St. Charles Avenue’s 2011
Activists of the Year
St. Charles Avenue magazine is proud to present its Activists of the Year 2011: Mimi Bowen, Leah Chase, Dr. Norman Francis, Leslie Jacobs, Diana Lewis, Dr. E. Ralph Lupin, James Reiss Jr. and Suzanne Rusovich.
For our 15th anniversary year, we have chosen eight locals who we believe are the cream of the crop. By honoring them, we’re honoring the gifts they have given of their time, their energies, their specialties – themselves – to our city.
Past and Present oOrganizations:
City Year New Orleans, advisory board chairman
New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, vice chairman
Good Work Network, board
Providence Community Housing
University of New Orleans Foundation
Teach for America/South Louisiana, advisory board
Greater New Orleans Foundation, board chairman
United Way for Greater New Orleans, board
New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, board chairman
Southeast Louisiana Girl Scout Council
Kingsley House, board
Junior League of New Orleans, board
Diana Lewis has devoted over 40 years of her life to being a full-time civic activist. Lewis has served at local, state, regional and national levels, along with many other exceptional civic leaders who have left lasting impressions on her.
“We can and should all make a difference in someone’s life,” she says.
Lewis began her lifelong career of community activism because she was drawn in by her family’s civic involvement and the encouragement of local and national role models.
Years later she was inspired by her peers, whose commitment to creating a more equitable society gave her newfound inspiration for her civic engagement. These days Lewis continues to take to the streets of New Orleans and says she’s now inspired by “… the thousands of young idealists who continue to change our community for the better and the incredible cadre of nonprofit professionals who every day create solutions to the challenging environment in which we live.”
Her civic activities focus on projects or services that support the improvement of public education and increase affordable housing and community revitalization. Lewis strongly believes that every family should have access to decent, affordable housing in safe neighborhoods, where children can grow up in an academic environment that supports and challenges them to reach their full potential.
Currently Lewis is working hard to successfully establish Collegiate Academies mutable charter schools as the top performing schools in Louisiana and to expand City Year New Orleans into all underperforming schools in Orleans Parish. She hopes to one day increase affordable home ownership, commercial activity and create safe, livable neighborhoods in Central City and Lafitte/Treme.
Lewis credits her hard work and determination to her loving husband, Tom. “My civic involvement would not have been possible without the support of a very tolerant husband,” she says.
Even though she has done so many civic duties, Lewis says that her greatest accomplishments in life are her three children. “They are terrific people, but they’re really not my accomplishment. I think they raised themselves.” When not volunteering, Lewis is a devoted wife and mother
who enjoys spending her free time with her family.
• Junior League of New Orleans, Sustainer Award
• Goucher College, Excellence in Public Service Award
• Association of Fundraising Professionals, Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser
• Young Leadership Council, Role Model
• National Council of Jewish Women, New Orleans, Hannah Solomon Award
• United Way of Greater New Orleans, Alexis de Tocqueville Award
• The Times-Picayune Loving Cup
• Committee for a Better New Orleans, Citizen Participation Award
Dr. Norman Francis
Past and Present oOrganizations:
Committee for a Better New Orleans, co-chair
Fleur de Lis Ambassadors Program, member
American Council on Education, member of the board of directors
The National World War II Museum, member of the board of trustees
Southern Education Foundation, chairman
Louisiana Disaster Relief Foundation, chair
United Negro College Fund, president
New Orleans Museum of Art, member of the board of directors
Urban League of Greater New Orleans, president
Dr. Norman Francis said he lives his life with one firm goal in mind, to give a “quality education for our students.”
Francis is the President of Xavier University of Louisiana, and he’s known for his commitment and service to higher education and historically black colleges and universities. He is the longest sitting university president in the United States, and he has been at Xavier for more than four decades as a student and then administrator.
After graduating from Xavier in 1952, Francis went on to become the first African-American accepted into Loyola University New Orleans law school. He joined the military after graduating from Loyola, and upon completing his tour he received a letter that would steer the course of the rest of his life.
