The Most Interesting People Of 2016
● By Aimee Cormier
PRESENTING SPONSOR: Simien & Simien Attorneys At Law
Arousing curiosity or interest; holding or catching the attention.” The definition of the word “interesting” could be applied to the romantic allure that South Louisiana has on the rest of the world. Naturally, mirroring Acadiana’s ability to inspire curiosity and capture attention are the people who call the region home.
“I’m not very interesting,” protested each of the nominees for 2016’s Most Interesting People compilation. We respectfully disagree. These eight individuals are a dynamic group who prove how intriguing life can be when you are constantly in pursuit of your passion. It’s an honor to share their stories.
Daphne Thomas – STORYTELLER
“I started mentoring young girls in the community...imparting important information to young girls. Things like grooming and exuding self-confidence. It sort of evolved into what we know as Building Beauty, Inside and Out.” – Daphne Thomas
Daphne Thomas was born in Harlem to a single mother. Soon after, her mother married a Marine and the family was off to Oceanside, Calif. While Thomas was in kindergarten they relocated to Franklin, La. From the East Coast to the West Coast and finally the Gulf Coast, Thomas proudly states, “I’ve got Louisiana in my blood and bones.”
After graduating from Franklin Senior High School, Thomas went to hair design school, got married, had three children and followed in her mother’s footsteps as second-generation beauty salon owner. After her children left for college, Thomas became listless and from this her youth empowerment program, Building Beau ty, Inside and Out was born.
“I started mentoring young girls in the community,” she explains. “I was just imparting important information to young girls. Things like grooming and exuding self-confidence. It sort of evolved into what we know as Building Beauty, Inside and Out.”
There was another young lady in Thomas’ life that would eventually become a part of her program. Charlie – the lead character in “I Love To Imagine!” the children’s book written and illustrated by Thomas.
“Charlie would have never come to fruition had it not been for my mom reminding me that I wanted to be a girl named Charlie when I was a kid,” Thomas recalls. “That’s when I got my second daughter, because Charlie was there again. Charlie is very imaginative. She’s like most kids – she goes from one thing to the next.”
Thomas stands up cradling her toy poodle Mylo and launches into the even tempo and imaginative words of her book. Her voice becomes childlike, bold and sassy. She’s animated and exaggerated and it’s easy to see that in many ways, she is Charlie. Thomas has performed as Charlie many times for Building Beauty, Inside and Out, even donning a Charlie costume.
“I love to Imagine!” was published on Mardi Gras day, 2015, but Thomas began creating Charlie 15 years prior. The strength and confidence to tell the story came to Thomas from a bevy of women in her life.
Thomas told a friend that when she was older, she wanted to be a storyteller. Her friend explained there was no need to wait. So she became a storyteller. Looking for a local illustrator for her story, Thomas turned to Books Along the Teche owner Lorraine Kingston for options. She recounts Kingston quipping, “you don’t need an illustrator, you are an illustrator. You need better supplies.” So she bought better supplies and became an illustrator.
In early 2015, one of Thomas’ inspirations, her mother’s former client and local storyteller Delores Henderson, had only a short time to live and requested a visit from Thomas and her mother. Refusing to do so until her book was published, Thomas expedited the process by self-publishing and showed her work to a very proud Henderson.
Through all of this Charlie and “I love to Imagine!” came to be. Thomas has many future endeavors and adventures planned for herself and Charlie. Until then, she feels accomplished.
“Someday if my great-great-grandchildren want to get to know me, they can go to the Schomburg Center or the Library of Congress and find that I wrote something,” she says in awe. “It doesn’t feel like a huge deal to anyone except me, but when you have nothing, it feels like wealth.”
By: Shanna Perkins
Roddie Romero – MUSICIAN
“That’s the beauty about travelling and playing music, especially the music that we play. It’s got a deeper meaning than pop songs that you hear on the radio. It comes from a deeper place.”
– Roddie Romero
Roddie Romero is the frontman of the Grammy-nominated Cajun ensemble known as Roddie Romero and the Hub City Allstars. And while many wear the mantle of musician as they would a hat, taking it on and off at their leisure, Romero could no sooner take off his mantle as a musician than he could his own skin. It is a part of his very being. , Romero could no sooner take off his mantle as a musician than he could his own skin. It is a part of his very being.
As a born and bred native of Lafayette, Romero is a product of his environment having been steeped in the rich musical heritage of the Cajun and Creole culture from an early age and even having studied under several local legends including Wayne Toups, Zachary Richard, Sonny Landreth and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Romero says some of his earliest memories were of hearing music playing throughout his childhood home by his parents, whether it was from the radio or a record player, and knowing that music was simply something he was destined to make.
