From educators to entrepreneurs to star athletes, this year's honorees have left an indelible mark on the local community, and not one of them - not even 82-year-old Marcelle Fortier Citron - is showing any signs of slowing down. Meet the 2008 class and the Trailblazers, Citron, Jerry Caillier and Chanda Rubin.
photo by Robin May
In a career filled with numerous tournament victories, appearances in the semifinals of the Australian Open and multiple French Open quarterfinals, Lafayette's Chanda Rubin will forever be remembered as engineering one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history. In the third round of the 1995 French Open, Rubin was down 0-5 in the deciding third set and faced triple match point against Jana Novotna. Rubin not only saved those match points, she saved six more before ultimately defeating Novotna 8-6.
Rubin's later rebound from multiple injuries is a deeper indicator of her focus, determination and spirit. After knee surgery in 2001, she was anguished to discover the pain was still there and she needed a second knee surgery. "I just couldn't believe I had to do it all over again," she remembers. "Once I decided to get that done and do the rehab all over again, winning my second tournament after coming back and beating Serena [Williams] and Lindsay Davenport, that's one of my proudest moments."
Her epic Novotna comeback and 2001 defeat of Serena Williams are intertwined with Rubin's status as a trailblazer in women's tennis. Following in the footsteps of pioneers Althea Gibson, Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison, Rubin inspired a whole new generation of African-American girls. "Venus [Williams] and Serena [Williams] asked me about that French Open match, saying, How did you do that?' I know they were watching me."
Now 32 years old and facing another knee surgery, Rubin's transitioning to life off the professional circuit. She's done some television commentary on the Tennis Channel, working alongside broadcasting vets and tennis greats John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova. She just finished building a house in River Ranch and intends to do further work with her Chanda Rubin Tennis and Scholarship Foundation, which has already provided nearly $300,000 in scholarships and education grants. And since she's been home more, people often stop her and tell her how much they followed her career and rooted for the local girl that made Carencro, Lafayette and all of Acadiana proud. "It's a nice feeling, and it's always good to be a positive force," says Rubin.
As Rubin contemplates the next phase of her life, she can draw inspiration from the examples of Jerry Caillier and Marcelle Fortier Citron, the other two recipients of this year's Women Who Mean Business Trailblazer Awards.
photo by Peter McGrew
Caillier has dedicated her life to helping local kids and students, making her mark in the Lafayette Parish School System. She started out in St. Landry Parish as a special education teacher and became an advocate for her pupils. She modified the curriculum after identifying students' strengths and weaknesses, and also became a placement coordinator. "You could pinpoint certain areas and work with classroom teachers about how things could be changed so the students could be successful," she says.
Working in the school system for more than three decades has allowed Caillier to see the long-term results of her mentoring. "I see some of my students who are now parents and have children in school. Some of them have really good jobs, and some have their own business. Some are plumbers or electricians, and I've hired them to work on my own house."
Caillier served in the school system for 33 years, moving up to the position of assistant superintendent before retiring in 1999. But her daily activities and current schedule hardly match the traditional notion of retirement; she's still a substitute teacher and substitute administrator for the Lafayette Parish School System. And her continued work in education dovetails with her long-standing commitment to community service and after-school programs. She serves on the board of Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults and is extremely active with the Diocese, volunteering in the CCD program for students in public schools.
"I like being involved with young people," she says. "That's an area that I think we're weakest in, and we don't have the number of activities we should to keep them involved." In her tireless efforts to make a difference on that front, Caillier's maintained a simple and effective philosophy. "We want to improve the community, decrease the amount of dropouts, and want things to be fun [for the kids] at the same time."
For Marcelle Fortier Citron, co-owner and vice president of Hub City Ford, improving the community means setting daily goals to accomplish. "My father set a goal for himself every day, and I've always done the same thing and tried to make that goal every day," says Citron. "It's kept me busy."
That's a huge understatement. The 82-year-old Citron's civic and business work stretches back to the early 1950s. Area hospitals and health care organizations have been the primary beneficiary of her altruistic nature, as Citron's donated her time and energy to Lafayette General, the Louisiana Hospital Association, the Charity Hospital dental clinic, Faith House, the Teche Action Clinic in Franklin, the King Memorial Clinic for the needy in New Iberia, Southwest Medical and Acadiana Handicapped Services, among others. She also trained all the Pink Ladies and Candy Stripers for Lafayette General in the early 1960s.
Marcelle Fortier Citron
photo by Robin May
"The goal for them is to always make patients feel good and help them, and many of those girls went into nursing, which is very gratifying," Citron says.
