Pedro Pan Stories

A Story of Love and Generosity: 50 years later


by Carmencita Romanach

A very special reunion took place last March 30, 2013 in Miami, Florida. I had the privilege to be invited to this Family Reunion and will try to convey some of the joy, the love and the emotions shared by representatives of three different families (Ramirez/ Johnson /Fernandez)  that share a common bond, a bond of love and generosity that goes back over 50 years in time.

Tete Ramírez, José Fernández, Jean Johnson, Nenetta Ramírez, Jackie Johnson, Nina Ramírez, María Fernández (Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

Ms. Jean Johnson (Pedro Pan foster mother), from Rome, NY and Ms. Amalia (Nenetta) Ramirez (Pedro Pan mother) from Camaguey, Cuba, met surrounded by their children and former foster children at Nenetta’s home in Miami last March 2013. The families had remained in contact but Jean and Nenetta had not seen each other again in over 40 years. It was a most joyful reunion where you could sense the joy and the love that surrounds these families.  Jose Fernandez, who generously planned this reunion and made it actually happen, came with his wife from Puerto Rico especially for the occasion. Nenetta had suffered a stroke some time ago and I wasn’t able to interview her directly but she obviously was sharing in the joy and the laughter and was deeply touched by Jean’s and Jackie’s presence as they were so much a part of her life and her children’s.  Upon their arrival from Cuba in 1962, Nenetta and her husband Rolando (Pucho) settled in Rome, NY and continued their relationship with the Johnsons for many years until they moved to Miami.

The story starts as the 4 Ramirez children, Angie (13), Nina (12), Tete (11) and Rolando (9) leave Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan on January 17, 1962. Upon arrival they were taken to the Florida City Camp. Shortly after their arrival they were selected among a group of Pedro Pan children by Msgr. Francis J. Willenburg (Catholic Charities of the Rome/Utica area) to be placed with foster families in his area. Nina recalls their arrival at Utica airport and how Msgr. Willenburg managed to find the only Spanish- speaking family in town, the Rodriguez family to accompany him to the airport, so they could translate for the Pedro Pan children. The Rodriguez family brought their young son, Sergio, with them, something the Ramirez remembers fondly to this day. (A short time ago, Sergio Rodriguez reconnected with them as well).

In the meantime, the Johnson’s family composed of Carleton (Brud), Jean and their two children, Jackie and Jerry, living in Rome, NY heard the news of a group of Cuban children arriving in their area and needing a home. Ms. Jean Johnson remembers that her daughter Jackie (10) came home with the news and she immediately volunteered to take one Cuban child to her home. Next thing she knew, she got a call from Catholic Charities asking her if she would be willing to take the 4 Ramirez siblings instead of one so they wouldn’t be separated. At her 88 years, she is sharp and witty, and she told me laughing, “I am happy that I volunteered only for one, I don’t know what would have happened if I had volunteered for 2!”

1962 – Angie, Jerry, Jean, Nina, Brud, Tete, Rolando, Jackie
(Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

Later on, the Johnson family would foster two more Pedro Pan children, Maria and Jose Fernandez. The Johnsons fostered six Pedro Pan children in total through a period of several years. Jean said, “We had inherited a big home and I thought, this children need a home and we’ve got it, so, why not?” After the Ramirez children reunited with their parents, when she got a call from Catholic Charities to take another Pedro Pan Cuban girl, Maria (17), as a foster child, she said yes right away. Maria’s brother, Jose (15), was already living with a local foster family and Maria wanted to be close to her brother (she ended up staying with the Johnsons for four years).  Ms. Johnson remembers that they asked her, “Don’t you want to consult with your husband first?” and her reply was, “No! He’ll be happy!” and she added, “I remember when the Ramirez children arrived he couldn’t wait to take them around!”

Eventually, Jose’s foster family would leave the area and the Johnson’s stepped in again and took Jose into their home.  Jose’s roommate, Renato, was taken in by the Ramirez family until his parents came. Jose remembers how Jean was such a great cook and always made him feel like family. He also remembers with gratitude how the Johnson family not only helped them but also helped and supported both the Ramirez (Pucho and Nenetta) and the Fernandez (Cheo and Mary) parents to settle in when they reunited with their children in Rome, NY. The families formed a strong bond of love, generosity and gratitude that still unites them to this day.

1964 -Maria’s graduation.  Brud, Maria, Jose, Jean and Jerry.
(Picture Courtesy Maria Fernandez).

When I asked Jean about her impression of the Ramirez children when they arrived she said, “They blended right in, they were family, they felt like my own!”  She added,
“The only problem was the language, but pretty soon, Angie, the eldest could communicate very well in English and that was it” and she added, “By the time the Fernandez children arrived, it was a piece of cake!”