“My Dad bought my brother and I an accordion when I was 9 years old,” he recalls. “I pretty much stole it from him and locked myself in my room for the next two years of my life and just played along with records. And that’s how I started.”
According to Romero, there were not many records consumed in his youth that didn’t leave a lasting impression on him, especially those from the King of Zydeco.
“I remember first discovering Clifton Chenier from an 8-track that we had; it was ‘Zydeco Cha Cha,’” he recounts. “I just remember playing that song over and over and over and over again. I really didn’t have to go far to be influenced by amazing things. It’s all here in our backyard.”
Since their debut at Festival International, Roddie Romero and the Hub City Allstars have played across the country and around the world delivering their signature style of music as well as representing the unique culture that created them.
“What we have here is very important to us and we try to represent that as true as possible and that’s what we do and what we love to do,” says Romero. “That’s the beauty about travelling and playing music, especially the music that we play. It’s got a deeper meaning than pop songs that you hear on the radio. It comes from a deeper place.”
Romero admits that he and his band never really enter a performance with a set list, but rather a “big trick bag of songs” that they all collectively know making each performance uniquely different from the last.
“I don’t have the same thoughts that I did yesterday and I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he says. “As I’m getting older I like to present the truest emotion that we feel. There’s been some amazing shows and there’s probably been more not amazing shows, but that’s life and life hits you in the face sometimes.”
Next on the horizon for Roddie Romero and his Hub City Allstars is their next studio album, which they produced with accomplished producer John Porter; it’s currently being mastered at Dockside Studios in Maurice with an expected release this spring.
By: Wince Nolley
Denise Gallagher – ARTIST
“I’m creating beautiful things that people will want to keep and that make them feel something or make them happy...” – Denise Gallagher
From the time she was a small child, Denise Gallagher and everyone in her life knew she would become an artist. However, her path to carving out her own niche in the art world wasn’t always quite as clear. When an art teacher suggested that the Metairie native enroll in the art program at UL Lafayette, she took the first step of many along her journey to developing her whimsical and haunting signature style.
As an art student, Gallagher struggled to find the right medium, doing only the bare minimum of what was required of her. Until the day she wandered into Fletcher Hall and discovered graphic design – altering her art and future.
“After I graduated, I settled down in Lafayette and got a job at a local advertising agency,” Gallagher says smiling. “I met a nice Cajun guy with a nice Cajun family and we got married and had a baby.”
Gallagher worked her way up from graphic designer to senior art director. But after 15 years in advertising, she grew restless. One New Year, she began to discuss with her husband that she felt she was lacking a personal creative outlet. He reminded her that when they met, she was constantly sketching, a habit she had since abandoned. So she began sketching again. She started submitting her work to websites and she started a personal blog.
“As the year progressed, I started to experiment with colors, layers and Photoshop,” Gallagher recalls. “People started commenting on my blog and I started getting invited to join gallery shows and do commissioned pieces. All of the sudden I realized, I had a style and it came naturally because I was working at it constantly. By doing this my whole career evolved and I became more enchanted with illustration as a career.”
Gallagher left the career she’d known for nearly 20 years and started Denise Gallagher Design & Illustration. Soon after, her career began to unfold before her eyes. Gallagher’s accomplishments are vast and span the country from prestigious shows in New York to collaborations with a company in Portland. Still, it’s the at-home honors that excite and inspire her. Gallagher was selected to create the official poster for the 2016 Festival International de Louisiane. For inspiration, she drew from her early years in Lafayette.
“I remember my first Festival and I remember the drummers under those blue lights – everybody was this beautiful glowing blue under the stage lights,” she recalls pensively. “The poster is the performers’ dream of the festival. It’s a warm spring evening in Lafayette and they’re listening to the music, seeing the art, smelling the food and having this whole experience. It’s just this wonderful, lyrical dream of festival.”
Gallagher, too, is living her own dream. And as much as she’s achieved and as much as she plans to achieve in the future, her art remains personal to her – always incorporating secret nods to family members and remembering sketching in her mother’s hospital room before she passed away.
“I’m creating beautiful things that people will want to keep and that make them feel something or make them happy, even if it’s just a little,” she says serenely. “I want people to see what’s in my head. I want to share the things that are uniquely me. I want to leave this world having created beautiful, lasting things. I want to have a legacy.”
By: Shanna Perkins
Warren Perrin – ACADIAN ADVOCATE
“To me, even though Acadie ceased to exist three centuries ago, in our hearts, it’s there.”
