Some of them have touched my life directly, including Juanita Thibeaux, who at the age of 75 is still active in the Lafayette Parish School System. When I was the public information officer for the system in the early ’80s, she was the principal of St. Antoine Elementary, a small school with a large “at-risk” student population. Always impeccably dressed, Thibeaux was often found sitting in the little people-sized chairs, hands-on with her students, encouraging them to reach for the stars. Amazingly, she’s still hard at work for our children today.
As a young reporter 30 years ago, I met Colleen McDaniel when she was representing five women geologists and geophysicists in their challenge to the all-male membership rules that kept women out of the deal-making environment of the Petroleum Club of Lafayette. Coincidentally during the litigation, she corresponded with a women’s rights attorney from New York, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later became the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our newspaper covered Kathy Ashworth’s first ground-breaking campaign for public office in Lafayette Parish. Her work on the parish council laid an important foundation for the progressive community we enjoy today. She was willing to tackle the tough issues, including the not-so-sexy ones like solid waste disposal. She spearheaded a parish-wide plan that eventually led to the curbside recycling pick-up we enjoy today and is now a national leader in crafting community emergency response plans.
And if you live in Lafayette, whose life hasn’t been touched by Kathlyn Hurst in some way? My earliest memories of eating at Poor Boy’s Riverside Inn (back when it was located where the Lafayette Hilton sits now) certainly include the Lafayette High Miss Merry Christmas Dance of 1971. Our group of seniors dined in one of the private banquet rooms; it was one of many memorable meals there, and Riverside Inn has been a venue of choice for celebrations of life for many of us for decades. Its broiled flounder is still to die for.
While I’ve not had the pleasure of knowing many of the other honorees, I’ve enjoyed watching Jaci Russo, who just turned 40, grow the advertising and marketing firm she runs with her husband Michael. She’s a strong advocate for downtown and for the burgeoning film industry in Acadiana, and her skills in social media and corporate branding have brought an important depth to the local marketing scene.
You’ll meet all these amazing women in the pages ahead.
WOMEN WHO MEAN BUSINESS
Profiles by Annie Bares, Lisa Hanchey, Nathan Stubbs and Mary Tutwiler
Photos by Robin May
Kathy Ashworth shattered the glass ceiling in two male-dominated fields: politics and advertising. In 1984, she was the first woman elected to the Lafayette Parish Council, and the first female chosen as chairman. A big believer in term limits, she quit eight years later after serving two terms on the council. For 12 years, she served on the Democratic Executive Committee. Then, in 1992, she pursued loftier goals, challenging incumbent Kenny Bowen for mayor.
The only female candidate, she made quite an impression, capturing 24 percent of the vote in a tough race. “It was the first time that a woman had tried to go for that leadership position,” she recalls.
After the election, Ashworth jumped back into the old-boys network by entering the ad biz with husband Larry Sides, at Sides & Associates. There, she found a niche in disaster communications. “The challenge was that there was a lot of information out there, but almost too much, and people didn’t know how to put it together and use it,” she explains. “So, we saw a need for that in the crisis and disaster response community.”
Starting with a products line for bioterrorism and chemical radiation threats in 10 states, Sides & Associates branched out into long-term community recovery work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Most recently, the company has been working with a joint task force including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to coordinate the first national disaster recovery framework. “There is a national response framework that articulates what the federal, state government and non-governmental organizations’ roles will be in the event of a national disaster or significant disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” she says. “But there’s never been a framework for recovery articulated. So, we are part of the team that’s helping to articulate that.”
For the federal plan, Ashworth has crisscrossed the country, researching, facilitating, writing and readying the package for publication. At the state level, Sides & Associates is working for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in developing communication tools for state disaster declarations and mitigation. “One of the things that we do is to take complicated information and put it together in ways that make it more user-friendly,” Ashworth explains. “We use communications tools to support that effort. So, the work that we do in disaster response and recovery has turned out to be really needed.”
Over the years, Ashworth discovered a knack for real estate, forming Roselawn Properties Inc. with Sides in 1993. Roselawn offers commercial spaces, rental houses and apartments in Lafayette, New Orleans and Fort Morgan, Ala. Diverse tenants include a restaurant, beauty shop, bar and service company.
