An American Dream
Alice (Craig), Alma, Gus and Majeed Jepeway
Gus Jepeway had a dream. As a young shepherd boy, Gus would sit on the rocks in a grove of olive trees in the valley surrounded by the mountains of Douma, Lebanon and dream about wondrous places. He had seen the Temple of Jupiter across the Bekaa Valley in Baalbek, built by the Romans just after the death of Jesus. Gus once or twice ran fat-tailed sheep through that ancient Roman palace. He would dream of far better places, places where he could be free from the fighting which had ravaged his homeland for thousands of years.
About a century ago, Gus decided to leave his home and all that he had ever known and travel by boat and train a third of the way around the world to join his uncle Mose Jepeway. The sixteen-year-old immigrant boy landed on Ellis Island. “It must have seemed like a different planet,” said his granddaughter, Dr. Marie Craig Hooks. Gus traveled by train to Dublin, where he lived over his uncle’s store on West Jackson Street in a building just to the right of the present day Deano’s Restaurant.
Three years or so later, Gus was joined by his younger brother George. George also made the long voyage without being able to understand only a few words in English. George arrived in Dudley. Not being able to hear and understand the conductor’s announcement, young George left the train thinking that he was in Dublin. Much to his horror, he was not. Imagine not being able to communicate to anyone about who he was or even where he was. George was taken in and boarded by a kind family. The next morning arrangements were made to take him to Dublin. He left his coat as security for his promise to return to repay his first dose of Southern hospitality. As George was coming into Dublin, he noticed his brother and Flannery Pope riding motorcycles. George bolted from the train, dropped his possessions, and ran down the dirt street, waving and yelling in Arabic, “Brother Gus! Brother Gus!”
From the very beginning, Gus found an urgency to become a part of the culture of the United States. He felt that if he was coming to this country, he was going to be an American. He worked hard to understand the vocabulary. But, Gus had a problem. He was nearly stone cold deaf.
Despite his disability, Gus learned to read lips in English. But, Gus never learned to read English. In his culture, words were written and read from right to left. The Arabic characters were also vastly different from the English alphabet. The numbers were the same, but Gus would never in his life be able to read in English, although he spoke it fluently without ever hearing it spoken afer his mid twenties.
Gus eventually married the love of his life, Alma. Alma Samaha came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She was sick during the entire voyage. Alma was introduced to Gus by the Shehan family who lived with the Jepeways above Mose Jepeway’s store. Alma never forgot her days in Lebanon. In the morning, she was allowed to write and speak in Arabic. In the afternoon, the laws of the French controlled area mandated that she write and speak in French. Religious persecution was often the norm as Muslims and
Christians took turns in governing the country. When Alma arrived in America, she took courses in English. It was only when she began to think in English that Alma Jepeway became comfortable with being a true American.
Determined to succeed, Gus learned how to communicate with Georgia farmers, although he never heard a single word they said. Unable to hear the auctioneer’s requests for bids during cattle auctions, Gus employed someone to point to the current bid on a chart, a job once held by James Carr.
After a long day at the stockyards, Gus would love to sit down and watch television. When his favorite show, Gunsmoke, came on, Alma would sit down with Gus and write out the story line so that he could follow along with the action.
Gus and Alma joined the Catholic Church in Dublin. Gus became a member of the Dublin church because he felt more at home with the Roman Catholic faith, which was close to his Maronite upbringing. Because Gus was unable to hear the music and most of the services, he didn’t attend mass on a regular basis, but remained a highly spiritual man reading The Upper Room in Arabic, along with his daily Arabic language newspapers. Alma, however, was an integral part of the early days of the Catholic Church in Dublin, which was composed of a number of Lebanese, Greeks and Eastern Europeans.
The Jepeways enjoyed a grand social life in Dublin with friends and family. Being nearly half way between Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida, the family’s home was a layover stop along the way. When the families got together, there was fine eating, card playing, and story telling.
Two children, Alice and Majeed, were born to Gus and Alma. Both were highly intelligent and award winning students. The family moved to Miami briefly at the request of family members. Alice remembered the time when a hurricane struck their home and her mother put Majeed’s cradle on top of a table when flood waters rushed in. Gus, who liked Florida not too much, returned quickly with his family back to Dublin. Majeed, a dark and handsome young man like his father, always wanted to be a pilot. But on one tragic day, Majeed cut himself on a rusty nail and died, tearing the heart and soul out of the Jepeways. Alice gave up her dream of going to college to remain with her grieving parents.
From their first days in Dublin, being an American was ingrained in the Jepeway family. Their children were always taught to work hard and do the right thing. That mantra was never more apparent than the time when Gus gave his grandson, Jep Craig, some cows to raise for a year so that he could sell them and buy his first car. When the time came, Gus gave his friend, Charles McMillan, a sum sufficient to buy the cows and pay for the car. Jep found out later, but he learned a valuable lesson.
When Gus Jepeway came to America, he saw vast natural resources and an opportunity to succeed. Appreciating what he had, Jepeway never missed an opportunity to give back to his community.
Dr. Marie Hooks credits and applauds the people of Dublin for accepting her family. “When you don’t understand someone’s culture, it leads to misinformation, which leads to fear,” said Dr. Hooks. Her grandparents were able to assimilate into the culture despite their darker skin and deep Lebanese accents.
Although, Gus Jepeway lived in Dublin for more than fifty years, he never became a naturalized American citizen. The ship on which he came to Ellis Island later sank. He was never able to prove to the U.S. government when he arrived. So to the government, Gus Jepeway was just a green-card carrying legal alien. But to Gus and those who knew and loved him, his American dream came true. In his heart, Gus Abdullah Jepeway was first and foremost, an American.
So, happy birthday America! May you always continue to be a land where the dreams of a young shepherd boy from faraway places like the mountains of Lebanon can and will always come true.