Louisianians of the Year
Eight of Our Favorites Making This State Great
Tab Benoit is one of this year's Louisianians of the Year.
Cheryl Gerber Photographs
If a state is the sum of its parts, we are pleased to announce that there are many good parts here – including these eight who have distinguished themselves during the past year. They are different in many ways, but the common denominator is that they all had a vision and the desire to excel. Louisiana benefits, and the state becomes greater – one person at a time.
Ministry to the Poor
Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate
Mission of Hope in a town called Providence
Some might call it the luck of the Irish, but to Bernadette Barrett, landing in a remote corner of Louisiana that is long on poverty and short on economic opportunity was a gift from heaven.
For the past 10 years, home for “Sister Bernie,” as she is known to locals, has been a modest trailer in Lake Providence, a northeastern Louisiana town whose 4,000 residents mostly struggle to make ends meet. Here, the white Irish Catholic nun lives and works in a heavily black Baptist community, and she says she’s completely at home. “I feel this is where God wanted me,” she says.
It’s a long way from Dublin, Ireland, where Sister Bernie grew up in a family of 10 children and where her cousins steered her toward the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate just after she finished high school. The religious order, founded in Texas in 1893, had a “receiving house” in Galway, and that’s where Bernie started a journey that led to Louisiana.
The Sisters of the Holy Spirit initially was the brainchild of an Irish woman who had married a Texas man and inherited a small fortune when he died. The widow put her wealth to work on behalf of newly freed slaves in the region by building a church and school for their benefit, and she recruited women from Ireland to come to Texas and help.
The flow of help continued for decades, and in 1962, Sister Bernie arrived at the order’s “mother house” in San Antonio. “We trained to be teachers, and we got our degrees by degree,” she says with a laugh. In time, the sisters scattered to different areas to pursue their mission of helping black people in need.
Sister Bernie’s mission led to Louisiana, where she taught school in Crowley, Lebeau, New Roads and New Orleans. In 2002, she answered a call for sisters in Lake Providence, where she now works as a community organizer and, she hopes, a unifier.
“This community is like most of the Delta – there are private schools for whites, and the public school is predominantly black,” she says. “We work to get institutions to work together and give witness to the possibility of multiracial harmony.”
One day may find her lobbying the City Council about blighted buildings or a problem with stray dogs. At other times she’s working with economic development organizations to fund job training that can lead local youth and adults toward employment.
Although she has spent much of her career as an educator, Sister Bernie says she often feels more like a student in Lake Providence. “A lot of people up here have great faith,” she says, “and they teach me a lot.”
Owner, New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets
Making Home a Big-League Town
Tom Benson tells the story about the phone call he got in 1985 from then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. John Mecom Jr., the original owner of the New Orleans Saints franchise, wanted to sell, and there was a chance that the city might lose the team to out-of-state investors. Edwards told Benson that he had put together a meeting with some potential investors and would like Benson to attend. Benson recalled that he went to the meeting only to discover: “I was the only potential investor he had.”
Whatever cajoling Edwards did, it worked. Benson, at the time a little-known owner of car dealerships, put together a buyout group and plunged into the world of NFL football. Benson would soon buy out his partners and become sole owner of the franchise he has shepherded since then, building a success in one of the league’s smallest markets and being one of only a minority of owners who can wear a Super Bowl ring.
In 2012 Benson got another call, this time from David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. We will assume that Stern did not have Edwards’ chutzpah, but here, again, the effort worked. By most accounts Benson was not pleased when the NBA Charlotte Hornets first relocated to New Orleans; now he owns the franchise. In the process he has made deals with the state that are reviving downtown, including an overhaul of the Superdome and his purchase of the adjacent building, most recently known as the Dominion Towers and now called the Benson Towers.
If anything, Benson’s investments are certainly high- profile, including his purchase of television station WVUE-TV (Fox 8), which, insiders say, Benson has energized.
According to Forbes Magazine, Benson, as of September 2012, was worth $1.2 billion, putting him at No. 360 on the magazine’s Top 400 list. In a state short on the super-rich, Benson’s money has been a vital economic development tool. As a new sports entertainment complex develops in the vicinity of what, through Benson’s efforts, is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Benson’s money, in partnership with the state, has given life to an area that badly needed a stimulus.
Not everything was rosy in 2012. The NFL’s bounty investigation was hurtful, but no one blamed Benson, and the final judgment has yet to be rendered.
Unquestioned has been Benson’s philanthropy. Most recently Benson and his wife, Gayle, funded a cancer recovery center at Ochsner hospital. Personally, as well as through the Saints and the Hornets, Benson’s holdings have written many checks for community causes.