Inquiring minds want to know: Will Ashworth ever go back into politics? “For the moment, my focus is still on growing the business for Louisiana and for our firm outside of Louisiana and across the country,” she says. “We are getting to be known as the ‘go-to guys’ for complicated stuff, and that’s kind of fun. So, right now, I’m happy to be where I am.”
Sue Soileau Brignac
I believe in long-term relationships,” Sue Soileau Brignac says of both her personal and professional life. Brignac has served as president and CEO of Washington State Bank since November 2009, but she’s had a life-long relationship with the 117-year-old bank. Brignac’s father, Nolen Soileau, acted as a community leader in St. Landry Parish by investing in banking and farming, eventually becoming a member of Washington State Bank’s board of directors.
Brignac took an unorthodox path to bank presidency. A Washington, La., native, she graduated from the Academy of the Sacred Heart and then from USL (now UL Lafayette) with a bachelor of arts in music education. She worked as an educator until her father’s untimely death in 1983 when she assumed his position on the Washington State Bank board. While she and her husband continued to invest in Washington State Bank, Brignac’s husband, David Creig Brignac Sr., became the bank’s new president. Sue has served as executive vice president for the past 10 years and became the bank’s president after her husband’s death in November.
Brignac became one of only three female bank CEOs in Louisiana when she began her presidency at Washington State, the oldest state chartered bank in St. Landry Parish and the second oldest in the state. Brignac has fully embraced her role at a company with such a history for thriving even in difficult economic times. “We are a very strong bank because of our vigilance, strong work ethic, sound business practices,” she says.
“And we are meeting the needs of the community.” Brignac’s goal is for the bank to remain independent, continuing to invest “in modern and efficient systems that provide excellent products and services that blend technology and tradition.”
While tradition and history have guided Washington State, Brignac also recognizes the importance of innovation. Since assuming the position of vice president, Brignac has worked to open a new branch in Opelousas and bring online banking to customers. “Everyday we embrace new technology, but we never sacrifice the level of customer service,” she says. “[Customer service] is never compromised, no matter what the request is. Personal attention to customers is never sacrificed. We will still write out tickets for our more traditional customers who come into the bank.”
Brignac emphasizes the importance of Washington State’s identity as a local bank. “I value the community as much as I do the bank. I enjoy developing relationships and partnerships with the prosperity of others in mind.” The success of Washington State also speaks to the vitality of small banks in general, she explains: “People are finding that community banks are safe and innovative, coming full circle.”
While Brignac is quick to attribute her success to the supportive nature of the area, she has certainly given back to St. Landry Parish. She has served in several different positions on the St. Landry/Opelousas Chamber of Commerce, including as chairman of the board in 2006. She’s been a commissioner of the St. Landry Parish Economic Industrial Development District for 20 years and served as chairman of the commission from 1999-2001. She’s a member of the Rotary Club of Opelousas and has lent her financial skills to the Evangeline Area Council of Boy Scouts as finance chairman in 2009 and 2010.
Brignac’s leadership in professional and community-based capacities has not gone unnoticed. In 1998 she was presented the Athena Award, which recognizes outstanding women in business. In 2001 and 2005 the Opelousas/St. Landry Chamber recognized her as Business Person of the Year and she was named Rotarian of the Year in 2003.
You know how they say that Disney started with a mouse? Well, we started with a sheet protector and black Sharpie,” says Marianne Bourgeois of Apex Innovations, the ever-expanding, innovative medical education software company she founded in 2003.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Morgan City, Bourgeois moved to Lafayette to attend UL’s nursing school. In 2002, while working as a nurse at Lourdes, Bourgeois realized that despite its relative simplicity, nurses weren’t trained in exactly how to read electrocardiograms. Using a permanent marker and sheet protector, she created a quick guide for understanding ECGs. “I saw a need and created something for my practice to help me to understand 12 Lead ECGs. I immediately found out that it helped others, too — nurses, physicians and medics,” she explains.
Her simple tool evolved into a more detailed, copyrighted 3D infarction template guide, which could be used as a reference and teaching tool for medical professionals. She named the tool MI Rule Visions, and when she took it to a medical conference, she sold more than 400 in 10 hours. The template became a hit across the country and internationally, Bourgeois says, and recently, a research study on its effectiveness deemed its data results so “clinically and statistically significant” that it was presented orally at the AHA Scientific Session and will be published by an international cardiology journal.