– Warren Perrin
Warren Perrin’s efforts to keep Acadian culture alive know no bounds and their impact is felt in Acadiana as well as nationally. In 1990, he co-established the non-profit Acadian Heritage & Culture Foundation, Inc., which operates as an umbrella operation for book publishing, the New Acadie Project and the Acadian Museum in Erath. The museum may never have come to be had it not been for the bold move made by Perrin the following year.
“One night, I was reading to my then 8-year-old son Bruce about Acadian history,” Perrin recalls. “I told him how his ancestors had been labeled criminals and the British had attempted to steal their land, calling them rebels, terrorist and pirates. He said ‘So, we’re like pirates?’ I explained, ‘no, but history had labeled us as such.’ This made me pause.”
And this is how Perrin decided to file a petition against the Queen of England in 1991. For 13 years he spearheaded the campaign. He framed it as a lawsuit, demanding an apology for the expulsion of the Acadians from the Queen as the representative of the British crown.
“In 2003, the Queen’s representative in North America, the governor general, signed the Royal Proclamation on behalf of the Queen,” he reflects. “It was only the sixth official apology extended by the crown in its history.”
Perrin’s most recent project with his wife, Mary Broussard Perrin, is “Acadie Then and Now: A People’s History.” The Perrins directed the book as well as contributing 12 articles. Perrin has written seven books, but this book in particular was written with the purpose of piecing together the global Acadian community.
“To me, even though Acadie ceased to exist three centuries ago, in our hearts, it’s there,” Perrin expresses. “The book is a chance to show the disproportion of where these people were sent all over the world to find a new home for the next 30 years after their deportation. This book has 40 places with historians from that region who contributed their history.”
The Perrins were awarded the French literary award le Prix France-Acadie 2015 for “Acadie Then and Now: A People’s History.” It marked the first time Americans received the award since the 1970s and the first time a book with Louisiana content won an international award. The Perrins were to receive the award in Paris on Nov. 20. A mere week after the terrorists attacks. The decision not to attend is one Perrin speaks about pensively and with great sadness.
Perrin’s work has given him opportunities that at times seem unreal. Like befriending Prince Albert of Monaco at a Francophone Summit in Romania and later visiting Prince Albert’s home and preparing him seafood gumbo, fresh oysters and chicken and sausage jambalaya. He recounts one of the more interesting experiences as being invited by President of France to accompany him and the French delegation to Vietnam in 1997.
“It was exhilarating, frustrating, fascinating and scary,” he recounts. “The Vietnam communist government followed me the entire time, thinking I was a CIA spy. No American had done that yet because they wouldn’t be allowed in the country. It was unbelievable. That occasion allowed me to meet Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which ultimately allowed me to fulfill my dream of getting a Royal Proclamation from the Queen.”
By: Shanna Perkins
Larry Richard – PUBLIC SERVANT
“It’s a humbling experience to be elected. I’m looking forward to managing this Parish.”
– Larry Richard
From a young age, Iberia Parish President M. Larry Richard had a firm grasp on the concept of responsibility. As the youngest of 12 children his work ethic was developed quickly. He explains that for the majority of his childhood, his father, who passed away when Richard was in the 10th grade, was in declining health.
“I was a constant help for my father, because he was paralyzed as a result of multiple strokes,” Richard states. “That gave me major responsibility and I didn’t have much room for idle time. In addition to that, I was in band, speech, debate and I was an altar boy.”
Upon graduating from Opelousas Senior High in 1977, Richard joined the U.S. Army and became a member of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, Communication Signal Crop, Communication Graduate.
“Volunteering to go into the Army was one of the more important experiences of my life,” Richard says glancing at the Army Commendation Medal certificate hanging on his wall. “I quickly learned that respect goes a long way. The more respect I gave, the more respect I received. In the military you get the experience and the opportunity to watch yourself excel.”
When Richard left the military, he took the opportunity he had been given to excel and expanded upon it. He entered the oil & gas industry, where he worked in corporate America for more than 20 years. In 2002, Richard retired from Marathon Oil Company.
Richard is also the owner of LR&A, Inc, which he incorporated in 1999. LR&A is a traffic control, construction materials and specialty service company that has provided goods and services to companies throughout the country.
“I’ve worked in many different fields to get to where I am today,” Richard says explaining his professional background. “I’ve been groomed in so many different areas. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m thankful for them because I got the opportunity to learn from them.”
One of the experiences that prepared Richard for the role of Iberia Parish President was his time as an Iberia Parish Councilman. From 2000-2012, he represented District 13 for three consecutive terms. He explains that his time as a Councilman taught him that everything done by the Parish government affects someone.