Forbes’ description of Benson says a lot about him: “self-made.” Born in New Orleans to a working-class family and armed with a high school diploma, he maneuvered his way to the top. He’s done a lot and presumably has all that he needs, except possibly for two more pieces of jewelry – a ring for an NBA championship and another one for another Super Bowl.
– Errol Laborde
Music, Environmental Activism
Founder, Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars
Conservationist of the Year - Louisiana Wildlife Federation, 2010
Music that Goes Beyond Entertainment
If creative expression arises from an artist’s sense of place, there may be no better evidence than Tab Benoit. One of the most talented blues-roots musicians and guitarists Louisiana has produced, the Houma native is not only a product of his bayou home but also gives voice to its beauty and culture and has committed himself to preserving it.
Benoit’s distinctive musical style blends blues, rock, Cajun and country into a modern sound often dubbed “swamp pop.” Using his blazing guitar skills and a voice that’s alternately plaintive and gritty, he imbues tunes ranging from rock jams to ballads with energy and emotion.
Among his many accolades, Benoit’s 2006 album, Brother to the Blues, snagged a Grammy nomination, and in 2012 he was the big winner of the 33rd Blues Music Awards, with his album Medicine taking top honors for Contemporary Blues Album and Benoit winning as best Contemporary Male Artist and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.
Medicine was a collaboration with award-winning songwriter and recording artist Anders Osborne and features New Orleans luminary Ivan Neville and Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet. It’s the sort of team effort that has come to characterize Benoit’s music as well as his activism.
A trained aircraft pilot, Benoit used to fly small planes for oil and pipeline companies, and his frequent flights over coastal areas showed him how rapidly the wetlands were disappearing through erosion caused by rising tides and storms.
“I’d come back to town and talk about it with friends, and they thought I was crazy, but I could see it was happening faster than anybody realized,” he says.
Long before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005, Benoit founded Voice of the Wetlands, an organization working to save Louisiana’s eroding coastline and marshlands. Later, he decided to use his music to advance the cause.
Enlisting the time and talents of his musician friends, including Osborne, he formed the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a group that lobbies for attention to wetlands loss while performing at music events around the country.
Benoit says their shared effort has strengthened bonds among the musicians. “To tell the truth, we’re more solidly connected than ever before,” he says.
His environmental efforts earned Benoit the Governor’s Award for Conservationist of the Year from the Louisiana Wildlife Federation in 2010 and a starring role in the IMAX motion picture Hurricane on the Bayou, a documentary of Hurricane Katrina’s effects.
Meanwhile, his efforts to articulate images of home through his music continue. “I look at myself as an artist, not just as a musician, and I’m really trying to paint pictures with sound,” he says. “You have to look for ways to get what’s in your heart out through your music. I get a little bit better at it all the time.”
Founder, Chairman and CEO,
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
Restaurateur of the Year - Louisiana Restaurant Association
A Relentless Pursuit of Quality Chicken Bites
Conjure up a vision of Louisiana cuisine, and chances are crisp chunks of boneless chicken won’t be the first items that come to mind. No matter. The particular spin that Todd Graves put on this popular delicacy has not only made it a hit in Louisiana but has made the entrepreneur and his restaurant chain stars in a major segment of the nationwide fast-food market, as well.
It’s an odd outcome for a business plan that didn’t strictly adhere to traditional restaurant principles. For example, Graves devised an unimaginably simple menu – fingers of boneless chicken fried to a flavorful crisp and served with a variety of dipping sauces. French fries and coleslaw were the only sides on his original menu, and more than 16 years later the lineup has not changed.
Then there’s the restaurant’s name. For reasons not entirely clear, Graves named his eatery after his beloved golden retriever. But does a chicken restaurant named Raising Cane’s make sense? Again, it doesn’t matter.
“My ultimate goal is to someday have restaurant locations all over the world,” Graves says. And there’s no reason to think he’ll fall short.
Graves concocted his Raising Cane’s plan while pursuing a business degree at the University of Georgia, and while neither his business professors nor bankers from whom he sought a loan were fond of the idea, their lack of enthusiasm didn’t stop him.
“I just thought the idea of a boneless chicken product with great sauces and simple sides was a good concept,” he says. “I thought if I could do a chicken-finger meal and do it better than anyone else, then that’s what I’d be known for.”
Graves worked at several jobs to raise money for his first restaurant near the north gates of the LSU campus. His target was the student population, but people from surrounding neighborhoods and nearby businesses showed up, too. Soon Graves opened a second Raising Cane’s at the south edge of campus.
Since those early days, Graves has stuck to his motto: “Do one thing, do it better than anyone else, and be relentless about it.” Now operating 142 restaurants in 17 states, Raising Cane’s has won accolades from nearly every business publisher and restaurant industry magazine in the country. An honor Graves particularly values came from his home-state peers last year when the Louisiana Restaurant Association named him Restaurateur of the Year.