But the template was just the beginning. Conference attendees wanted to know if Bourgeois had any educational software programs. She didn’t at the time but soon founded Apex Innovations with her associate, Brian White. Bourgeois and White began contracting software engineers to design Web-based, interactive programs to educate and test nurses, doctors and medics in ECG competency.
Apex got its start in Bourgeois’ home but outgrew it when she hired software engineer Wendt Withers full-time to develop a second program to educate in stroke competency. In 2005, Bourgeois ended her 25-year career in nursing to focus solely on Apex.
“After recognizing growing opportunities, the hardest thing for me was to walk away from a secure nursing career, to believe in myself, take the risks, build a business, stick it out when things were tough and make my vision a reality.”
While Bourgeois attributes Apex’s success to its controlled and steady growth, the company has grown rapidly and has distribution partnerships in all 50 states and eight countries internationally. “We provide the only programs in the country to meet the annual educational requirements for accreditation by the Society of Chest Pain Centers,” Bourgeois says. Apex is also the only privately held company holding an agreement with the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale Training and Certification.
Bourgeois’ work as an ER nurse prepared her for the business world: “My years in the emergency department helped in some respects to prepare me to be able to handle multiple things at once. Juggling the ever-increasing demands of an exciting, rapidly growing technology and health care business can sometimes be overwhelming.” With two new online programs in development, Bourgeois and White this year hired four employees, bringing its total to 10. It is currently looking for a new location to make continued expansion possible.
While the technology may seem complicated, at the heart of Apex’s success is Bourgeois’ sense for innovation and creativity.
“[She looked] at the status quo and said ‘I’m not doing it that way; there’s a better way,’” says White.
With 50 years of teaching experience under her belt, Juanita Thibeaux is not afraid to speak her mind. So when the Lafayette Parish School System threatened to turn her beloved N.P. Moss Middle School into a technical school, she risked her job as assistant principal to confront the board. “Let us stay where we are, because we have been moved too many times,” Thibeaux said in protest.
A lifetime north Lafayette resident, Thibeaux was uprooted from her neighborhood all-black school, Paul Breaux High, and transferred to a new location in 1953. After she returned to teach English at Paul Breaux in 1959, the school closed a year later for integration.
Following Paul Breaux’s shutdown, she bounced from Acadiana High to Comeaux High. Rebounding to an assistant principal position with Northside High, Thibeaux ascended to principal at St. Antoine Elementary, serving six years. Next, she became principal at Carencro Heights Elementary before retiring from the public school system in 1988.
But the tenacious Thibeaux did not stay idle for long. She returned to education as principal of the Holy Rosary Institute. Following two years of service, she re-entered the public sector with the Continuing Academic Program for Students, an alternative school for at-risk students. After 10 years with CAPS, Thibeaux came back to LPSS as a substitute principal and assistant principal.
Two years ago, Thibeaux became assistant principal at N.P. Moss. At the time, the campus had been closed for repairs, and students were divided between Good Hope Baptist Church and Northside High School. Last year, LPSS planning consultants recommended that Moss be converted to a career and technical high school.
But Thibeaux and others stood up to the board, fighting to keep Moss as a middle school. Following heated discussions, the board eventually voted to continue looking into another site for the technical school and allow Moss to remain as is. “My heart is beating. I am proud of you,” she said to the board after the decision.
“She was especially courageous because she was an employee within the school system,” says Cajundome Director and 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette member Greg Davis, who has a special interest in improving high school graduation rates. “It was very admirable of her to stand before the school board and speak her opinion. She has a genuine interest in the kids, and was expressing her opinion because of those kids. She is an example of the kind of role model for the education system that we want to have, the kind that will lead to more students graduating.”
Her educators at Paul Breaux High inspired her to become a teacher. “During that time, there wasn’t too much offered for blacks, and teaching was one of the professions available,” she says. “So, I went into teaching because I had had good teachers, and I fell in love with it.”
At age 75, the feisty educator is planning to stay put at N.P. Moss for now. “If they want me, I’ll stay,” she says with a laugh. “I would like to work as long as I can. I love working with people. I just love everything!”
