Rex 2017, Dr. Stephen Hales, will greet his subjects on Mardi Gras

For 15 years, Dr. Stephen W. Hales has been diligently chronicling and sharing the history of the 145-year-old Rex organization.

On Tuesday (Feb. 28), Hales, 70, will make some Rex history of his own. In recognition of his service to the krewe and the city, the pediatrician who has treated several generations of young New Orleanians has been chosen to be this year's Rex, king of Carnival.

"Few people have deserved the honor more," said Henri Schindler, who designs Rex's floats. "He does so much for Rex and does it not seeking honors or glory but does it because he loves it. ... So many people have said for so long that this man really deserves to be Rex."

The object of this adulation, who has been a New Orleanian since 1975, was smiling and more than somewhat bemused as he sat at the dining-room table in the Uptown apartment where he and his wife, Nancy, live.

"I'm delighted," he said.

Even though several months have passed since Hales learned of his elevation, "I still can't quite process that," he said a few days before his 24-hour reign. "This was not expected. I'd been very happy as a worker bee for a long time."

Regardless of Hales' professed nonchalance about recognition, there is no overlooking his extensive involvement. His service on a host of educational and medical organizations fills two single-spaced pages.

"Stephen is a guy who likes to get stuff done," said Michael Rapier, a former Rex who serves with Hales on Fidelity Bank's board. "When he sees a problem, he doesn't sit still until he figures a way through it. He has mastered the art of diplomacy to such a degree that he can get stuff done that some folks might think is controversial, but he can make folks feel so good when it's done."

Within the Rex organization, Hales spearheaded the initiative to repair the krewe's den after it was trashed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The organization's costumes, jewelry and priceless documents had marinated for weeks in five feet of water.

To repair Rex's treasures, the artisans he found included a silversmith, a picture framer, a paper conservator and a ribbon restorer, a specialty that many people never have heard of. Because hand-lettered parchment scrolls listing every king and every member of his court since 1872 had been damaged beyond repair, Hales enlisted Matthew Hales, one of his sons, to create scrolls and appropriate flourishes with his computer. 

Everything was finished and on view in the den, ready for visiting schoolchildren and adults, by Twelfth Night in 2008, the traditional start of the season. The Rex organization has declined to say how much the restoration cost.

The task made Hales aware of the importance of preserving Carnival history.

"We've always been concerned about it," he said then, "but more so now."

Hales is never far from history. In the room next to where he sat, a wall is given over to framed Mardi Gras artifacts, including elaborate ball invitations, sketches for costumes and floats, and a newspaper's full-page, full-color, float-by-float depiction of a parade.

With an enthusiasm worthy of Indiana Jones describing an epic quest, Hales was positively gleeful when he talked about acquiring old books about Mardi Gras and Rex paraphernalia such as krewe favors, ball programs, royal edicts and medallions. 

"I've always loved history," said Hales, adding that the post-storm renovation of the den and its holdings offered the krewe a rich opportunity to gather and display Rex's treasures and, perhaps, motivate people to send in some of their mementos.

To make sure that the audience for these gifts would be larger than the number of people who could squeeze into the Rex den on South Claiborne Avenue, Hales worked with two of his sons, Matthew Hales and Tim Soslow, to show off some of Rex's ornaments on the Rex website, www.rexorganization.com. Both men know their way around computers: They work for Turbosquid, a local firm that provides 3-D models. Matthew Hales is a vice president, and Soslow is a systems architect.

Stephen Hales put pictures of many of the organization's artifacts into a book he wrote, "Rex: An Illustrated History of the School of Design: Pro Bono Publico." ("Pro Bono Publico" - "For the public good" in Latin - is the krewe's motto.)

Proceeds from the book's sales have gone to the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, which was set up after Katrina to help rebuild the city's public schools by supporting charter schools and other educational organizations. It has awarded nearly $6 million in grants, said Christian "Christy" Brown, a krewe official. 

The foundation gets its money from Rex members' donations. In addition to underwriting grants, krewe members do volunteer work at charter schools and sit on schools' boards.

Brown, who praised Hales' "passionate caring" for this initiative said the physician "brought an expertise to the table in terms of helping us select the winning charter schools and support organizations."

Perhaps, Hales suggested, some of his enthusiasm for Carnival and its role in New Orleans is due to his status as a relative newcomer. While many Carnival grandees can trace their lineage back to the days before Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, Hales didn't get to New Orleans until 1975.

"When we grow up with something, we see it in a certain way," he said. "Fresh eyes may see something else there and may appreciate it a bit more. I think many of us in New Orleans become a bit overwhelmed by the traffic jams and the noise and the bother and everything else, but I didn't so much get converted. I was deeply attracted to not just the pageantry but to the history and context."

He grew up in Utah - in Ogden and Salt Lake City - where about 40 members of his family were doctors. After earning a medical degree at the University of Utah and completing a residency in Arizona and a fellowship in Texas, Hales came to New Orleans to be acting chief of pediatrics at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Uptown New Orleans (now part of Children's Hospital's planned expansion).

His arrival coincided with the fall of Saigon, which resulted in a flood of refugees from South Vietnam. Hales was responsible for working with social-service agencies and ensuring that the children had good health care. 

"I had expected to spend a couple of years in an interesting place and maybe go back West," Hales said, "but I fell in love with the place. This is home."

He had a solo practice for 25 years before founding Hales Pediatrics, which has six physicians, including himself. He's in the office three days a week.

"I have a feeling I'm going to see lots of children" along the parade route who are or were patients, said Hales, who has treated all but two of the last 20 queens of Carnival, as well as the children of a brace of Rexes.

He and Nancy Hales have six sons and 13 grandchildren.

Hales, a member of the Rex organization for about 35 years, first dipped a toe into the waters of Carnival history when he started making placards that would explain the meaning of each float to den visitors and to members as they load swag onto their floats on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. 

These are helpful and, indeed, vital for understanding some of the more arcane floats. For instance, in 2015, when the parade theme was "Wars That Shaped Early America," there were obvious choices, such as the Battle of New Orleans, the French and Indian War and the Boston Tea Party.

But how about Little Turtle's War, a Native American leader's attack on Ohio settlements, and the War of Jenkins' Ear? The latter event was part of a conflict between England and Spain in which a Spaniard sliced off the ear of Capt. Robert Jenkins while boarding his ship. The ear was later displayed before Parliament.

Hales has conducted the research and provided the explanations, year in and year out, and he has done so for this year's parade, whose theme is "Carnival Fetes and Feasts."

As a result of this deep involvement with the Rex organization's past, Hales said, he feels he is in the presence of ghosts of Rexes past when he's in the Kings' Room in the den, where photographs of past monarchs line the green walls.

"When I'm in the Kings' Room and look at all those portraits, it is a library of civic service," he said. "I can't look at those portraits and not connect them to the commitments they've made and the work they've done to make this city better."

Given Rex's role in post-Katrina New Orleans, Hales said his predecessors "would have been so pleased at what these guys have done."

To Hales, Rex consists of "men who are up to their elbows in making this city better and are so consistent with this organization and its values," he said. "It's not just the old art and the beauty from the past. We're continuing to create art and create traditions and make a difference in this city. That's just about as happy as it gets for me."