Graves’ largess and charitable work in the communities where Raising Cane’s operates have won the chain many other fans outside the restaurant industry, too. The CEO says it’s part of a simple business plan that calls for quality food, an excellent staff and a lot of community involvement.
It’s a formula that he sees no reason to alter – much like the restaurant’s menu, which hasn’t changed since 1996. “We haven’t even added a dessert,” Graves says with more than a hint of pride.
Kira Orange Jones
New Orleans/Baton Rouge
Executive director, Teach for America/Greater New Orleans
Member, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Making Policy and Shaping Lives
You could say that Kira Orange Jones, who comes from a family of educators, was genetically predisposed to becoming a teacher. But when she took her first classroom job, with Teach for America, she intended it as a short-term service commitment that she would complete before going on to become a documentary filmmaker.
“It wasn’t until I stood before my 27 fourth-graders and was responsible for their achievement and saw their curiosity and their characters being formed that I realized this was the most substantial leadership opportunity I’ll ever have,” she says.
The moment marked the beginning not only of her career in education but also of a long-term relationship with Louisiana. “I had never been in the South before, and I never thought I’d still be in Louisiana 12 years later,” she says.
Growing up in the Bronx, the New York native understood the value of a quality education as she saw how hard her mother, a single parent, worked to send her children to good schools that would help them get into college.
Orange Jones graduated from Wesleyan University and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University before taking the two-year teaching assignment in Louisiana. Through her eye-opening experience at Eden Park Elementary School in Baton Rouge, she became convinced that she should focus not only on teaching but also on policy decisions that affect classroom learning.
When her teaching assignment ended, she stayed on in Baton Rouge, serving as school director in a Teach for America summer institute and helping to lead the organization’s local expansion. Eventually, she rose through the organization’s ranks and, in 2006, became executive director of Teach for America for Greater New Orleans.
In 2012, Orange Jones and two other individuals received the national Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership for their combined work to expand educational opportunities in New Orleans. Most recently, she became an elected member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Orange Jones feels her early experiences in teaching led her naturally toward positions where she could help shape educational policy.
“In my classroom, I’d see kids who were on their fourth or fifth time taking an exam that could put them on an entirely different track in life – their futures hung in the balance,” she says.
Although she believes the interaction between student and teacher is crucial to learning, she adds that “everything around that interaction usually connects back to a policy decision.”
Orange Jones wants to help make decisions that can improve the learning environment and help teachers connect with kids. “When you see a great teacher, you’re watching art, science – even magic in lots of ways,” she says. “Teaching is a very hard thing to do.”
Fred Luter Jr.
President, Southern Baptist Convention
Minister helps Southern Baptists Turn a Corner
The election of a black minister to head a Christian organization that encompasses 45,000 predominantly white congregations and long espoused racial segregation would seem, at the least, surprising. In reality, when it occurred last summer, the election became the stuff of national headlines.
Fred Luter Jr. says he was slow to appreciate the magnitude of the events. “I didn’t realize how big a deal it was before I was elected,” says the man who in June became the first black president of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.
Many saw the choice of Luter to lead the Southern Baptists as central to the convention’s efforts to distance itself from its racist past. The Southern Baptists founded the convention in 1845 after splitting from the First Baptist Church in America over slave ownership.
In 1995, Luter helped craft a resolution apologizing to blacks for the convention’s support of slavery and racism and pledging to work toward racial reconciliation. Today, fewer than 10 percent of Southern Baptist congregations are black churches.
Looking back on last summer’s election, Luter doesn’t dwell on its racial aspects, but he concedes it was a moving experience. “Standing on that stage with almost 9,000 people applauding and on their feet – it became a big deal for me when I saw that type of reaction,” he says.
His mission now is to help diversify, grow and unify membership of the Southern Baptist Convention. But Luter says that won’t divert him from his primary work at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood.
Luter landed at the helm of the church after growing up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where his family belonged to the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Injuries he received in a motorcycle accident at age 20 awakened him to a religious calling, and he began a “street ministry” in his neighborhood. “I wanted everybody I knew to get saved,” he says.
In 1986, an important door opened when he became pastor at the Franklin Avenue church. Luter built the congregation up rapidly from fewer than 100 members to almost 8,000 before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, sending many members to new locales.
His work to rebuild the church after the storm – the congregation has rebounded to about 5,000 members now – was a big reason why fellow Southern Baptists nominated him to lead their convention.
So far, Luter and his wife seem to be taking his newfound fame in stride, but he says the reactions of his daughter and his son are another story. “They see me preaching and speaking across the country, and they’re really proud,” he says. “Like everybody else, they’re kind of amazed.”
