Dr. Stephen Hales sat in the living room of his home near Audubon Park, brimming with admiration as he recounted tales of the earliest years of the Rex organization.
“Rex began because a few young city leaders decided to do something back in the 1870s to boost the city’s spirits and, at the same time, its economy,” said Hales, who reigns as the 2017 king of Carnival. “I don’t think they had any idea that Rex would become for the city what it is today.”
As Hales spoke, it was impossible not to become caught up by his take on the organization that selected him as its standard-bearer this Shrove Tuesday. And though as a pediatrician he may be most comfortable wearing a white doctor’s coat, the mantel of Rex is an honor he cherishes.
He said he didn’t see it coming.
“I was called to a meeting of one of the committees to review some information regarding taxes,” he said. “But when I got there, I realized there wasn’t a single accountant in the room.”
For man who is used to talking freely, Hales was so stunned by the announcement that day that he was speechless.
“That's how our captain says he knew they managed to surprise me: I was suddenly extremely inarticulate,” Hales said. “I was sworn to secrecy — and for someone who is used to being truthful, I had to learn how to be vague.”
If anyone understands the history of Rex and the role it has played in the culture of New Orleans, it’s Hales. For decades, he has served as the krewe’s historian, the one who has researched its traditions and early leaders, the one who has followed its growth as both a cultural and a civic institution.
“Rex: An Illustrated History of the School of Design,’” published in 2010, was the result of Hales’ studies.
Well-loved by the thousands of families whose children he has tended in his Uptown medical practice for 40 years, Hales is known to others as the Rex official who joins announcers Peggy and Errol Laborde on WYES-TV each Mardi Gras night in reporting on the Rex ball and the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus.
Come Tuesday, however, Hales will be wearing a crown rather than a microphone.
"They may not have set out to do it, but the men who started Rex ended up preserving an art form," Hales said, explaining how the "moving tableau" of the parade was a spectacle that people came hundreds of miles to see.
“Nothing was thrown from floats in the early years, yet people came from far away just to see the floats and the beautiful costumes,” he said. “That's pretty amazing when you think about it.”
Art of one kind or another has always been present in Hales’ life. His wife, Nancy Harvey Hales, is an accomplished artist with a studio at home where she paints landscapes. Her artwork appears everywhere in the couple’s home and includes a small portrait of Hales. The couple has six grown sons.
Hales was originally from Utah. He holds a medical degree from the University of Utah School of Medicine and completed his residency in pediatrics in Phoenix, as well as a fellowship in pediatric immunology and allergy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
He came to New Orleans in 1975 to serve as acting chief of pediatrics at the New Orleans Public Health Service Hospital. The next year, he went into private practice. He still sees patients three days a week but on other days can often be found studying the archives of the Rex organization.
Hales’ fascination with history has served Rex well.
“Public service — 'Pro bono publico' — is part of the DNA of Rex and has been since its inception,” he said. “In recent years since Katrina, the Pro Bono Publico Foundation has granted millions of dollars to local educational groups and schools to help support the reforms that the school system needed so badly. As it was in the beginning with the group, it’s an investment in the future of the city.”
Renovations to the Rex den in the post-Katrina era have made it possible for the organization to host members of the public, including schoolchildren, for float viewing, and to offer a peek inside the inner workings of the group.
As word has spread of the displays of gowns and jewelry of past monarchs, donations have been made by their descendants.
“We have been fortunate that sometimes these items come back to us,” Hales said. “Two sisters in Cleveland saw the photo of their grandmother, Dorothy Wilmot, in her regalia as queen of Carnival in 1913 and recognized her royal jewels as the ones in her attic they used to play with as girls. They came in town and after a tour of the den, we got a note that said, ‘We’d like our grandmother’s jewels to come home to the den.’ Now the schoolchildren can see them.”