Obviously, she makes it seemed as it was no problem at all, which only adds to her generous spirit, but taking care of 6 children, when you already have two of your own is definitively not a piece of cake at all. Just think about the amount of laundry and cooking and caring and love that you have to share!

Amidst laughter and joy, and some tears too, many stories were remembered during their reunion, like the long lines to go to the bathroom…..the house was big but only had one bath! At times there were 8 in the house and when the Cuban parents arrived and stayed in their home for a while, they were 10 of them to share one bath!

When the Ramirez parents arrived, one day the children went to school and the husbands to work, Jean didn’t know Spanish and Nenetta didn’t speak English but she wanted to help, so she went ahead and cleaned the bathroom, and when Jean came in   Nenetta said, “I do, I do”….Jean didn’t want to make her feel bad so she said OK and sprayed the tub and gave Nenetta the cleaning tools to do it…..so she had to do it all over again! Nenetta made a point of learning English after that incident as Nina recalls laughing.

Jean also recalls the time when they found a priest to hear the Cuban children’s confession in Spanish and she took them in to Church.  She explained to them to go to Confession, then go to the altar to pray their penance and come back towards her, she would be waiting in the pews. After the Rolando (9) finished his confession, he came back to sit with her and she told him, “No, you have to go and do your penance now.” Rolando said, “No sins, no penance!” and she immediately said to him: “I can remember a sin or two, so go right back!!” and he did. “Rolando used to hugged me so hard.” she remembers fondly (Rolando passed away on 2005).

1962-Camping Memories: Jackie, Tete, Jerry, Angie, Rolando, Nina
(Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

They also remembered the camping trips, to Niagara Falls, to Washington, etc. They all travelled together as a family and Jean added, “We had a lot of fun together!” All of the “former Pedro Pan children” agreed with her and have great memories of all their families spending time together as one after the Cuban parent’s arrival.

Nina also recalls how one of the most difficult moments for the Johnson’s was when they told the Ramirez children that their parents were coming from Cuba and at the last minute were notified that their departure had been cancelled. So, the next time they told them, they said nothing to the children and just told them they were going out and headed to the airport, their hearts braking because they didn’t want to disappoint them again… it was October 1962 and luckily the Ramirez’ parents made it just in time before the  October Missile Crisis.   

I asked Jackie Johnson if it was hard for her as a child to share her parents with so many other children. She said, “No, I had a lot of fun, and when their parents arrived, I was the one going to their homes to stay overnight!” She recalls quite a few Spanish words and enjoyed the reunion with her foster sisters and brother: Nina and Tete (Ramirez), Maria and Jose (Fernandez) that were present on this special day. Obviously, she shares the same generous spirit showed by her parents!

Before I left the Reunion, I just wanted to ask Jean Johnson a last question, “Is there a message you want me to tell other Pedro Pan children?” Her reply was, “Just tell them that if they were like the ones I had I would have been happy to take them!”

The following stories were shared by Dermot O'Brien

The following stories were shared by Dermot O'Brien (Monsignor's nephew) during  our 2011  OPPG Conference.

The stories shared by Dermot let us peak into the private family life of our beloved Monsignor and are real jewels to cherish for all Pedro Pan. We want to thank the Walsh family for generously sharing him with us once again!

TONY WALSH (Monsignor’s younger brother):

Bryan was the eldest of the family, I am the youngest. All the mischief was contained in my sisters and me; he was a model son and never put a foot wrong. My mother had a lovely story about the occasion he took her to Paris. She was very excited as she had studied French as a girl and this was her first flight. Of course she was quite nervous too. After take-off she searched her handbag for the Rosary beads but instead of comforting words all she heard was “It’s too late for that now. We are 20,000 feet in the air” I recalled his words many years later when we travelled with him to Mexico City. Coming in to land he happened to mention that this would be a scary time due to the terrain around the Airport and the temperament of the crew.

Of course, we landed safely and he went on to enjoy many more flights all over the world. I have no doubt it was his faith and trust in the Lord that saw him through the many adventurous challenges he took on.

PHYL WALSH (Monsignor Walsh’s sister in law) Married to Tony Walsh

Bryan loved moveable objects like boats, planes, automobiles and even bicycles. He learned to pilot a plane as a teenager and made great use of that skill during his years in Florida. On one of our holidays with him he persuaded me to board a light aircraft and take a tour of South Florida. Of his prowess as a pilot there was no doubt but taking his hands off the joystick to point out places of interest below was one of the most frightening, never to be forgotten experiences of my life.