Publisher, The Advocate
Baton Rouge Daily takes Flying Leap into New Orleans
We were just sitting around minding our own business when this happened,” Baton Rouge newspaper publisher David Manship jokes, recalling the bombshell that the Times-Picayune in New Orleans dropped last spring.
At first he and his relatives in the business tried to ignore the news that the downriver daily planned to cut its printing schedule to three days a week. But then a group of Big Easy business owners made an impassioned plea.
“They reached out to us and said ‘New Orleans deserves a daily newspaper,’” Manship says. “They asked us to consider distributing a New Orleans paper.”
Manship consulted with other members of the family-owned business, including his brother Richard Manship. They first talked about distributing the Advocate, in its existing form, in newspaper boxes around New Orleans. But soon they evolved toward the idea of a Crescent City edition.
“We decided the heck with it; let’s just do it and see what happens,” he says.
Today, three months into the 170-year-old Baton Rouge daily’s foray into New Orleans, the newspaper’s expansion continues, with some early surprises.
“Initially, we thought if we could get to 10,000 subscriptions in New Orleans in the first six months, then we’d have the possibility to survive,” Manship says. “But we had 10,000 in the first six days – it just overwhelmed us.”
Until last fall, Manship, whose family has owned the Advocate since 1909, stood at the helm of a successful daily newspaper that served primarily the Capital City area. He was almost 40 years into a career that began after he graduated from the Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee, did a four-year stint in the Army and trained at DeVry Institute of Technology in Dallas.
His father enticed him to join the family business in 1973, and Manship eventually put his technical training to work, leading the paper’s conversion to digital typesetting. He rose through the ranks in various departments and took over as publisher when his father retired. Today, both he and his brother have a son working at the paper.
When opportunity arose suddenly in New Orleans last spring, the Advocate had to move fast. Managers had just weeks to hire New Orleans staff and prepare a newspaper launch in order to capitalize on the Times-Picayune’s Oct. 1 schedule reduction. “We weren’t taking baby steps; we were jumping off the bridge,” Manship says.
Initially, they planned a six-month trial for the New Orleans edition, but with the Advocate already distributing 20,000 papers per day to homes and boxes in and around the city, that short-term commitment is off the table.
Manship looks for the New Orleans edition to start turning a profit soon. “We think we’ll be doing well by the middle of 2013,” he says. “We’re in New Orleans now, and we’re staying.”
Wanda Spurlock RN, DNS
Associate professor, Southern University and A&M College, School of Nursing
Inductee- Louisiana State Nurses Association Hall of Fame
Offering Care and Meeting the Challenges of Dementia
Caring for a person who is in a fragile mental or emotional state is tough and demanding work. Add to that challenge the complications of advancing age and memory loss, and you have one of the most difficult jobs a medical professional will ever face.
Wanda Spurlock has built a 36-year career on exactly that combination of impossible tasks. As both a registered nurse and an educator, she has concentrated most of her life’s work in the fields of psychiatric and geriatric care.
More specifically, she has focused on dementia care and Alzheimer’s research, areas that tend to attract fewer practitioners because the challenges of communicating with patients are so great.
Spurlock says she likes the work because it requires relying on her own creativity and intuition in addition to “all the tools and gadgets” common in most medical care. “You have to give more of yourself in order to communicate and establish a therapeutic relationship,” she says. “I enjoy using myself as a therapeutic tool.”
A professor in Southern University’s School of Nursing, Spurlock has earned many accolades for her dedication to improving care for elderly people suffering from dementia-related diseases. In the past year, her work has landed her in the Louisiana State Nurses Association Hall of Fame, and she has also received the Nightingale Award for Outstanding Community Service.
Spurlock is a well-known volunteer, a nationally certified nurse educator and a fellow of the National Gerontological Nursing Association.
A Baton Rouge native, she graduated in 1976 from Our Lady of the Lake School of Nursing and later earned a doctorate in nursing science from LSU Health Sciences Center. It was in between those programs that Spurlock says “a light bulb came on” and she knew what she wanted to do.
Having grown up as the youngest of six siblings in a household she says was “all about character, a good work ethic and following your passion,” Spurlock says her large extended family brought her close to older role models.
“I always held elderly people in high esteem, and when I started working in psychiatric services, I saw myself being pulled toward older patients, especially those who had cognitive impairment,” she says.
Spurlock says that Alzheimer’s Disease poses a growing threat in a country whose population is aging, especially given the fact that no cure is in sight. “We don’t have a way to prevent it or even slow down its progression,” she says, pointing out that the need for mental health and geriatric care professionals, already in short supply, will only grow.
“We need more people with specialized skills to offer higher levels of care to the growing number of older adults in need,” she says.