“I got a letter from a nun saying, ‘We need someone for dean of men. Would you give us a couple of years?’” Francis recalls. “I did and
I did and I did.”
Over the next 40 years Francis’ leadership and service to education and humanity garnered many awards and 40 honorary degrees. The 80-year-old Army veteran who grew up on the poor side of Lafayette, La., has been an adviser to eight Presidents and hosted the likes of Pope John Paul II, former President Bill Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson.
When Francis inherited Xavier in 1968 it was heavy in debt, and it had an endowment of approximately $1.8 million. Today Xavier’s endowment is now valued at more than $133 million, and the institution hasn’t reported a deficit in more than 30 years.
“He [Francis] eats, sleeps and drinks Xavier,” Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and former president of Dillard University in New Orleans said in Diverse Magazine. “He eats, sleeps and drinks New Orleans.”
Through his unwavering determination, Francis managed to repair and rebuild the damaged Xavier campus in less than five months after Hurricane Katrina.
He was also appointed by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco to head the state’s hurricane recovery board. Francis held that position for more than two years as he oversaw the distribution of more than $12 billion in federal aid to disaster-stricken parishes across the state.
“I like my job,” Francis explains. “You get energized by what you do, by working with people, and you get energized by helping to make something better.”
• American Association for Blacks in Higher Education, Lifetime Achievement Award
• Named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News and World Report
• Louisiana Endowment for Humanities, Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities Award
• Gambit, New Orleanian of the Year 2007
• Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush
• 100 Black Men of America, Man of the Year Award 2005
• Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Pope John Paul II Award
• Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Louisiana Legends Award
• Junior Achievement, Business Hall of Fame
Dr. E. Ralph Lupin
Past and Present Organizations:
New Orleans Opera Association, director and former vice president
Vieux Carré Commission, chairman
National World War II Museum, director
New Orleans Ballet Association, lifetime member of board of directors
New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, honorary lifetime member
Louisiana State Museum, board of directors member and treasurer
Louisiana Museum Foundation, board member
New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, member
Upper Pontalba Commission, member
Human Rights Commission of New Orleans, member
Dr. E. Ralph Lupin, a native of New Orleans, has delivered thousands of babies during his more than 50 years practicing gynecology and obstetrics. “Every time I see a new being come into this world, I feel that my mission in life is fulfilled,” he says. “My mission in life is to make people happy, and I would have to say that everything I’ve done is with this mission in mind.”
Lupin, who’s considered a local celebrity among his patients, says he’s still surprised by how many of his past patients approach him at the grocery store. “We’ve grown old together,” Lupin says. “Women’s health care is my job, and I’ll keep doing it until I die.”
His day job may be at Lupin Women Health Services, but his job as a community activist keeps his hands full.
One of the causes he’s most committed to is the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which is a pre-professional arts training center that offers secondary school-age children intensive instruction in the arts while demanding simultaneous excellence. As a honorary lifetime member, Lupin said he’s proud of how far NOCCA has come since he first joined, and he’s overjoyed by the successes of NOCCA alumni.
Currently, Lupin is working on various projects as chairman of the Vieux Carré Commission to protect, preserve and maintain the distinctive character of the historic French Quarter district of the city. He also spends some of his time on other non-profit activities including the Lupin Foundation, which supports hundreds of other nonprofit organizations.
Not only is Lupin a doctor and a committed community activist, he’s also a retired member of the Louisiana National Guard. He retired at the age of 65, but he received his last mission in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. As many were evacuating New Orleans, 75-year-old Lupin stayed in the city, and he was reactivated and assigned to the Superdome as the chief medical officer for a total of 60 days.
Lupin says his dedication to New Orleans is inspired by the belief “that all of our citizens are entitled to enjoy the multiple pleasures of life” and he has dedicated his life to help others live a better life.
When he’s not working or volunteering, Lupin enjoys reading books, traveling, collecting antiques and most of all spending time with his family and his 16-year-old schnauzer, Bentley.
