Happy memories of ‘Orphan Train’ rider

From train-riding “orphan” to wheelchair-bound widow, Roberta Slifer has been dealt some pretty difficult hands during her 84 years.

But don’t call her anything but “Happy,” or the resident of St. Luke Living Center in Marion just may not respond to you.

Slifer has gone by the merry moniker for 60 years, she said, ever since she survived a triple bout of polio that left her legs unusable but her mind so sharp that she rattles off dates of events in her life like they happened last week.

As a remaining rider of the infamous “orphan trains” that between 1854 and 1930 brought nearly 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless New York children out west to find new families and new lives, Slifer’s memory of that time-more than 80 years later-is a precious commodity.

That’s because of the 5,000 to 6,000 children placed in Kansas homes during that time, Slifer is one of the few still alive, according to the records of the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America.

Born in 1921 as Alberta and Albert Cole, Slifer and her twin brother were two of eight children of an alcoholic mother who was unable to take care of them.

Slifer and her siblings were taken early in her life to the Children’s Aid Society, where they stayed for two years before all being placed on a train of 35 “orphans” headed for Kansas.

Slifer retains one vivid memory of that trip, she said, involving half-brother Robert, then 11/2.

“I was 4 years old, and I remember very distinctly,” she said. “He kept asking, ‘Sissy, sissy, where are you?’

“And people on the train, they said, ‘Does that little boy know you?'” Slifer continued.

“‘Well, I think he does,’ I said. ‘That’s my baby brother. And he’s afraid he’s going to get away from me.'”

But Slifer doesn’t remember that she was that frightened.

“I wasn’t really scared,” she said. “I couldn’t think that much, at 4 years old.”

The train made its first stop in Marion, where 15 of the 35 children on board were placed with families, Slifer said.

Included in this group was Slifer’s older brother Joe, then 9, who was placed with a farm family.

Slifer and the rest of her siblings then rode the short distance to McPherson, where she and Albert were taken, along with several other children, by Walter and Anna Work of Windom.

The Works kept all the children for six months, Slifer said, and then adopted just the Cole twins on Feb. 12, 1925.

The other children were taken by the respective families of twin brothers Barton and Martin Gibson, she said.

Three of Slifer’s other brothers were also placed with McPherson families, including Robert, whose name was changed to Larry Waldemeier, she said.

Slifer’s two oldest siblings, Amy and George, were taken to a Kansas town called Rays, she said.

George was placed with a family that mistreated him, Slifer said, so he returned to New York.

Slifer said she heard he contracted tuberculosis.

“I don’t know whether he died or not, but we never saw him again,” she said. “He may still be living-he would be about 94.”

Amy was adopted by the Coles’ Aunt Alberta and Uncle Albert, for whom Slifer and her brother were named, she said.

“And they told her, as far as she was concerned, she didn’t have any brothers and sisters,” Slifer said. “I never could quite figure that out.

“It kind of hurt at first,” she added. “How could they tell her that she didn’t have any (siblings) when she was the oldest?”

At least one time over years, Slifer said she called her only sister with news of their brothers.

“And she said, ‘I have no brothers.'” Slifer said. “I said, ‘Well, you do, but if you don’t want to claim them, that’s fine-but I wanted to let you know.'”

In contrast to her sister, Slifer grew up near most of her biological brothers.

“They came to visit me,” she said. “I got to know all of them except Georgie and Amy.”

Shortly after being adopted by the Works, she and her twin were renamed Roberta Arlene and Robert Alvin, although Slifer said she is still unsure exactly why they got new names.

“They just wanted to change them, I guess,” she said. “It sure didn’t make me any different.”

Slifer said that from the start, she liked her formerly childless new parents, who took them with their childhood sicknesses and all.

“On the train, a lot of us contracted chicken pox, measles, whopping cough and small pox,” she said. “My folks got all initiated with that.

“It was a mess, but we got all that out of the way.”

The tomboyish New York girl soon grew to love her parents’ farm.

“If they didn’t know where I was at, I was out in the pasture,” Slifer said. “And I’d have a shotgun and my .22 rifle and I’d go hunt jackrabbits. They always knew that’s where I was at.”

But although Slifer’s childhood turned into a rather untroubled one, circumstances took a downward turn after high school when she went to Rock Island, Ill., to study photography.

Slifer never got a chance to pursue that passion-less than a month after arriving, she contracted a severe case of appendicitis.

“I just had gangrene all over,” she said. “They didn’t give me much hope.”

But Slifer pulled through the ordeal and returned home to attend a girl’s school, where she learned housework and cooking.

She followed that with eight months in Conway learning to be a telephone operator.

It was a job Slifer then held for 15 years after marrying her first husband, Leroy Burton, in 1943.

She had one daughter, Charlotte Ann, with her first husband before he died of cancer in 1958.

Slifer suffered her own share of sicknesses during their marriage, including three types of polio all at once in 1946, she said.

“When I had polio, they told me I’d either die or be a cripple,” she said. “So I’ve just been a cripple all my life.”

But it was also at this time that Slifer earned from friends and hospital staff what would be yet another new name for her-Happy-as her cheery attitude persisted through sickness, surgeries and ultimately more than 200 hospital stays.

“They’d say, “How can you be happy? You should be sad for an operation,'” Slifer said.

“And I said, ‘Why be sad? You know you’ve got to have it done.'”

It was also then that Slifer began collecting the teddy bears-the first of which was an oversized bear named Bluebird- that now surround her bed at St. Luke.

Slifer has called Marion home since 1959, after spending one more year at her home on her parent’s farm after her first husband died.

“After my husband died, I took in boarders,” she said. “That’s how I met my second husband.”

In 1960, she married Cecil Slifer and enjoyed nearly 33 years with him before he, too, passed away.

And while she’s enjoyed two happy marriages with two wonderful men, Slifer said the other man in her life has always been her twin brother, who eventually followed her to Marion and worked as a custodian at the Marion County courthouse.

“We remained close,” Slifer said. “After I came down here in 1959, later he came down, too.

“Wherever I went, he went.”

Both he and other brother Joe passed away in 1987, leaving Slifer as the only known survivor of the Cole children.

Her adoptive parents have since passed on as well-her father with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1965 and her mother of Parkinson’s Disease in 1971.

Slifer saw her biological mother a couple times during her life but never met her father, who lived in Miami, Fla., until his death in 1978.

“They said we had one of the most wonderful fathers anybody could want,” she said. “I would have loved to have seen him.

“They could never seem to contact him,” she continued. “It just wasn’t to be, I guess.”

But Slifer still has family in her life, including her daughter, two of three biological grandchildren, several adopted grandchildren and 13 biological great-grandchildren.

And although she’s thought at times of returning to New York for a visit, there’s only one place Slifer will ever call home.

“I’m glad I came to Kansas,” she said. “I like it here-it’s very friendly.”

The caring family she’s found in Kansas has been a big part of what’s allowed this woman of so many names-Alberta Cole, Roberta Work and now Happy Slifer-to face her life’s twists and turns with a smile still shining on her face.

“I’ve had a lot of hardships and a lot of serious conditions,” Slifer said. “But I’ve come through them.

“And they still call me Happy.”

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