Having worked as a local real estate agent, general contractor, marketing rep for the Cajundome and assistant to the Lafayette City Council during Mayor Kenny Bowen’s last term, Sarah Walker thought she had seen most all of the skeletons in Lafayette’s closet. So it came as a bit of a shock that while volunteering through a joint program of the Boy Scouts and Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce to re-wire local schools for new technology, she stumbled on an issue far more serious than anything she had previously encountered. “It was a real eye opener,” she says. “I had grown up going to public school here, and this was my first time going back to a lot of these buildings. And I was just amazed at how little had changed.”
Save for the mass proliferation of butler buildings, almost nothing had changed. “It reflects poorly [on the community],” Walker says. “I guess maybe we don’t notice it. We become apathetic over the years, but I tell people to try and go back into those schools and really take a look at them. And a lot of times they’ll actually e-mail me and say they did it, and they were shocked at what we’re forcing our students to sit through every day and [that] we’re forcing our teachers to live in those conditions every day.”
Over the past decade, Walker has been an active advocate for fixing up Lafayette’s public schools. She’s also become a fixture at the Lafayette Parish School Board office, working diligently to get more community members interested and involved in the performance of our school system. In 2008, she was elected chairman of the Community Coalition for Lafayette Parish Schools, a group she helped found with approximately 100 other concerned parents and community members. One of its top priorities was pushing for a facilities master plan, something the school board just recently adopted. The plan came to fruition through a yearlong process led by consulting firm CSRS of Baton Rouge, along with the community coalition leading public dialogue sessions focusing on what residents want to see happen with school facilities and what the priorities should be. With the plan adopted, albeit with no funding source secured, the coalition is remaining active in working with the board to adopt new standards and codes for its facilities. It also will have a voice on the board’s soon-to-be-formed citizens’ oversight committee, which will aim to keep the school board on task in implementing its facilities plan.
As a parent, the issue is personal for Walker, who finds it distressing when people criticize school performance without realizing many of Lafayette’s aging school buildings don’t even have the electrical capacity to plug in all their computers.
“It just makes no sense to me,” she says. “I think that we should all be out there pushing for this. I think our children are worth it, and we own those buildings, so we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to it.”
Colleen McDaniel emphasizes her mantra. “Never stop growing,” she says. “Never think you are as good as you can be. There is always more to learn.” For those around her, the motto turns on its head, because McDaniel also has a lot to teach.
A 1976 graduate of LSU law school, McDaniel has opened doors for women in her profession. Applying for a judicial clerkship as a newly fledged lawyer, she attempted to enter the boys’ club. “When I was first applying for a job,” she says, “I was asked if I minded sitting in the library and doing research, and if I could type.” She purposely didn’t learn to type, because she saw herself in the courtroom, not stuck researching behind the scenes. Then she upped the ante, choosing to practice oil and gas law, first in a firm, then on her own, in a town run by wildcatters who thought young ladies should stick to practising their piano, not law. “Frankly, I was pioneering as a woman in any kind of law,” she says. “I’ve had judges call the men Mr. This and Mr. That and counselor and then turn to me and call me ‘young lady.’”
A hallmark case for McDaniel was the suit, filed by five female geologists and geophysicists, against the Petroleum Club of Lafayette. The Petroleum Club was the den of deal making in the early 1980s, except if you were a woman in the oil business. Lunch, when the cigar smoke was thickest, was the bastion of men. Oil women, if they charged the barricades with a member, were relegated to a humiliating made-up table in the hall. At night, members brought their wives to dinner.
The five women hired McDaniel, who took on the Petroleum Club. There were a lot of locals who felt threatened and who were appalled by her actions, including a number of women who were very successful in the oil industry, says McDaniel.
The Petroleum Club manager went so far as to tell the press that if women were allowed into the club during lunch there would be prostitutes dining with the clientele. “It seemed so bizarre that that would be an issue,” she says. After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal granted writs, meaning it was considering changing the law, the Petroleum Club approached McDaniel and settled the suit by allowing women to become members of the club.
Appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to fill the unexpired term of Judge Kaliste Saloom as Lafayette City Court judge in 1993, and again in 1995 to fill the unexpired term of the late Judge Michael G. Sullivan, McDaniel has shown her metal on the bench as well as in front of it.