• New Orleans Ballet Association, Honorary Award
• New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Honorary Award
James J. Reiss Jr.
Past and Present Organizations:
Tulane University, vice chairman of the board of trustees
Tulane Business School Council, chairman
Regional Transit Authority of the City of New Orleans, chairman
Bring New Orleans Back Commission
New Orleans Public Schools Scholarship Foundation, vice president
Greater New Orleans Education Foundation, vice president
Dollars for Scholars, corporate chairman
Audubon Zoo, corporate chairman
Longue Vue House and Gardens, corporate chairman
New Orleans Museum of Art’s Odyssey Ball, patron co-chair
James J. Reiss Jr., CEO of Reiss Companies, takes his business as seriously as he does education.
A native of New Orleans, Reiss earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Tulane University in 1960.
“Jimmy Reiss … exemplif[ies] the true spirit of entrepreneurship and philanthropic generosity,” John Elstrott, executive director of the Levy-Rosenblum Institute, said during the 2008 Tulane Social Entrepreneur of the Year presentation. “Jimmy
has spent his career growing businesses and creating wealth while remaining committed to the community.”
Reiss’ firm commitment to New Orleans can be seen in his business and also in his commitment to education. In 1991, he was one of the people responsible for founding the New Orleans Public School Scholarship Foundation, more commonly known as Dollars for Scholars. The foundation has since raised millions of dollars to send graduates of New Orleans public schools to college.
“Most of them wind up either in medical school, law school, getting a CPA, or a master’s or a doctorate in engineering,” Reiss said in Freeman Magazine. “Some of them end up working in the biochem industry, so most of these people wind up being super achievers.”
Reiss’ strong belief in the importance of education carries over to his involvement with Tulane University. As vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of Tulane and former Chairman of the Tulane Business School Council, Reiss is among the university’s most staunch alumni. He is currently working on projects with the Tulane University Board and the Business School.
It is no surprise then that the cause that Reiss is most committed to is Tulane, describing his alma mater as “the pillar of our community.”
He credits the president of Tulane University, Scott Cowen, for inspiring his many years of community involvement.
Although Reiss has a very successful business, he says he’s most proud of his family, especially the independence and self-motivation of his
When Reiss isn’t working or doing civic activities he enjoys spending time with his wife Pixie, their three children and their four and a half grandchildren. He also enjoys golfing, biking, hiking and skiing while splitting his time between New Orleans and Aspen, Colo.
• Junior Achievement Hall of Fame
• Tulane University A.B. Freeman School of Business, Outstanding Alumnus of the Year 1996
• Tulane Association of Business Alumni, Alumnus of the Year 2000
• Young Leadership Council of New Orleans, Role Model
Past and Present Organizations:
Arts Council of New Orleans
New Orleans Museum of Art, lifetime member
Urban League, board member
Greater New Orleans Foundation
Women of the Storm
International Women’s Forum
Restaurant Association of Louisiana
American Federation of Chefs
Leah Chase, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine and owner and chef of Dooky Chase Restaurant, lives her life with three simple rules: pray, work and do for others. Chase’s parents instilled her philosophy on life at an early age, while growing up poor in Madisonville, La.
“The ultimate work a person does on earth is what you have done to better the lives of others,” Chase says.
Chase, the oldest of 11 living siblings, turned her husband’s simple sandwich shop into one of the most popular restaurants in New Orleans. She has fed Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others with her soul food. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have also dined at Dooky Chase, and they have been known to seek out Chase’s counsel.
Coming up from nothing, and with only a high school diploma, Chase’s life is proof that if you set your mind to something it can come into fruition. It is no wonder then that Chase’s life of struggle and hard work became the inspiration behind the Disney princess Tiana in the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.
She hasn’t let fame get in the way of her community involvement. Chase supports various nonprofits by preparing and donating food for fundraisers and events.
“It’s not much, but it’s something,” she says. “Everyone can do something.”