When he retired and we holidayed with him on his houseboat I watched him cast off from jetties, man oeuvre through locks and berth in difficult situations, admiring his discipline and strength. On one occasion he even allowed me to take the helm and steer his lovely craft down the Shannon River. Sweet memories.

Jennie (Monsignor’s niece)

My uncle Bryan was a tall man and as a young shy girl, I remember I was terrified to talk to him. Despite this, I have wonderful memories of our family holidays in Miami and spending Christmas with him in Ireland. Like my brother Peter, some of my memories include feeling under the weather but most of these were due to travel sickness through a trip in an aero plane or in a boat. He warned me plenty of times about not sitting below deck but of course, I didn’t listen. One of my greatest memories was having Bryan come to Australia to officiate at my wedding to Paul. The day before the wedding, Bryan asked Paul if he would like him to hear his confession and Paul replied that that was not necessary as “I don’t sin”. Bryan laughed and tapping him on the head replied “I wish they were more of us like you”. To me, this epitomizes that no matter what your beliefs or values may be; Bryan was always respectful of them. And he would be glad to know that over the years I have become a better traveler.

Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh

Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh
Defender of Immigrants
By the Most Reverend Felipe J. Estévez
Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida
June 2011

I happen to receive once in a while angry and hateful letters complaining about the Church’s position on immigration, specifically the positions of the U.S. Bishops. These letters go out of their way to express with anger how illegal immigrants are a nuisance to our country, and how we should all be sending them back to their homeland.

These are Christians who seem to forget the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” When I think of Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, I think that he would experience sadness in reading those letters for he was such a defender of immigrants and refugees.

As one of the fourteen thousand Pedro Pan’s boys and girls, I received a waiver visa to come to Miami alone. Years after I would learn that it was a secret operation rescuing thousands of Cuban teens and children from the emergence of a communist take-over in Cuba.

This initiative was the vision and the hard work of the then Archbishop of Miami the Most Reverend Coleman F. Carroll. Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, director of Catholic Charities, his staff and hundreds of volunteers provided shelter, food and a familiar environment at our arrival in the United States.

I feel great gratitude for what I received upon my arrival, including learning a new language and receiving a Catholic education. My parents and siblings were able to arrive in the United States within one year of my own arrival thanks to the support given to all Cuban refugees.

My destiny was to become a priest, just like Monsignor Walsh and even more particularly, I was to be a member of the college of priests with him in the Archdiocese of Miami since my arrival in Miami this time as priest in 1975.
What I recall of our conversations was the pride he felt that a number of Pedro Pan boys teens had become priests. He would often bring that subject to conversation giving the names of those who became priests with such pride.

As a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami I recall he was most concerned about the life of the community, about the peaceful co-existence among different ethnic communities and races.

As a priest, a particular feature I remember is that he would go to funerals often to pray the rosary for he had a large number of friends in the Miami community. After praying for them, he would go to a corner and listen to confessions of inactive Catholics. He believed in this pastoral practice because he thought many of those who would be reconciled with God, would not go to a Church to regular confessions but the presence and availability of a priest in the context of the funeral of a deceased member of the family was an opportune time.

I recall how available he was to celebrate baptisms and marriages for Pedro Pan members and their families. The Pedro Pan community had in fact become his family.

The last image I have of Msgr. Walsh was when he was on his sick bed at Mercy Hospital. My friends urged me to visit Msgr. Walsh who was dying. When I got to his room, I was very surprised because he looked so well and did not look like a man who was near death. He kept a conversation as he always did and he was eating a vanilla ice cream with great gusto! The impression was deceiving because he died the following day. I have been told that Irish people have a gift for confronting death in the family and I certainly saw this attitude in Msgr. Walsh final hours.

A few days later I found myself concelebrating the Mass of the resurrection at St. Mary Cathedral. I had the definite impression that the hope we were celebrating had already been witnessed by Msgr. Walsh, who in his immediate facing of death was not afraid. He knew that the Master, the risen Lord would be welcoming him home.

Msgr. Bryan Walsh: A gentleman, a gentle man

Msgr. Bryan Walsh: A gentleman, a gentle man
by David Lawrence Jr.

Published in Miami Herald 12/23/2001 two days after Monsignor’s passing.

He was my friend. And yours. Even if you didn’t know that . Maybe you didn’t even know him. He shared with everybody his great warmth and an Irish smile and arms wide open. No one embraced our community with more honest love and compassion than Monsignor Bryan Walsh.

We were friends for years, but I never called him by his first name. He always was “Monsignor”. Despite his insistence. I never could, even on vacation. That was the way I was raised. The way I will always think of him.  Most of all, it was the respect he deserved.

