Joseph Laroche and his family

Joseph Laroche was a real hero a hundred years ago, but surprisingly few people know about him. I first found out about him in 2000, when there was a Titanic exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. The story of Laroche and his family was so touching that I felt I would have to write about it; however, it was more than a decade before I actually did so. When the Neighborhood Writing Alliance initiated the “Urban Legends” theme, I thought about Joseph Laroche, a real man who should be a legend, and I began his ballad.

At first, I had only one verse, which became the refrain. Finally I finished the piece and performed it as part of “If These Blocks Could Talk,” NWA’s fall performance. Since then, I have read it at other places. I gave a copy of it to a Haitian woman I met at the Black History Month program at the Chicago Cultural Center. She claims to know members of the Laroche family in Haiti, and may ask me to come read the poem to Haitians in Chicago. I read it at Brown Bag Poets, and one poet asked for copies to give to Haitian friends. I read it at Poetry Cafe at the Blackstone Library, and one poet who is also a pediatrician told me about a physician he knows named Laroche who is from Haiti. I am truly indebted to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance for encouraging me in my telling of the story of Joseph Laroche. However, I feel that my association with this story is not yet over, it may, in the words of the Celine Dion’s own Titanic ballad, “go on and on.”

THE BALLAD OF JOSEPH LAROCHE
Sharon F. Warner

For love of the children, the father was lost.
He went down with the ship in the sea.
He knew not how much family feeling would cost,
Just how dear affection would be.

The Titanic’s fame has continued to rise
Ever since the great ship went down.
People like to imagine and fantasize
About who did and did not drown.

The story of Shine is one we know–
A survivor (sometimes) who was Black.
A movie with Leo DiCaprio
Showed us romantic poor boy Jack.

But those men are fiction, heroes of the mind,
Made by screenwriters, poets, and griots.
One Titanic passenger has a story we find
More heartfelt than Shine’s or Leo’s.

For love of the children, the father was lost.
He went down with the ship in the sea.
He knew not how much family feeling would cost,
Just how dear affection would be.

Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche
Was tall, dark, handsome, and smart.
He was learned and charming, never clumsy or gauche,
He was skilled in mechanics and art.

His family was noble, the crème de Haiti,
They raised him to reach and to climb.
So he left Port-au-Prince and set out for Paree
At what seemed the appropriate time.

He studied engineering and earned his degree,
Met a winemaker’s daughter, whom he wed.
He envisioned a beautiful future to be,
But encountered racism instead.

He tried very hard to take care of his wife
And his child, then two children, soon three.
But he couldn’t provide them an affluent life,
So they planned to return to Haiti

Joseph’s family’s passage was booked by his mother.
To bring back her son and his heirs.
He was booked on one ship, but changed to another,
Beset by fatherly cares.

The ship that Grandma Laroche selected
Left children to eat on their own.
Joseph felt that they might be neglected;
His daughters were just three and one.

So he chose the Titanic, a slight downgrade,
And the family had dinner together.
Not knowing the decision that Joseph made
Would separate them forever.

For love of the children, the father was lost,
He went down with the ship in the sea.
He knew not how much family feeling would cost,
Just how dear affection would be.

They posed for a picture, which lasts till this day,
The four of them happy and bright.
They were all together, just sleeping away,
When the ship hit the iceberg that night.

The iceberg showed what had been unthinkable
The great ship could go down.
The Titanic was far from unsinkable,
And many were going to drown.

Joseph put his wife and daughters into
Titanic lifeboat 14.
His fate and other men’s everyone knew.
Joseph was nevermore seen.

 Somehow the Laroche family survived,
Soon Joseph Jr. was born.
Don’t know if they prospered, don’t know if they thrived.
They probably continued to mourn.

For love of the children, the father was lost,
He went down with the ship in the sea.
He knew not how much family feeling would cost,
Just how dear affection would be.

Shine is a folk hero, DiCaprio’s a star,
But let’s just move them over a skosh
To make room for a real man who exceeds them by far—
Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche.

NWA writer Sharon Warner. Photo by Sheila Barabad