The Secret Jewish History of Paoli, Indiana

From 1985 to 1990, I was a neurologist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky. Living in Kentucky was a huge change for this native New Yorker, who had spent my whole life in the Boston-Washington corridor. My 5 years in Kentucky were, nonetheless, wonderful ones. Louisville is one of the great underrated cities in the United States and I have tried to get back there at least once every year or two since I left. In addition to a great deal of professional and personal growth, Louisville awakened my inner redneck. I left Kentucky with a 4X4 sport-utility vehicle, a pair of cowboy boots for every funded grant (total = two), and a gun collection that had tripled in size during my time there, as well as friends I have kept for life.

My department chairman had an arrangement with two small rural hospitals in southern Indiana, whereby we would see outpatients, and rarely inpatients, at these two hospitals, which had no neurologists of their own. The one further from Louisville was the Orange County Hospital in Paoli, Indiana, and for 5 years I made weekly visits there, usually on Friday afternoons. Paoli, the seat of Orange County, is a very small town, and I got to know a lot of folks in the area.

Orange County and Crawford County, which adjoins Orange and had no hospital at all, were and probably still are the two poorest counties in Indiana. The population of Orange was then about 30,000; of Crawford, somewhat less. Orange County was quite isolated. It still has no four-lane highway going east to Louisville, the closest city, although the highway north to Indianapolis has been widened. I couldn’t pick up Louisville radio stations on my car radio there. The people of the county were almost exclusively white. The secretary who booked my patients doubled as the chief of staff’s secretary and also was tasked with answering Federal inquiries, including the racial breakdown of the population the hospital served. So I trusted her when she told me that there were exactly three African-Americans in the whole county. They all lived on one corridor in the servant quarters of the old French Lick Springs Hotel, where they were employed as housekeepers and chambermaids. I saw two of them as patients during the 5 years I was there. There was a small Amish community as well. Black medical students from Louisville were very unwelcome in Orange County. Southern Indiana had been a hotbed of KKK activity before World War II, when the KKK had actually taken over the Indiana state government, and attitudes had not changed much.

My secretary, by the way, was the link to Orange County’s most famous resident. She was a first cousin and close friend of Larry Bird, the great basketball player, then still playing for the Boston Celtics. Larry Bird came from the town of French Lick, Orange County’s second largest. He had been very good to his hometown; he had built a great workout facility for the off-season and let the local high school athletes use it when he was away. Autographed basketballs were the coin of the realm; all the hospital administrators had them on their desks. The local radio station, WFLQ French Lick - West Baden, identified itself as “Your Boston Celtics Station in Southern Indiana.”

I saw two Jewish patients during the 5 years, and each time it was something of a surprise. The first was Mr. G., who had moved to Indiana from New York decades before. He was in his 50’s and lived with his wife and two small children, who often came with him to his appointments. Once I had gotten to know him and his family, I felt comfortably politely asking him what it was like to be Jewish in Orange County. He said that he had no problems except for neighbors who would very nicely ask him if he would like to try coming to their church. “I always told them that I’d be happy to, if they would come to mine.” I asked what his church was, and he explained that the closest synagogue was in Bloomington, over an hour away. None of his neighbors ever took him up on it.

The other patient was a young man who, with his wife, had moved “back to the land” during the radical days shortly after the 1960’s. They lived on a small farm and made candles, among other things. This young man was generally quite healthy but consulted me about migraine headaches, which I started to treat using standard anti-migraine medications. On the 2nd or 3rd visit, I asked his patient, whose last name happened to be Mahler, if, by any chance, he was related to the great composer Gustav Mahler. To my surprise, he admitted that Gustav had been his great-uncle. “Did you know,” I asked my patient, “that your great-uncle had such terrible migraines that he consulted, among other people, the great neurologist Sigmund Freud?” No, he didn’t know that. I realized that my first case of familial migraine was Gustav Mahler’s great-nephew in the cornfields of southern Indiana. You couln’t make this stuff up.

But the most peculiar Jewish story I heard in Paoli, Indiana was about someone long dead. Orange County Hospital had been built in 1959. In the main lobby there were two plaques. One noted the local people who had been instrumental in building it. High among the names there was a local lawyer, Mr. James Tucker. He was well-known as the brother-in-law of then Vice-President Dan Quayle, who had previously been US Senator from Indiana. In fact, Vice-President Quayle had had some effect on the hospital already. When he was elected, in 1988, the Secret Service learned that the Vice-President came to Paoli every year to go hunting with his brother-in-law, and so they did a survey of the medical assets that would be there should the Vice-President have any mishaps while in Orange County. They were shocked. The hospital had no helipad. If anyone had to be evacuated to a higher level of care, the closest true medical center was in Louisville, which meant at least an hour schlep, sometimes longer, over a hilly two-lane road that was very dicey in winter snow and ice. And I do mean hills; believe it or not, Paoli has the only ski slope in Indiana, whose construction had been largely quarterbacked by one of the Orange County Hospital physicians. If a patient had a stroke and needed a CT scan, that drive was what the patient had to look forward to, rocking to and fro in an ambulance on imperfect roads. Orange County Hospital’s emergency room had no physician present except between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. At other times, there was a nurse in the tiny emergency room, and she (always a she, then) would call one of the county’s 7 (yes, total) doctors in as needed. But when the hospital had been built, it was a huge improvement over what had been there before. So the Secret Service made sure that the telecommunications at the emergency room were at least minimally upgraded, I was told.

