Learning charm in Bogalusa
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DIXIE GALLASPY
Albert Camus, the French writer/philosopher, defined “charm” as “a way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without asking a clear question.”
Dixie Gallaspy (pronounced Ga-llespy), known affectionately as “Mizz Dixie” by the locals around Bogalusa, must have known back in 1987 that Camus was onto something when she debuted her Smoky Creek Summer School for Girls.
From the get-go, the school was all about Southern charm and polish and niceties, and from the beginning young girls came in at the awkward age of “I was like …” and “she was like …” and left a week later, semi-poised and ready to at least continue along the journey to becoming young ladies rather than merely young women.
And back then – as now – while the “younguns” weren’t exactly rushing to sign up, the grown-up folks in and around Bogalusa always knew Dixie was on target with her new school.
“Grace and charm are things that last a lifetime and serve a lady well,” Gallaspy says, drawing each phrase slowly and carefully. “In our schools today, we place so much emphasis on learning mathematics and science and history that we tend to overlook those elements of a refined life that make it just that – refined.” She continues, “Don’t get me wrong, the general curriculum of our schools is much-needed if we’re to thrive and move ahead. But we must not overlook teaching those things that speak volumes and say, ‘This is a young lady standing before you!’”
The Smoky Creek School is housed in “Big John” and Gallaspy’s bed-and-breakfast on a supremely idyllic setting down a gravel road and a world away from the monolithic paper mill that’s Bogalusa’s heartbeat. And farther still from the grinding gears of roaring trucks rolling in loaded down with freshly cut trees and rolling out under a load of paper. Smoky Creek is in another universe when compared to the busyness of Bogalusa’s bustling Columbia Street and the crumbling buildings that run down each side street jutting out from Columbia; the buildings have seemingly been abandoned to another era, wiped away by quick and cataclysmic change as in so many other deep-South towns while they stand cracking and worn out and faded under the noonday sun, pastel monuments to another time.
Miss Dixie, in her late 70s, is blonde, tall and angular. Her husband John is a slow-talking, gentle lawyer and former district attorney of Washington Parish, who spends every second he can in his watermelon fields and proudly wears the title “Watermelon King of Looziana.” No watermelon “pulled” from Big John’s fields is trucked without an orange oval “John Gallaspy Watermelon” sticker affixed to it.
Although it wasn’t planned that way and nobody vocalizes it, anyway you look at it, Dixie Gallaspy is viewed as the guardian of all the good things that are Ole South, commissioned in her mind by time and tradition to somehow imbue today’s young girls with those “wonderful rites of grace and charm that today seem dead as roadkill.”
Smoky Creek sits elegantly next to million-dollar homes and a golf course. And at the end of the road, it stands hidden amidst placid ponds replete with lilies and the occasional bullfrog croaking his heart out as the sun goes down, casting shadows on fountains and gum and tupelo trees. Aromatic jasmine wafts periodically to remind you this is the South (just in case you’ve forgotten).
Even before the week-long school session gets underway in mid-July and the girls aged 11 to their mid-teens sashay about polishing their curtsies and their “Ahhhm so pleased to meet youuuuuuu!” introductions there’s almost an expectation of seeing a tall, good-looking gentleman in coattails gliding arm-in-arm with a lovely Southern belle in an antebellum dress surrounded by a kaleidoscopic azalea setting. It is a Margaret Mitchell setting come to life.
“My mama named me Dixie right from the song,” Gallaspy says one foggy morning. “I just always expected that young ladies should act as young ladies. That was the way it was meant to be. This is what the South is all about – charm!”
That lost expectation set in not long after Gallaspy was crowned Queen of Bogalusa’s first Mardi Gras celebration back in 1981.
“I was just so proud,” she says. “Everything and everybody around at that time seemed so correct and right. But then later on I saw girls who were drinking beer and who had cigarettes hanging from their mouths while they were riding on the floats in the parade. Some of them had tattoos all over them – even on their necks. It was disgusting! It was heartbreaking! I felt we had lost something important in our lives. Something that made us who we were. I quit going to the parades.”
Then came the idea for her school: a week-long extravaganza with intensive tutoring in such things as: “Party Time Manners for Life;” “Good Table Manners for Life and Family Living;” “Your Beautiful Face;” “Skin Care;” “Your Voice and Telephone Manners;” “Your Graceful and Poised Figure;” “Dress Your Best;” “Simple Sewing;” and more.
Each half-day session at the school begins with prayer and a pledge of allegiance to the flag. That isn’t optional. The young ladies-in-the-making go home at noon and most practice what they’ve learned. And what they’ve learned, say many in Bogalusa, pays big dividends and lasts a lifetime.
“Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have dealings with one of the ladies who have graduated from the school,” says Richard Meek, managing editor of Bogalusa’s daily newspaper. “You can distinguish them instantly. They conduct themselves with poise and grace and there’s a polish about them that shows in everything they do.”
Says, Charles Mizell, Bogalusa’s Mayor, “My granddaughters, Ashley and Sarah are graduates of Smoky Creek. There are things they learned there that they’ll carry with them always. The dignified poise. It pays off. Ashley was Paper Queen here in Bogalusa. She’s third in her class at Bowling Green (High School). Sarah graduated just last year. We’re so proud of both of them. You know there are those special people and places in every community that stand out and make it something special. ‘Miz Dixie’ and the Smoky Creek School fit that description so perfectly.”
Likewise, former students come forth to sing the praises of Smoky Creek and Gallaspy. They tell of the successes they attribute to what they learned there, the friendships made that have carried through to this day. They contemplate the void they perceive in others that could be well filled at Smoky Creek.
And the teachers who come back as volunteers year after year to do their part to “make our community a better place to live. A place where civility isn’t second nature … but first nature.”
“That’s what Smoky Creek is all about,” says Pris Sampson, a long-time teacher at the school. “It’s like watching a flower bloom and finding great satisfaction in realizing that you’ve played a small part in helping that flower, that young lady to bloom.”
Perhaps Smoky Creek is best summed up by “Red” Jack Burns, a Runyonesque character who was known as the “unofficial mayor of the tough Irish Channel” in New Orleans. Red Jack and the French deep thinker shared a common theory.
“Don’t matter where youse from: Whether it’s the Channel and pronounce it “chawm” or from across Magazine Street inna snooty Garden District and pronounce it “charm,” it all gets the same result,” Red Jack pontificated one afternoon as he polished off a cold one at the Old Shanty Bar on Washington Avenue in the heart of the Channel. “When youse turn it on, ain’t nobody out there can say ‘no’ to ya! Right?’”
Miss Dixie Gallaspy would surely smile and demurely nod “yes” to that.
For more information on the Smoky Creek Summer School for Girls, contact Mrs. Dixie Gallaspy at (985) 735-5661 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.