune Road and Southwest Eighth Street.

Eventually, he bought the land across the street for used cars, then haggled with the fruit market owner to buy another piece of land on the other side for the truck department. At one point, he owned every corner of LeJeune and Eighth Street.

My parents had become part of the social circle in the ’60s and ’70s. They were a part of a new organization, ALSAC (American Syrian Lebanese Associated Charities), which still exists today. The entertainer Danny Thomas, also of Lebanese descent, founded St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital with a group of Lebanese businessmen, including my father. They created a board in 1957. Today, second and third generations of the original families, including my brother, Tommy, sit on the board.

In the late 1950s, my parents started a local fundraising event for the hospital, called The Miracle Ball. Danny Thomas would bring a different celebrity to the event each year. Robert Goulet, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., and even Frank Sinatra performed at the last ball in 1984, which was dedicated to my mom.

We used to host the pre-cocktail party at our home, but eventually started having the party at the Eden Roc hotel. The gala was held at the Fontainebleau hotel, when Ben Novack owned it.

Mr. Novack had bought our house while we were in college, but when my brother and I returned to Miami, my brother insisted my parents buy it back, which they did in the 1970s.

My brother and I went away to college but returned to Miami. I have followed in my mother’s footsteps, fundraising and hosting parties in my home. My brother Tommy has taken over the family foundation and runs our dad’s office. My father eventually sold the dealership, then repurchased it in the early ’80s. He sold in again in the late ’80s.

My dad finally retired after my mom was taken away from us in 1984. He has dedicated the rest of his life to helping schools, hospitals and churches.

I have been so blessed to have been chosen by two remarkable, loving and generous parents. My father’s motto for our family foundation is: "Always help those less fortunate, no matter what race, color or creed they were."

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