In 2001, she got an offer from the Louisiana attorney general to represent the state, which she currently does here in the Acadiana office.
She has served as president of the American Inn of Court of Acadiana from 2009-2010 and now serves on the executive committee of that organization.
McDaniel’s civic life includes sitting on the boards of various organizations. A former member of the choir, she attends church at Our Lady of Fatima. Although McDaniel painted as a child and in college, “to relieve stress,” she says, her artistic life has come into full bloom, with shows of wildlife and landscapes at galleries around town the past few years.
Art may be her next career. “What would I do when I’m too battered and beaten up to go back into the courtroom again? Teach art, especially to adults. There’s an artist inside of everybody waiting to get out.”
Valerie Garrett knew at an early age she wanted to grow up to become an attorney. “I’m a child of the ’60s,” she says, “I think it was the day I saw Thurgood Marshall sworn into the Supreme Court. I think when I saw those things and the things that lawyers did to change the world, that left an impact on me. Attorneys in the time I grew up, it was a noble profession. They made differences in people’s lives, and they helped uphold the Constitution, and I thought that was a great and honorable thing.”
A passion for justice and serving others has been a trademark of Garrett’s 17-year legal career, where she has done an extensive amount of pro bono family law and indigent defense work. A graduate of UL Lafayette and Southern Law, Garrett began a solo practice in 1994, specializing in family law and criminal defense. (She has since joined her practice with attorney Valex Amos Jr.) In addition to her private practice, Garrett is a contract attorney of the Department of Revenue, a 15th Judicial District Court criminal public defender, a CJA Panel federal public defender and a Louisiana State Bar grader for Civil Code I. She also finds the time to serve the community in other capacities: Garret is on the Lafayette Airport Commission and a member of both the Louisiana State Bar’s diversity and children’s committees, the Family Law Section of the Lafayette Parish Bar, the American Women’s Business Association and the Diversity Committee for UL Lafayette. She is also active with the Girl Scouts as a troop leader and with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. And she manages it all as a single mother of five children.
“There are those moments when it can be difficult, but for the most part it works,” Garrett says, noting that finding time for community service is essential to her. “The character of a person is what they leave behind, not so much what they get,” she says.
“So I definitely encourage my children to be prosperous, and we all have to be prosperous, but we also have a duty to serve our community and to give back and to help raise other people up. That was instilled in me from a young age. So I try very hard to do my part to give back, and I think that’s what enriches our community — that enriches the lives of our future generations to come. And it enriches us as a people.”
Mary Ann Wilson
Back in the 1970s Mary Ann Wilson was a newly fledged LSU Ph.D. in English, teaching at Georgia State University in Atlanta. As the U.S. began to accept women into leadership roles in the business and political world, the ivory tower of academia recognized a new field, women’s studies. The program was in its infancy at Georgia State, but when Wilson arrived at UL Lafayette (then USL), a decade later in the mid 1980s, there was still nothing focusing on women in the curriculum. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s nothing here in women’s studies,’” says Wilson.
Back in Atlanta, with two young sons, she had been a self-described faculty wife, married to a very popular English professor and renowned Mark Twain scholar, Jim Wilson. “When we came here, I was determined I was not going to be a faculty wife. I wanted to carve out a niche and make a contribution to the university and the department that was different from his. That niche was women’s studies,” she says.
“That’s when I designed the Readings in Literature by Women. As we hired new, younger faculty, that snowballed into an array of women’s studies courses not just in English, but in music, visual arts, history and sociology.” That beginning led to an interdisciplinary women’s studies minor at UL, and Wilson is working toward a humanities major that will include a women’s studies component. “It’s all grown from that seed I planted,” she laughs.
Wilson’s teaching looks at women through two lenses. One is through the work of women writers. The other is what she calls the real world approach: statistics on domestic violence, on women in the work place, those juggling work and motherhood, instances of rape and the role that religion plays in women’s lives, focusing down from a global glance to what is happening locally, in south Louisiana. Community leaders contribute to the classes.
“This opens my students’ eyes to what is going on in the world, and the fact that they don’t live in the world their mothers lived in. We may use some of the skills our mothers taught us, but we need skills and knowledge of the kind of world we’re going to face as women,” she says.
