Evelina Abdalla, matriarch of legendary retail family, dies

by Cherry Fisher May

Evelina Abdalla accepting the ABiz Trailblazer Award in September 2005
Photo by Robin May

Services are set at 10 a.m. Wednesday at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Lafayette for Evelina Abdalla, who passed away on Monday after a lengthy illness. She was 99 years old.

Evelina was the last surviving member of a generation of retailers that dominated the market in Lafayette, Iberia and St. Landry parishes throughout the 20th century. She and her husband Herbert, who died in 2010, were also among the first to venture beyond Lafayette’s traditional Downtown shopping hub into the newly developed Oil Center in the late 1960s, opening a store that outlasted most family-owned department stores across the U.S., including Baton Rouge-based giant Goudchaux’s among many others. That store closed in 2005, marking the end of a 110-year run in the industry, a story reported in The Independent in December of that year.

Along with her sister-in-law Irma, Evelina was honored by ABiz as the first-ever Trailblazers in 2004 as part of the magazine’s annual Women Who Mean Business Awards. The story is excerpted below:

Tom and Barbara Abdalla Black Evelina and Herbert Abdalla in the Oil Center store

Theirs is perhaps the sweetest story of friendship, a familial one that has stood the test of time—more than six decades of retail partnership rife with competitive challenges and infighting that could easily tear others apart. But it’s also a tale of pioneering women who blazed a trail in Acadiana, clearing the way for women all over the area to rise to the top of their professions.

For generations of Lafayette businesspeople—and shoppers—it’s impossible to utter the Abdalla name and not think of Evelina and Irma, two women who married into the now legendary family of retailers but worked hard to earn their spot in the family’s storied history. Irma married Edward after working with him in the shoe department of the Abdalla’s store in Opelousas. Evelina came into her life five years later, in 1938, when she married Herbert, the youngest of seven children born to Lebanese immigrant George Abdalla and his wife, Jasmine, who started the family business more than a century ago.

It was the beginning of a Ya Ya Sisterhood that remains strong today. “We were more like sisters than sisters-in-law,” Irma says.

“She helped me a whole lot,” says 86-year-old Evelina of working with Irma in the early days of the downtown store, which closed in 1999, sending both into retirement. Evelina and Herbert still spend a lot of time at the Oil Center store, though the loss of her eyesight is robbing her of some of the joy of the retail business. “We come in every day, but we normally don’t come in till after lunchtime,” says Evelina, who was rushing out of the store last Thursday for a pedicure. “I did love it. Buying merchandise and seeing it sell. It’s quite a thrill. It’s a nice game.”

Evelina and Irma can’t help but notice the irony of being named ‘trailblazers.” In the early 1940s, both of their husbands were drafted and both served in the Trailblazer unit of the Army. Faced with running the business alone, the women moved in together and the company’s operations went on without interruption—other than the obvious impact of the war. “We were so young that it didn’t matter,” Evelina says. “We were too young to worry about it. And it worked. We kept it going until they got back.”

As was customary during their day, both women initially thought they’d be schoolteachers. Evelina even taught for two years. But it was not meant to be. “When you marry an Abdalla, you work in the retail business,” she says.