Stepping out of a Petroleum Club dining room after a sit-down interview on an unusually mild June afternoon, the general manager of Pellerin & Wallace Inc. and I find ourselves strolling through the miasma of molten-tar smoke from a nearby kettle.
The reporter winces. The general manager smiles. “I love that smell,” Harris Baudoin says as softly as he says everything.
At 87, Baudoin is almost as venerable as the Lafayette roofing company that hired him as a helper in 1963 for a buck and a quarter an hour. He was 33 years old at the time, with a wife and three kids. He had been laid off after nine years as a railroad fireman, and while $1.25 an hour wasn’t much, it was enough to get by. His kids are grown, but he and Nell, his wife of 66 years, still live in the house they raised the kids in just north of Maurice in south Lafayette Parish.
In 54 years, Harris Baudoin has roofed a lot of Lafayette as it grew from a town and city into a metropolitan area.
“When I started roofing, that’s when the Oil Center was just starting,” he recalls. “I’ve roofed maybe 60 percent of the roofs in the Oil Center, and I take care of just about all the roofs in the Oil Center because the Heymann people own it, and I work with the Heymanns.”
On this pleasant June afternoon, Wallace & Pellerin is re-roofing the Petroleum Club, long an Oil Center anchor at the corner of Heymann and St. Mary boulevards. Workers scurry about up top while the tar kettle hisses. Baudoin, in a short-sleeved button-down tucked neatly into khakis, will soon clamber up a ladder to inspect their work — one of a few jobs scattered around Lafayette that he will check in on today in addition to doing an estimate for a medical building on South College Road. But first he has to glad-hand a bunch of Rotarians emerging from their monthly luncheon. Everyone seems to know him. Everyone likes him.
Baudoin is about 20 years beyond what most of us consider retirement age — clearly a foreign concept for Pellerin & Wallace’s general manager.
“Roofing is my life,” he says. “People say, ‘Why don’t you go home?’ I’m not a home person.”
When he is home, Baudoin is up at 4:30 a.m., with breakfast a 5, coffee at 5:30 and into the office by 6. Every. Damn. Day.
“He’s the kind of person that, if there was a problem, it was taken care of. He had an outstanding business reputation, and that’s why everyone wanted to use him — especially commercial work,” says architect Wayne Corne, who has worked with Baudoin and Pellerin & Wallace for about 45 years.
“Anyone with a hammer and a nail can be a roofer,” Corne adds. “I don’t think you could meet a person in Lafayette who wouldn’t tell you they admire Mr. Baudoin and want him to do their work.”
When a respected, 79-year-old architect calls you Mister, you’ve probably done pretty well for yourself, and if Harris Baudoin gets his druthers, there’ll be plenty more years of reputation-building for him and his company.
“Only when I see I can’t do what I love to do,” Baudoin says. “I meet a lot of people. In fact, every day in the roofing business for me is a different day. I have my own office, but I couldn’t sit in my office eight hours a day — no sir.”
He admits there’s also a bit of Andy Rooney Syndrome in his desire to keep working. Rooney, the 60 Minutes news commentator, died in 2011 at age 92 — about three weeks after he retired.
“I don’t have any old friends anymore because I outlived them all. They retired, and they’re gone. I don’t have a single one of them now,” a wistful Baudoin acknowledges. “When they got to the right age, they retired, and then in two, three or four years they were gone. You got to keep your mind going to keep everything sharp.
“I love what I’m doing. If one morning I wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore,’ then I’ll quit. But I’m not planning on that right now. It’s a challenge to me.”