Richard recounts an experience from his campaign trail that he believes is a true reflection of the generosity and enthusiasm of the Parish he represents.
“During my campaign, an older lady came into my headquarters and donated a quarter. I thought it was the most sincere gesture,” he says smiling. “It was the week of the Sugar Cane Festival and she asked if she could ride with us during the Sugar Cane Parade. Of course, I said ‘yes.’ Sure enough, she was there Sunday morning. She rode with us and smiled and waved the entire time.
In addition to his newly appointed position, Richard continues to focus on his family – his wife of 32 years, Kim Jolivette Richard and their two children. And with the campaign behind him, he’s anxious to begin his work as Iberia Parish President.
“It’s a humbling experience to be elected,” he acknowledges. “I’m looking forward to managing this Parish.”
By: Shanna Perkins
Nelwyn Hebert – EDUCATOR
“We’ve lost a few generations of interest in Acadian culture. We’re trying to get these people back.” – Nelwyn Hebert
Nelwyn Hebert has lived at the same address since 1957, but her life has been far from routine. Hebert tirelessly fulfills her passion for early childhood education and the preservation of French culture while travelling the world.
From 1971 to 2004, Hebert worked as an elementary school educator. In 1989, she helped Iberia Parish start their PreK programs. Upon retiring, Hebert started a travel company called Allons Mes Amis, where she took groups on bus tours all over the country. After the financial crisis of 2008, she returned to the school system to pick up where she left off.
“I work with the state department of education and I observe PreK classes around the state,” she explains. “We monitor the teacher and student behavior to make sure we’re giving these children the experiences they need to be successful. So, I’m still working with my little children, which I really love.”
Hebert’s other passion, French and Acadian culture, is one she’s been pursuing for most of her adult life. Her mother spoke French, but never to her, because as she would tell her it was “the bad French.” Hebert took an intriguing route to learning the language. In the 1976, she participated in a French exchange program and studied in France for a month to learn the language.
Her ability to speak French became a necessary skill as she became heavily involved with Acadian preservation efforts. Hebert has attended four Le Congres Mondial Acadien around the world. Through these projects she became acquainted with Warren Perrin who commissioned her to co-write the book “Images of America Iberia Parish.” She is currently involved in the New Acadia Project, an archeological and historical effort to find the settlement of the first group of Acadians in Louisiana.
“It’s so exciting,” her voice raises with enthusiasm as she speaks of the project. “When people find out what this is really all about, it’s going to become emotional to them. We’ve lost a few generations of interest in Acadian culture. We’re trying to get these people back. These are their ancestors; it’s where they came from.”
Preserving the culture of Iberia Parish is also dear to Hebert, as is evident by her local involvement. She’s a board member of the Iberia Cultural Resources Association, the Iberia Parish Tourist Commission and a volunteer at the Shadows-on-the-Teche. Hebert says that Iberia is home – it’s where her heritage is, but travel has been an imperative part of her life. She travels to Europe once a year.
“You want to get off of the main roads and see the countryside,” she smiles. “Big cities are one thing, but you have to go meet the people. That’s the fun of travelling. A few years ago, I went to Spain. I don’t speak or understand Spanish, but you can still communicate. You can see their smiles and understand. You sit down with them and have a cup of coffee and just enjoy it.”
Hebert knows with certainty that each day should be lived with purpose. Her life is a reflection of her passion for travel and cultural preservation and her dedication to the Catholic faith.
“I had a bout with cancer 11 years ago. It makes you think about how precious life is. You have to live it to the fullest. It’s truly been a wonderful life,” she laughs.
By: Shanna Perkins
Mavis Fruge – FRANCOPHILE
“It wasn’t until my husband retired from the U.S. Air Force and we came home that I fell in love with my culture all over again. I found the importance of keeping it alive.” – Mavis Fruge
Arnaudville is making waves for its artistic, cultural and French renaissance; it’s said that there’s one woman at the center of the French revival – Mavis Fruge.
It took living away from Louisiana for 26 years to reignite Fruge’s passion and purpose for preserving the culture. “It wasn’t until my husband retired from the U.S. Air Force and we came home that I fell in love with my culture all over again,” she says softly. “I found the importance of keeping it alive.”
From that point on, Fruge, whose family spoke French as their first language, dedicated herself to preserving her culture and ensuring that others took pride in it. Her enthusiasm has led her to a seemingly endless list of involvements, accomplishments, awards and experiences.
Because of her work with the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective, Fruge, 77, has been deemed as one of Louisiana’s leaders in French art and education – and it’s garnered her recognition on quite a grand scale. She was named a Knight (a title she modestly protest) in the Order of the Academic Palms, a distinction awarded by the French government.
