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Borderlands: Ted Karam: Lebanese Immigrant Lived American Dream 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Ted Karam: Lebanese Immigrant Lived American Dream

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Evan Karam

Faculty Editor’s note: English 1302 student Evan Karam was Ted Karam’s grandson and proudly researched his grandfather’s life for his research project.

Sometimes immigrants have a greater appreciation of the rights and privileges granted to Americans by our forefathers than native born citizens, and they capitalize on their good fortune and take action. Such a man was Ted Karam.

Ted F. Karam emigrated with his family from Lebanon, following his father and his hope of a better life. Karam’s hard work and determination helped him realize the American Dream and become one of El Paso’s foremost business leaders. But he was also a great humanitarian who gave back to his community in numerous ways, while remaining humble.


Image caption:  Ted Karam was a leader in the El Paso community for decades.  Photo courtesy of Evan Karam

Ted Karam’s principles stemmed from seeds planted by a tough childhood. Faris and Adele Karam were married in Jezzine, Lebanon, in 1910. On March 12, 1912, their first son, Wadeeh, later called Eddie, was born. Badeeh, who would be known as Ted, was born on December 24, 1913.

Following Ted’s birth, Faris Karam began fighting a proposed law that would allow harvesting of the famous cedars of Lebanon, trees that were sacred to many. According to the Bible, Solomon used wood from these forests to build the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Karam borrowed money to fight politicians who wanted to exploit the trees for profit, for he believed the trees belonged to the Lebanese people.

Although some of the trees were saved, Karam made enemies who threatened his life, and he fled to Brazil with Adele’s brothers, right before World War I began. The Ottoman Empire had established an alliance with Germany and became an integral part of the Central Powers during the war. All communication from the Turkish empire, including Lebanon, became restricted, and Faris lost all contact with his family.

Adele became the sole provider for her boys. She worked long hours every day tending cows for two loaves of bread so her family could eat. In a family recording, Eddie Karam remembered the plague of locusts that swept across the Lebanese countryside in 1915, consuming all vegetation. He said, “I went outside and looked at the sun, and couldn’t see the sun.” The devastation caused many to starve, and the Karams faced continued hardship.

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Adele struggled until the armistice in 1918. Eddie recalled bells ringing throughout the village when news of the Turkish defeat reached Jezzine. Faris reestablished ties with Adele and their children, sending money to include enough to cover the debts he had left before fleeing to Brazil.

In 1916, Faris had relocated to Mexico, where he lived with family. He and a brother opened a restaurant, and by 1924 he had saved enough money to send for his family. After 10 years and a 45-day voyage from Lebanon to Mexico, Adele, Eddie and Ted were finally reunited with Faris.

The family lived in Juárez until they received their American citizenship in 1927 and moved to El Paso. According to Eddie, his father memorized the entire citizenship test booklet, but all he was asked was the name of the president of the United States!

Ted began his education in Mexico and continued at the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso. (see sources) He cleaned oil pans at a mechanics shop for $1 a week in his first job in this city. He was making $5 a week when he left the job and started high school at El Paso Technical School in 1927.

Ted worked at his father’s Italian grocery store until graduation in 1931. He then helped some relatives open the first ice cream parlor in Hot Springs (today’s Truth or Consequences), N.M. In a 1980 article in El Paso Today, Ted Karam recalled opening day: “When we finished putting in the equipment, we started making the ice cream that afternoon. We made it throughout the night. … When we opened the next morning at eight o’clock, the line [of people] was over a block long waiting to buy ice cream! And it continued that way where it forced me to work twenty hours a day. All I’d do is get off work for a couple of hours, go take a hot bath, sleep for two hours, and go back to work.”

One year later, Ted returned to El Paso when the ice cream parlor was sold. This experience had given him an understanding of the hard work it took to run a business. He again worked for his father until his departure for Coolidge, Arizona, where he helped in his uncle’s grocery store. In Coolidge he met his future wife.

In a January 2007 interview with the author, Betty Karam recalled that she and Ted went horseback riding on their first date, and he brought her a bowl of fresh cherries. After Betty agreed to marry him, Ted brought her a case full of wedding rings and let her pick the one she wanted, according to Sue Ayoub, their daughter.

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Ted and Betty married in 1939, and their first son, Charles Ferris Karam, was born on January 22, 1942. Ted and his family moved back to El Paso in 1944, where he worked at a confectionary before opening his first grocery store on West Missouri. The store became profitable, and he opened a second one on Second Street and a third on South Stanton. Ted and Betty’s second son, Joe, was born on December 14, 1944.