His obituary Friday reminded us of his fame for what he did to bring 14,000 Cuban children to America so that they would not grow up under a Communist dictatorship. But the greatness of the man, the Monsignor, is that he stood up for everybody. Every shade of skin. He was Irish Catholic to the core, and catholic-universal-just as deep.

If the Cubans hurt, he hurt and helped. If the Haitians hurt, he hurt and helped. If the African Americans hurt, he hurt and helped. If Jewish people hurt, he hurt and helped. That went for everybody.

A stereotypically “simple parish priest” he wasn’t. When the Dr. Joe Greer and Lawrence families went to Ireland with him as a guide a few years ago, we were not permitted to be frugal if it meant missing staying overnights in two expensive castles. He had sailboats, not big ones, in the two countries he loved the most-this one and his native Ireland, where he lived and wandered in his tiny boat for weeks on end.

He loved to eat, and he loved to talk. He was a good listener, too. He was a student of history and a man who loved books and loved to discuss them. What he loved-Ireland quickly comes to mind- he took great joy in sharing.
Yes, he took time to smell the roses. I don’t remember him any happier than when he took us on a mid-afternoon stroll through an Irish park filled with roses.

They guy grew up in the grimy city of Limerick just around the corner from Frank McCourt, who later described those times in the bestseller Angela’s Ashes. He never forgot where he came from.

More than half of us in this community were born, like the Monsignor, in another country; most of the rest of us came from somewhere much different from Miami. No one worked harder than Monsignor Walsh to bring us together.
He loved politics, and he loved people. He wasn’t shy about saying what he thought. He said and thought things about how best to achieve a democratic Cuba, and other difficult matters, that others just didn’t like. Others took positions that were “easier”, more politically palatable. Not the Monsignor. He spoke up. Always graciously. Never harshly. A gentleman. A gentle man.

There are in our midst people of rock-hard integrity, people of gracious good humor, people of God-loving values, people of energetic purposefulness-and the very few who are all of these. Thank God for bringing us Bryan Walsh. 

Uncle Bryan: A life of Flying High-Giving centered around Family

Uncle Bryan: A life of Flying High-Giving centered around Family
by Dermot O’Brien

Hello Everyone, it is a true honor and pleasure to be here with you today. Our family thank you for your invitation and my sister Roisin, and I are delighted to be here in person. On behalf of all our relations: the Walshs, O’Briens, Holihans, and Harringtons, from Australia, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and the U.S., we thank you for keeping Uncle Bryan’s memory alive and in your hearts. We are all very proud of his achievements and very appreciative for all the honors and awards the people of Operation Pedro Pan have bestowed on him.

We all know how much Monsignor Bryan loved to fly his plane, even from a very young age. In many ways flying is a good metaphor for the “higher purpose” by which he lived his life. He always operated at an altitude far greater than is reasonable to expect from a good and caring person. Many of us can only hope to leave this world a little better than we found it but how rare it is to experience a life that has had such profound impact on so many as Uncle Bryan’s life has had.

Msgr. Bryan was very much a man of Giving, who centered his life around Family. Whether it was his religious family, his Pedro Pan family, his community family, or his blood relations, he always found ways to connect, give, and have a lasting impact on so many of us. As was his way with so many of my relatives, uncle Bryan made the time and traveled to marry my wife and I and christened both of our children, Samantha and DJ.
He traveled to New York for his final surgery and once again reached out and took the time to visit and stay with us. We never thought that this would be the last time we would see him-he even called me on the phone just a short time before going into surgery.

Growing up we had heard of some of the good things he had done but it was really at his funeral when I experienced the outpouring of love from the Miami and Pedro Pan community that I realized, more fully, the kind of impact he had on so many. This is because he was a very humble person. I don’t recall him ever talking about the things he had done to help others. Now, don’t get me wrong, he was also a very confident person who had strong opinions! As children we would be on our best behavior around him given his booming, deep, and very much mixed American and Irish accent!
My mother used to tell us about the many Masses the attended growing up and how he would sing hymns at the top of his lungs- he had many talents, but singing was not one of them! The beautiful thing about this story was that he knew he didn’t have a pleasant voice to the ear but believed hymns were prayers and that you should give your all when praising or talking to God.

Uncle Bryan, Monsignor Bryan, was a great role model for all of us and left us many examples of how we can all give more of ourselves and our time to others.

Thank you for listening, Roisin and I are very much looking forward to spending the weekend with you, hearing about your amazing 50 year journey, and getting to know many of you. Thank you.