Chase supports causes that help people get up from where they are and that make people feel their worth. Her strong belief in those causes can be traced back to the 1960s. During the civil rights movement and segregation, Chase and her husband allowed out-of-town civil rights organizers, black and white, to assemble in the upstairs portion of their restaurant even though it was illegal at that time.
“Life is all about making a difference, thinking only about yourself is worthless,” she says.
Chase’s proudest accomplishments in life she says were raising her children and making Dooky Chase what it is today. She enjoys spending time with her three living children, her 16 grandchildren and her 22 great-grandchildren. When she has free time she also enjoys spending her afternoons in museums, going out to eat and reading non-fiction novels.
• The Times-Picayune, Loving Cup Award 1997
• National Conference of Christians and Jews, Weiss Award
• University of New Orleans, Entrepreneurship Award
• National Council of Negro Women, Outstanding Woman Award
• National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, multiple awards
• James Beard Foundation, Who’s Who of Food & Beverages in America 2010
Past and Present Organizations:
Greater New Orleans, Inc., chairman
New Orleans Business Alliance, vice chairman
New Orleans Business Council, vice chairman
Educate Now!, founder
New Orleans Startup Fund, one of the founding board members
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Orleans Parish School Board
Leslie Jacobs left her hometown of New Orleans to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history.
She is an award-winning education reform activist, business leader and philanthropist. For more than two decades, she has been a passionate voice for K-12 education reform in Louisiana. Jacobs served initially as an elected member of the Orleans Parish School Board and then as a member of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City and left the Orleans Parish school board in shambles, Jacobs seized the opportunity to play a key role in assembling Orleans Parish failing schools into a state-run Recovery School District. The recovery district didn’t renew the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement and purged most of the city’s schools of underperforming teachers. At the same time Jacobs helped champion the expansive growth of the charter school movement.
She also recruited the nationally recognized Knowledge is Power Program to come to New Orleans.
“I am very excited by the transformation of public education in New Orleans,” Jacobs says. “We are the most improved school district in the Untied States, and I expect us to continue improving.”
She is also the founder of Educate Now!, a nonprofit dedicated to continuing the broad, post-Katrina reforms of New Orleans public schools she helped institute and execute as a member of the BESE.
“I love New Orleans,” Jacobs says. It is this enduring love for her city that continues to inspire her, and her hard work has garnered national attention.
In a visit to New Orleans earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the New Orleans school district’s progress in the last six years “stunning.” Jacobs’ ideas are also shaping other states’ approaches to improve underperforming schools.
“We have the chance to prove to ourselves and the nation that we can create the best urban school district in the United States,” she says. “While we still have a long way to go, our schools are much better today than they were six years ago and we are providing students better educational opportunities.”
Jacobs resides in New Orleans with her husband, Scott, and enjoys spending time with their daughters, Lauren and Michelle.
• Forbes, named No. 5 of The World’s 7 Most Powerful Educators
• The Jewish Daily Forward, named one of The Forward 50
• National Association of State Boards of Education, Distinguished Service Award
• National Governors Association, Distinguished Service to State Government Award
• Business Insurance, name one of the Top 100 Female Insurance Executives
• Louisiana Life magazine, one of Twenty People Who Influenced Louisiana (1981-2001)
Past and Present Organizations:
Women of the Storm
Audubon Commission, president
Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, president
Isidore Newman School, executive committee
Zoo To Do, chair
Heritage Club, co-chair
Sentimental Journeys, chair
Contemporary Arts Center, board member
New Orleans Ballet Association, board member
Men of Fashion, board member
Junior League of New Orleans and Tennessee, member
If you’re taking a stroll around the 5500 block of Magazine Street, you’ll find an upscale women’s boutique called Mimi. The boutique is the namesake of its owner Mimi Bowen, who’s a native of Memphis, Tenn., and a graduate of Mary Baldwin College “Not being a native New Orleanian, my adopted city has afforded me the opportunity to become my own person,” Bowen says. “I can’t imagine living or working anywhere else. This is truly a magical place with a great big heart!”
