1960s child refugees revisit Wichita home

Though the Mariana Boys Home now houses attorneys and therapists, 50 years ago there was a dinner bell hanging in the hallway.

And George Mas found a way to eat even if it wasn't ringing.

"We always could find a way to get into the kitchen," Mas said, pointing down the hallway of the former orphanage.

"Father hid the key from us so we couldn't break in and steal the food."

Mas' memory was just one of many floating on laughter and heartfelt hugs as men and women who arrived in Wichita as Cuban refugees a half-century ago toured their childhood home Thursday.

Their visit to Mariana Boys Home marks the start of a four-day reunion celebrating the 50th anniversary of Operation Peter Pan, a government-run program that helped more than 14,000 children flee Cuba in the early 1960s.

"It's amazing," said Mas, 60, hugging old friends. "I haven't seen some of these guys since 1961."

The Catholic-run orphanage called home by more than 80 boys between 1961 and 1968 is now Carriage House Office Park, 313 N. Seneca. Owner John Fitzthum and his tenants welcomed the building's former occupants.

"The stories are just amazing," Fitzthum said as dozens of Cuban-born former refugees now in their 60s stood in their old bedrooms.

At the urging of parents who feared their children would be sent to the Soviet Union and China under Fidel Castro's rule, the CIA and the Catholic Welfare Bureau helped thousands of Cuban children find foster homes in the U.S. between December 1960 and October 1962.

The project, dubbed Operacion Pedro Pan in Cuba, is the largest relocation of unaccompanied minors to date, said former Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans, also a refugee under the program.

"It was very clandestine. A very quiet, quiet thing," Mas said.

Now a certified public accountant living in Ormond Beach, Fla., Mas remembers the journey to Wichita well.

On Aug. 2, 1961, Mas arrived in Miami, the entry point in the U.S. for all Peter Pan children.

He was 10 and called Jorge — his birth name — back then. His brother, Juan "John" Mas, was 12.

For 28 days, Mas and his brother lived at a camp in Miami with hundreds of other children in an old building.

A group of seven children, Mas remembers, eventually relocated to Wichita.

Waiting in the Midwest was a Catholic priest named Robert Kocour, a house, and 15 other boys with similar stories. Others came and left, going to foster homes in the Wichita area.

"Kids came for a few years, or a few months, or a few days," Mas said. "It was like having a different set of brothers every once in a while."

He was told to wait for his parents to emigrate to the U.S. In the meantime, Mas "raided the kitchen." He played basketball on a patch of pavement in the parking lot and football on grass now sandwiched between Carriage House and a Braum's Ice Cream store.

He graduated from Bishop Carroll High School; married Mary Beth Blick, a girl from an Andale farm where he worked one summer; and started accounting classes at Wichita State University.

His mother wrote every six months from Cuba, but said she couldn't leave Mas' father, a political prisoner who had been jailed and charged with assisting the CIA after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

It wasn't until 1971 that Mas and his brother were reunited with their parents and a younger brother who was 2 when Mas left Cuba.

"I'm thankful for my parents for doing that for us," said Mas, who has no plans to return his birth country. "This is... the best thing that could've happened to all of these kids."

Wichita, not Cuba, he said, "is my hometown."