Dear John/Andy and the orphan train

Published 7:36 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Do you remember Andy Carroll?

— Kay Gray, Dowagiac District Library

I didn’t until Kay refreshed my memory of Tuesday, July 7, 2009, when I tagged along while she and then-DDL director Mike Shamalla showed him around town, particularly the depot and Beckwith Theatre.

Andy Carroll in Dowagiac in 2009.

Andy Carroll in Dowagiac in 2009.

Carroll consented to an interview with the Daily News with the understanding we not disclose what Grand Old City story brought him to town.

Now it can be told it’s the orphan train since Crown publishes his book, “Here is Where/Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History,” May 14.

The orphan train, considered the beginning of America’s foster care system, made its first stop in Dowagiac in 1854. You might recall the huge recreation of its 150th anniversary Labor Day weekend 2004. Gov. Jennifer Granholm was expected to come.

Children went from the original 1849 depot, demolished in 1872, to what is now the Beckwith to be placed with families.

It’s thought as many as 200,000 homeless children from the East Coast were “placed out” by 1930. The Midwest embraced them as a labor source, since there were no child labor laws until 1938.

Carroll, adopted at 3 days old, writes at length about the arduous reality of pastoral life, and that many “orphans” had poor parents who loved them.

Growing up, Carroll, whom I reconnected with by phone Wednesday, “hated” history and didn’t like to travel, either, so he was an unlikely subject to embark on a 50-state odyssey, which brought him to Dowagiac en route to the Chicago Tribune building, then to Hawaii in pursuit of a president — Abraham Lincoln, not Barack Obama.

Carroll told the New York Times that his mission to preserve lost historical sites is “sort of a reverse scavenger hunt. Trying to find things that aren’t there.”
Yet things he collected filled 24 file cabinets.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Carroll majored in English in college.
His preservation passion, to cherish the past before it slips from grasp, he traced to a devastating 1989 house fire in which he lost everything of value.
“I was just looking at a site in Cleveland (America’s first stoplight),” Carroll related in 2009. “A big part of this trip is not just to come to these places and say, ‘Here’s the spot I’m interested in,’ but to ask people. I just learned of the Underground Railroad nearby from Kay.”
He carried a camcorder to shoot video in collaboration with National Geographic Traveler.
“I was in Pittsburgh yesterday, Toledo last night, Maumee, Ohio – I’m going to have to go back to Indiana later – then Chicago tonight and Hawaii (Wednesday).”
The connection between the Aloha state and Lincoln is one of those “unexpected” tales upon which Andy thrives.
“Lincoln, when the king died, wrote a beautiful letter of condolence,” prodding Carroll to wonder about the possibility any islanders served in the Civil War.
His website,, gave some examples, such as the parking garage where Deep Throat ratted out the Nixon administration to the Washington Post.

“This is not just about writing a book, but firing up a new generation” more attuned to history than him.

“We’re all attracted to great stories,” he told the Times, “and that is the way history sells itself. If history is taught by rote, students tune out. The more we make history about memorizing names and places and dates, we’re going to lose the next generation.”
“I’d actually seen pictures of this place, and it looked like the traditional all-American town. I dated a woman from Frankenmuth, and I have a very strong sense I might have been here before. It looks very familiar,” he said.
Informed that first Dogwood Fine Arts Festival Visiting Author Kurt Vonnegut found Dowagiac suitable for a Saturday Evening Post cover, Carroll responded, “In my book ‘Behind the Lines,’ I published an unpublished letter Kurt Vonnegut wrote in April 1945 after he was liberated. He himself had forgotten he wrote it. I tracked him down, and he could not have been nicer. He actually did the audio version before he passed away, so we had him reading his letter.”
Carroll, who not surprisingly admired another Dowagiac visitor, Studs Terkel, said, “Once I hit the road, I didn’t want to stop. I know it’s hard to do, but I think every American should drive across the United States at least once to see how big this country is, how diverse it is, how amazing the people are. Along the way, you discover history spots. I like the ones off the beaten path because I get lost a lot.”
Carroll pointed precisely to the story 15 years before which brought him to this juncture of encouraging folks to seek out “hidden history” in their own towns.
It was a dramatic rescue that occurred while Lincoln was in the White House. The president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was boarding a sleeping car in Jersey City when he fell between the platforms as the train pulled away from the station.
Seized by the coat collar and yanked to safety, his rescuer turned out to be well-known actor, Edwin Booth – brother of future assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Carroll edited several New York Times bestsellers, including “War Letters,” “Letters of a Nation” and “Behind the Lines.”

“War Letters” inspired a critically acclaimed PBS documentary. The audio version of the book was nominated for a spoken word Grammy.

He edited, on a pro-bono basis, “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families.” That book inspired the film “Operation Homecoming,” nominated for an Oscar and winner of an Emmy for best documentary.

He co-founded, with the late Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, the American Poetry and Literacy Project, which distributed free poetry books throughout the U.S. The project handed out more than 1 million books in schools, hospitals, train stations, airports, hotels, jury waiting rooms and other public places.

In 1998, Carroll founded the Legacy Project, an all-volunteer initiative that honors veterans and active-duty troops by preserving their wartime correspondence. He traveled to all 50 states and more than 40 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and collected, to date, an estimated 90,000 previously unpublished letters (and emails) from every war in U.S. history (

In 2001, he revived “Armed Services Editions” (ASEs), pocket-sized editions of bestselling books given to servicemen and women during World War II. He began working with major publishers in 2000 to reissue them and distributed 500,000 free ASEs to U.S. troops around the world, including thousands of books he personally handed out in Baghdad and Kabul.

His efforts have been profiled on NBC’s Nightly News, CNN, FOX News, PBS, The History Channel, NPR, CBS Sunday Morning, the Today Show, Good Morning America and Nightline, and he was featured as a “Person of the Week” on ABC’s World News Tonight.

The 1993 magna cum laude Columbia University graduate has also been a contributing editor to numerous publications, including the New Yorker and Time. His op-eds and articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Washington Post and National Geographic.

You just never know who’ll you run across in Dowagiac.