While she glazes over her accolades, she eagerly shares her experiences. Fruge fearlessly immersed herself in French culture while simultaneously checking a box on her bucket list.
“After my husband passed away, I was in my 60s, I went to Universite Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia,” she smiles remembering her time at the French immersion center. “I went by myself to go to school. My friends thought I was nuts. I spent five weeks there and I loved it.”
Another experience that shaped Fruge’s path was attending the first Le Congres Mondial Acadien in New Brunswick in 1994. She recalls the generosity of the local family who hosted her group – they took them fishing, hosted parties, entertained their children, housed and fed them. Since then, Fruge has hosted 400 French-speaking individuals in her home.
“They had an open door policy,” she recalls of the family in New Brunswick. “I was in disbelief of their generosity. I decided that if I was ever invited to host someone, I would accept. And that year, someone from France wanted to send their grandson and we hosted him for three weeks.”
Ten years ago, Fruge heard about the success of French Round Tables in Lafayette – the concept being that if you’re at the table you speak only French. She approached NUNU to see if they would let her host something similar. Today, Fruge’s French Round Table has the highest attendance of any in Louisiana, with upwards of 125 people in attendance. She claims its success is due to the power of beignets and black coffee as bait, but it’s easy to see it’s much more than that.
When Fruge speaks of her experiences, her eyes let you know that she has been touched by every opportunity that’s presented itself to her and for all of the opportunities she’s created. Fruge can be seen on television posing with the mayors of Francophone countries or accepting awards from the Lieutenant Governor, but none of this is the reason she continues to innovate French immersion options in South Louisiana.
“My efforts to preserve this culture are who I am, what I love, what I’m passionate about,” she says pausing before she continues. “There’s something in this atmosphere that I want to survive. I want to perpetuate this culture.”
By: Shanna Perkins
Wendell Verret – PORT DIRECTOR
“The port changed its mindset, so to speak. It’s gone from a primarily industrial port to now a community-based economic driver. It’s going phenomenal.” – Wendell Verret
The community of Delcambre has experienced a resurgence as a shrimping town. What was once Louisiana’s shrimping hub has been reimagined. And one man has maintained a bird’s eye view of the entire transformation – Port Director Wendell Verret.
After graduating from law school at LSU, Verret, a Delcambre native, was working for an attorney in New Iberia when a client from the Delcambre Port Commission advised him to start attending their meetings.
“I would go to the Port Commission’s meeting and I would take care of their administrative needs,” he recalls. “In 2008, they were able to hire a director for the port. It was never my intention to become the director. I was in the process of gathering candidates with a committee when someone asked if I would consider putting my name in for port director. I became the director on a part time basis.”
Today, Verret is the director full time. He oversees and manages the financing and the budgets for the marina, boat launch, the pavilion, the seafood program and planning and grants. From the beginning, Verret promised to be as aggressive as possible with his duties. A promise he has kept.
After hurricane Rita, the community started to return home and businesses started to reopen, the port began looking to do something that would help bring the community back together.
“The port changed its mindset, so to speak,” Verret explains. “ It’s gone from a primarily industrial port to now a community-based economic driver. It’s going phenomenal.”
Verret explains that the committee was looking for way to bring the local shrimping industry back to its heights of the 70s and 80s. They started with the idea of commercial fisheries. They added an additional recreational marina and boat launch, started a seafood and farmers market using local shrimpers, added docks, a pavilion and plenty of parking.
These additions have resulted in success that Verret and the port commission never dreamed possible. More than 350,000 pounds of shrimp have been sold off of the boats. Numbers that while Verret tracks them daily, still amaze him. There has been a 75-foot yacht parked at the marina. The reinvention of the Port of Delcambre has attracted national attention.
“I got a call from someone in Hawaii who had heard about us and they were interested in doing something like we had here,” Verret reveals. “The blogger, The Daily Meal, ranked our farmers market 59 out of 100; they came and visited. Another chef from Maine requested to come her because he wanted to write a book on seafood and culture. We had four Miss USA contestants come down and they were filmed on one of the boats.”
The revitalization of the port has had a lofty impact on the region and Verret has been witness to every step. The combination of hometown pride, resourcefulness and a creative mindset will continue to lead the Port of Delcambre to new heights.
“Being from here is huge!” he proudly exclaims. “The same thing that attracts people in academia or people in business to what we’re doing is the same thing that attracts me to it – there’s a logic to it. The concept of turning the waterfront that we’re so accustomed to into something so beneficial just makes sense. This has fast tracked so much and there’s so much more we have in mind.”
By: Shanna Perkins