For 25 years, Wilson has been raising consciousness and launching young women who take themselves and their work seriously into the world. Over the same course of time, Wilson herself has risen in the English Department from assistant professor to Friends of the Humanities/BORSF Endowed Professor in the Humanities at UL. She often travels and teaches in the summers in Europe as well as in Louisiana. Her books and published articles cover a range of women writers from New Orleans’ Grace King to Acadiana’s YaYa queen Rebecca Wells.
Where did she get all this chutzpa? “From my mother and grandmother. I come from a family of strong Italian women,” she says.
“I’m one of those invisible ethnics. My last name was Tortorici. Both my grandmother and mother outlived their husbands by many years (Wilson’s husband Jim died in 1996) and reinvented themselves, made another life for themselves. My mother is 89 years old and still going strong. I learned so much from watching them.”
Running an ad agency with her husband full-time, raising four kids under age 12 — how does Jaci Russo do it? “I drop a lot of balls,” she says with a laugh.
Jaci and husband Michael co-own The Russo Group, a successful branding agency with a diverse client roster including health care, gaming, banking, retail, oilfield service and government. About 94 percent of their clientele is from outside of the Lafayette market.
“As a branding agency, we have the great ability to work with clients in a number of different industries in different markets,” she explains. “And, that economic diversity has helped to post double-digit growth year after year.” In 2010, the go-getter was named “Rising Young Business Leader” in conjunction with The Daily Advertiser’s Business Hall of Fame event.
Russo’s marketing background is both extensive and impressive. After college, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in marketing at Creative Artists Agency. From there, she was employed by a production company headed up by director/client Brett Leonard, developing marketing products for feature films such as Hideaway and Virtuosity. Then, she moved on to a job with media mogul Barry Diller when he was buying the Home Shopping Network, and worked with him as he acquired Ticketmaster.
In 1997, she returned to Lafayette, where she worked for Kiki Frayard at AKA Advertising. Next, she jumped to in-house marketing director at an automobile dealership. While back in her hometown, she met Michael, who was also in the ad business, and got married.
In 2001, Jaci and Michael launched The Russo Group. “Since he was on the creative side, and I was on the account service side, between the two of us, we were already an agency in some ways,” she explains. “So, we formed the agency together.”
At the time, Jaci was nine months pregnant with her second child. “I thought I’d have more free time if I owned my own business,” she says wistfully.
Today, the Russos’ four children are ages 10, 9, 7 and 6. Jaci admits that raising a family of four while running her own business is quite a challenge. “Their uniforms are probably not as clean as everybody else’s some days, and we have an odd, erratic schedule sometimes,” she says. “And, they know more about branding and logos than most kids their age should.”
Luckily, she has had lots of good help with the youngsters. “We are very, very, very fortunate that we’ve been able to find great in-home sitters,” she explains. “Now, they are older, and we mostly need someone to drive them to their vast number of after-school programs.”
How is it working with her husband day-to-day? “It’s been interesting,” she says. “I get to go to work every day with my best friend, husband and business partner, all rolled into one guy.”
As one-half of the power couple, Jaci attributes The Russo Group’s success to changing with the times. “Because we’ve evolved into a branding agency, our focus has been on our clients’ consumers and developing the message that will get them to act the way that we need them to,” she says. “By working in that capacity, we’ve really been able to help our clients be more successful.
Our goal is to continue to grow and expand our services — and produce results for our clients.”
Gifted and Talented
Jeanette Parker was a pioneer in gifted education in Lafayette; Kathlyn Hurst’s culinary talents helped save a Hub City dining institution.
By Walter Pierce
This year’s Women Who Mean Business Trailblazers cut paths through different worlds — one established the first program for gifted education in Lafayette Parish public schools and spent a quarter century as a UL professor, shaping gifted curricula and mentoring generations of teachers; the other helped save the family restaurant upon the unexpected death of her father, ensuring the longevity of the business and the integrity of the family recipes, and raising four children at the same time.