It was the other plaque that told a different story. The plaque simply said that the hospital had been built through the generosity of “Sol Strauss, citizen of Paoli.” After several years, I asked the hospital folks about the plaque. Something just didn’t seem right; there were effectively no Jews in Paoli, so how had the town benefited from a gift from someone with a Jewish name?

The story turned out to be fascinating. Mr. Strauss had come to Paoli in 1923. He had subsequently lost many of his relatives in the Holocaust and never married. He ran a drygoods store, Paoli Dry Goods, on the Paoli courthouse square. He lived in a sparely furnished room on the second floor of the same building. It was unheated and he slept on a cot. No one knew why he had settled in this unlikely location except that he had a brother who had settled in the larger metropolis of Salem, Indiana. He was apparently quite unpopular. Although he was considered a generous businessman and particularly kind to children, he did not attend church, which was unusual, he was different and spoke with an accent, and, what may have been even worse, it was known that he had served in the German army in World War I, into which he had been drafted. The few contemporary reminiscences I’ve been able to track down about Sol Strauss indicate that he had graduated from the University of Heidelberg, but never talked about his life in Europe, and he lived a very isolated life in Paoli, Indiana. I found a 1975 article in the Indianapolis Star which mentioned that he spoke five languages fluently but never mastered the local Orange County accent. It also mentioned that his store never made a lot of money. He died in 1960 and left no family.

The real story began with Sol Strauss’s death. When he died, the probate attorney was shocked to discover that Sol Strauss’s frugality, plus daily phone calls to a brokerage in Louisville, had enabled him to amass a considerable fortune, over $300,000 in 1960 dollars. Other than a few specific bequests, the whole sum was to be put into a trust, now called the Sol Strauss Trust Supporting Organization, from which 30% was to be given annually to the Jewish Hospital of Louisville, and the rest, essentially, given to the town of Paoli. The trustees, whom Mr. Strauss appointed in his will, were the pastors of two Christian churches in town and the county circuit court judge. Forty percent of the money was to go to the Orange County Hospital. All of the rest was to go to charitable causes in the town of Paoli. He stipulated, I was told, that he had done this in gratitude to the town for giving him refuge from the horrors of Europe.

I researched what has happened to the trust in preparation for writing this little essay. The principal, which has moved from bank to bank, has never been touched. The interest has gone to create a children’s library, outfit high school sports teams, build a 4-H recreational center, and assist the volunteer fire department, among others. Today, other than the contribution to Jewish Hospital, all of the funds must be expended in Paoli. The 1975 Indianapolis Star article called Mr. Strauss Paoli’s “walking trust fund.” And, while he was alive, no one knew.

When I first heard the story, I somewhat doubted it, but a year or two later I met an older Jewish lady in Louisville, where I lived, who corroborated it. She had actually dated Mr. Strauss and he had proposed marriage to her, but she wasn’t interested in marriage; she was already a widow. And she told me that he would not consider marrying anyone who wasn’t Jewish, which was why he had never dated anyone in Paoli.

I left Louisville and stopped visiting Paoli in 1990. Time moved on, I moved on and had several different careers, and then in November 2015 I found myself at Indiana University in Bloomington for the Midwest Composers Symposium. The last event was on a Saturday night, which meant I had a whole day to drive back from Bloomington to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. So I took a detour and drove the now much improved highway from Bloomington to Paoli on a Sunday morning. After an absence of 25 years, the town had not grown perceptibly. Except for one block of the courthouse square, which, I learned, had been completely rebuilt after a fire a few years back, almost nothing had changed in town. But the hospital, now expanded enormously, has a real emergency room. It is now part of the Bloomington Hospital healthcare network and presumably can evacuate patients a lot more easily, as there is now a helipad. There are physicians in the emergency room on Sundays too. At least one of the physicians was female. And, I noticed, the plaque is gone.

Oh, and I almost forgot: there is no synagogue in Paoli. There never was one. And, for all I know, there may be no Jews there now, either. But at least one Jew has changed Paoli for the better.

This story "The Secret Jewish History of Paoli, Indiana" was written by Jonathan Newmark.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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