Bowen’s boutique has been in business since 1978, and she has overseen its expansion into a bridal boutique and shepherded it through its rebirth after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The joy of having been able to work at something I love has been a real gift,” Bowen says. “The people I meet and greet every day are a continual source of inspiration and fun.”
Bowen not only commits her time, energy and funds to her business, but also to the community of her adoptive city. She has volunteered her time at numerous organizations around the Crescent City, but it’s Planned Parenthood that she holds dear to her heart.
Planned Parenthood is the nation’s leading sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocate. It also works with partner organizations worldwide to improve the sexual health and wellbeing of individuals and families everywhere.
“Planned Parenthood has provided compassionate, complete first-rate care for women from all walks of life for many years and hopefully will continue this vital mission for many years to come,” Bowen says.
The people she serves, she says, serve as the catalyst that continues to inspire her civic involvement. Bowen’s proudest accomplishment in life isn’t her successful business nor her community activism, but her four children.
“Nothing brings me greater joy than the knowledge that [my children] are happy, healthy productive adults,” Bowen says.
When not working or volunteering, Bowen loves to spend time with her husband, her children and her eight grandchildren (with one on the way).
She also enjoys walking in the park, smelling the fresh air and getting in a daily work out with her trainer to keep her mind and body in shape.
“Down time is important to renew my old brain!” Bowen quips.
• Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger Award
• Men of Fashion, Best Dressed
• Men of Fashion, Hall of Fame
Past and Present Organizations:
Bridge House/Grace House, board member
Metairie Park Country Day School Parents’ Association, board member
Rebuild by Giving
March of Dimes
The National World War II Museum
Young Leadership Council, president
Each One Save One
American Red Cross
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
A native of New Orleans, Suzanne Rusovich says that her parents and her alma mater, Academy of the Sacred Heart, showed her the importance of being an active member of one’s community.
“I was so fortunate to have had so much growing up,” Rusovich says.
After earning a bachelor’s of arts in anthropology at Newcomb College, Rusovich began to get heavily involved in various nonprofit organizations and discovered the overwhelming joy she received every time she volunteered.
“[Volunteering] became a bit addicting,” she says. Rusovich has volunteered in numerous organizations, but it’s her commitment to Bridge House/Grace House of which she’s most proud.
Bridge House/Grace House provides gender specific treatment to men and women who have become dependent on alcohol or dugs so that they may lead sober and productive lives. Long-term residential services are offered in an atmosphere that promotes dignity, honor and respect. These services are offered regardless of one’s ability to pay.
“It has truly touched me to the core to be a part of such a special place that empowers people to save their own lives and become viable members of the community,” Rusovich explains. “I have met so many people that have passed through Bridge House/Grace House’s open doors who have conquered the demon of addiction and who have grown mentally and spiritually into some of the most beautiful people I have been privileged to know.”
She also applauds those who work at Bridge House/Grace House because they have devoted their lives to helping others. Currently Rusovich, who’s a board member at Bridge House/Grace House, is overseeing the completion of a capital campaign, which built the Bridge House’s new facility on Earhart Boulevard. The previous location on Camp Street was renovated in order to expand Grace House’s capacity to serve 70 women.
“I have been so lucky to be a part of such an inspiring and nurturing place and to have played a small role in helping others become empowered to help themselves,” Rusovich says.
As CEO of the household, Rusovich has influenced her husband and two sons to also contribute any free time to their community. When she isn’t volunteering, Rusovich enjoys gardening, cooking, reading and traveling. Her most recent trip to Utah reminded her “how exhilarating life can be.”
• YWCA, role model
• National Society of Fund Raising Executives, Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year
• Family Services of Greater New Orleans, one of the Ten Outstanding Persons
• St. Elizabeth’s Guild, one of New Orleans’ Best Volunteer Activists
• Grace House, Woman of Substance