“To me, it’s extremely important, and anytime we’re having problems at the state level I’m going to be there talking to BESE about it and arguing the points about what we need to do with our gifted children,” says Dr. Jeanette Parker, who retired six years ago from UL but stays abreast of news and developments in public education and is a not-infrequent face before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The 75-year-old’s interest in gifted education is akin to motherly: she started the first gifted program in Lafayette Parish schools in 1975 and, after leaving public education in the late ’70s to earn an education doctorate from the University of Georgia, joined the Education Department faculty at UL where she developed the state’s first master’s degree program in gifted education and later established the university’s Center for Gifted Education, one of only 20 such centers in the U.S.
“She is known as ‘she who must be obeyed,’” jokes Melinda Mangham, a retired teacher of gifted students in Lafayette and proud protege whose gushing nomination letter more than easily convinced us that Jeanette is a trailblazer many times over. “With all of her successes, what Dr. Parker does best is teach and mentor,” writes Mangham, who still serves as a college adviser to gifted students. “Teaching is her true gift! She has great expectations for all of her students (who are teachers), and she accepts nothing less. Not only does the teacher she is teaching benefit greatly, but most importantly, the students who the teacher will have in a classroom will be enriched and their learning enhanced. Dr. Parker demands the same excellence of herself. She demonstrates a keen ability to critically examine her practice, expand her repertoire, deepen her knowledge, and adapt her knowledge of human development to new findings, ideas, and theories.”
Before making landmark contributions to gifted education in Lafayette, Jeanette founded Ascension Day School in 1959, serving as its director until 1966 and as headmistress from ’66 to ’68. In her retirement she remains active in Episcopal education in Lafayette as a member of the Ascension Episcopal School board of trustees. She recently co-authored a book, Growing Up in Lake Charles, a “historical collage,” as she puts, about life in Calcasieu Parish during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Jeanette’s trailblazing in the development of gifted curricula and teaching methods earned her a distinguished professor award from UL in 1986, although it takes some prodding to get her to delineate even a few of her accomplishments, of which there are many.
“I don’t mean to sound haughty,” she finally says, “but I really was one of the pioneers nationally in developing standards in graduate programs in gifted education.”
Kathlyn Hurst, meanwhile, was cut from finely spun cloth, but ended up through necessity and devotion to family hovering over simmering pots in the kitchen at Poor Boy’s Riverside Inn, one of Lafayette’s longest lived culinary institutions, one that has remained a thriving business for decades — even after it moved to a tucked-away, leafy alcove off U.S. Highway 90 between Lafayette and Broussard.
Born in 1939 to Eugenia and Hulo “Poor Boy” Landry, Kathlyn Hurst was valedictorian of her graduating class at Academy of the Sacred Heart. She went on to study philosophy at Dominican College in New Orleans, becoming an able dancer and adept pianist along the way. Her grace and charm made her a natural in an industry that lives or dies on the quality of its hospitality, and she was pressed into service in 1958 when Hulo died unexpectedly. She and her husband, Larry, took over operation of Poor Boy’s, maintaining its quality of service.
“It’s been a long time in coming where women are actually recognized for the contribution that they make in business,” says marketing consultant Debbey Ryan, who nominated Kathlyn for ABiz’s Trailblazer Award. “And although her husband was at the forefront of the restaurant business, she was in the kitchen and she was making sure the recipes were right. She was a big part of why their business has succeeded up until present day; they’ve been in business for over 78 years, and the whole while she raised four kids, and she ran a restaurant and she took care of her family, and those types of women, who have lots of kids and run businesses with their husbands, they just don’t exist anymore.”
Initially, Kathlyn wore many hats in the family business — busing tables, working the register, preparing salads, even ferrying employees to and from work. “We used to have to go pick up the help because the restaurant was on the edge of town,” she recalls. “That was fun when I was pregnant and having morning sickness.”
Kathlyn admits that her culinary skills weren’t up to par when she and Larry took over Poor Boy’s, but over the years she developed a knack for cooking, creating new recipes, maintaining the integrity of existing menu, and inventing a salad — Kathlyn’s House Salad — that remains the second-most popular menu item behind Poor Boy’s famed jumbo lump crabmeat sautéed in butter.
Kathlyn says the hardest part about running a restaurant is “making sure the food served is up to my standards and training and keeping good employees.”
What hasn’t been hard is imparting a sense of pride and dedication to her children, who run the business today. Son Richard sums up Kathlyn’s golden rules: “Look after the details, always have a smile, be proper and honest, work hard, and enjoy food.”