Image caption:   A young Evan Karam (left) and brother James are pictured  with their grandfather, Ted Karam.  Photo courtesy of Evan Karam

In 1947, Ted sold his interest in a wholesale produce company and formed the Karam Construction Company with a partner and later with his brother Eddie. In that same year, Ted and Betty had their third son, David, on November 7, 1947. Ted’s new endeavors created much stress in his life. In an October 2006 interview, his son Ferris Karam remembered sitting in the car with his mother one rainy night, watching his father pump cement into the foundation of a home he had built. Heavy rains had nearly washed out the compacted dirt foundation of the house. Ferris said that if his father had not saved the home, he would have been ruined. Shortly afterward, Ted suffered a stroke and lost feeling in his arm.

Karam Construction Company became very successful, developing many properties in the El Paso area such as the Farah manufacturing plant, North Park Mall and various apartment complexes. Although Ted was new to the building industry, he set about learning the trade. He surrounded himself with individuals with the same determination and acuity he himself possessed, a key to his success.

While brother Eddie took care of the financial aspects of the company, Ted went out and found new business. He hired good CPAs, attorneys and subcontractors, supervising and asking questions. On August 25, 1953, Ted and Betty had their fourth child, Sue Anne.

Ted remained a partner of Karam Construction until 1972 when he sold his share to his brother. Ted had begun a partnership with Cecil Trigg and Deal Griffin, marking the beginning of TGK Investments, a commercial real estate company. Ted Karam had a talent for realizing the best use for commercial properties, which allowed him to establish a good reputation throughout El Paso, according to his son Ferris.

TGK Investments became well known during the 1970s. In one transaction, the daughters of El Paso pioneer Zach White sold the historic Paso del Norte Hotel for $600,000 to TGK Investments in December 1970. The company restored the hotel to its original state and ran it for almost two years before selling it.

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Once in a while, Karam’s company faced criticism for its business decisions. Environmentalists protested the development of an apartment complex on the southern slope of Sugar Loaf Mountain on McKelligon Canyon Road. Protestors alleged TGK Investments, Borsberry Construction Company and Kistenmacher Engineering Company intended to develop a rock mine in McKelligon Canyon. Ted clarified the situation in a June 22, 1975, El Paso Times article: “Borsberry is not buying material from me taken from the site. He agreed to grade the property at no charge if I would give him any useful material recovered during the grading.”

Karam helped to raise millions of dollars for charitable causes throughout his career. A civic minded individual, he served on the boards of the El Paso Cancer Treatment Center, El Paso Community College, University of Texas at El Paso Development Fund, Loretto Academy, El Paso Boys Club, the United Fund, Rio Grande Girl Scout Council, Little League Baseball, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and others. As a trustee, he oversaw the construction of EPCC’s Valle Verde campus and provided $1,000 for the first EPCC scholarship in the law enforcement associate degree program. Along with Bill Peticolas, Karam donated money to build a track and playing field for Loretto Academy.

In 1975, Karam was named president of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and was awarded the Human Relations Award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In that same year, the El Paso Board of Realtors named him the Outstanding Citizen of the Year. In 1976, President Nixon appointed him head of the El Paso area National Alliance of Businessmen.

Karam’s reputation for honesty allowed him to borrow money over the phone or with a handshake. His son Ferris recalled a time when his father turned the car around and returned to a restaurant to return excess change a cashier had given him. His acts of generosity ranged from paying for an artificial limb for the son of one family to buying health insurance policies for sheriff’s deputies.

When Karam retired, he left his business to his children, and spent his days with his family, helping others and giving business advice. He died on March 13, 2004, at the age of 90. Ted’s adult children readily acknowledge their father as a bountiful provider, a good man and their dearest “Baba,” their affectionate name for him.

Ted Karam was my grandfather. I have lucked out by having such an influential figure to look up to. His shoes were big and my father (Ferris) has done well in filling them, but I ask myself if I will be able to do the same. I think my grandpa would say, “As long as you do your best in all that you do, you will fill my shoes.”

My fondest memories are of the times I stayed with my grandparents. They were fun people. The family still jokes about the “grandpa” face and the “grandpa” handshake. The family would get together every Sunday for breakfast and he would cook his famous eggs with meat, olives and Lebanese bread. I will never forget the weekends at his house; he would help me with my homework and take me and my brother to Whataburger.

Ted Karam never made excuses for anything. He never thought this country owed him anything; in fact, he believed he was indebted to this country. He stopped to help those who stumbled and never cared to be recognized for it. He was a dear friend to some; to others he was the reason for their success today. But to me, he was just “Papa.”

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Tags: biography

Lydia Patterson sources

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