This trailblazer has juggled those outside responsibilities and contributions with her work at Hub City Ford - which just completed its large remodeling and expansion. "My father was with the Ford Motor Company his whole life, and I was born into the car business," she says. And she never had trouble fitting into the male-dominated automotive industry. "I used to make suggestions to my father about improvements, and he'd say, That's a great idea. Let's let the men think they thought of it,'" she says with a laugh.
She's also the founder of FoodNet, which now has representatives in 65 cities across the state. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, Citron helped organize shelters and made sure that more than 500,000 meals were served to hurricane victims. She formed a special bond with the people of Erath, focusing a lot of her attention there post-hurricane. "I take it hard that the folks affected by Rita didn't get so much attention," she says.
Her work with FoodNet sums up one of her spiritual beliefs. "Mother Theresa said to do small things with great love," she says. "Donating canned food doesn't seem like much, but when a lot of people do a small thing and donate canned food, we can feed a lot of families."
Women Who Mean Business**
Ruth Ann Menutis
As a teenager, the blonde, perky Ruth Ann Menutis was Lafayette's first Mello Joy Coffee Girl, performing promotional spots on KLFY's "Meet Your Neighbor." After the Judice High graduate married a Houstonian, she was whisked away to the Big Easy, where she became an entrepreneur. The ambitious small-town girl began her business career with retail clothing stores in the French Quarter and in Houston. Eventually, she launched the Grove Natural Snack company, growing to 100 locations at 18 major airports across the U.S. After 27 years in the business, she sold the company and became involved in 1994 with another airport-based enterprise - Hudson News. Today, Menutis is a partner with Hudson in its news, gifts and Euro Cafés divisions in six of its Northeast airports, including LaGuardia, Newark and Boston.
Ruth Ann Menutis
photo by Robin May
For the last 35 years, Menutis has also been a real estate mogul, taking 15 to 20 French Quarter properties in New Orleans and transforming them into profitable office buildings. Eventually, she decided to return to Acadiana in 1999 to invest in real estate. Her timing was fortuitous - shortly after acquiring acreage on South College Drive, Hurricane Katrina hit, destroying most of her New Orleans investment properties. So Menutis decided to turn her attention to developments in Lafayette.
After the hurricane, she bought a nearly-vacant building in the Oil Center and converted it into a sought-after office development, the Travis Technology Center. The center now has a waiting list of potential tenants. Menutis and her son, Dimitri, are in the process of building a seven-condo West Indies-style office complex called The Morgen on her 5-acre tract at 1245 South College Road. Two acres will be dedicated to the 1245 Lofts, a residential warehouse concept with 24 condos in the $200,000 price range.
Recently, Menutis and her son acquired the rights to Raising Cane's, the popular chicken finger franchise, for airports. The first location opened in San Antonio at the beginning of the year, with more to follow. Menutis' next project involves converting inherited property on Duhon Road to a Tuscany-style village a year or so down the road.
Menutis may be widely known for her success in business, but this entrepreneur says her greatest accomplishment was raising her children, Dimitri, Marika and Jamie, all of whom have worked with her businesses in some capacity. Sadly, Marika died right before Hurricane Katrina. Menutis plans to carry out her memory by establishing a Lafayette chapter of The Arc, a charity that supports children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. - Lisa Hanchey
photo by Robin May
Julie Calzone's business started after an unexpected event - she was fired. With only $5,000 in the bank, she thought that she had absolutely no options. Fortunately, she sought advice from a trusted colleague, Ronnie Foret, who was starting a bank at the time. "He said, You should start a business. You should name it after yourself. And, I'm your first client.'"
On April 15, 1983, Calzone launched her own public relations firm, Calzone & Associates. Through word of mouth, Calzone acquired clients in a variety of fields, from banking to horse racing. She opened offices in Atlanta, Colorado and New Orleans, eventually consolidating them in Lafayette.
Still, Calzone believes she has room to grow before hitting the high point of her career. "I don't think I've reached it yet," she says, explaining that she surrounds herself with young people to keep her perspective fresh. Her attitude is upbeat, even when faced with obstacles. "I've made mistakes, and I've tried to use every one of them as a learning experience," she says.
Over the years, Calzone has acquired a host of admirers. "She is, to me, the ultimate survivor," says fellow ad executive turned businesswoman Kiki Frayard, owner of kiki in River Ranch. "And, when the big flood comes, I want her in my boat, because she will paddle harder than anyone I know."
Frayard continues, "Julie is generous to a fault. She is tenacious, which means she works hard for her clients, and she is fearless, which means she doesn't understand the concept of can't. I know she has her detractors, but ultimately, she is still standing. She has the entrepreneurial gene, which keeps her young at heart and on the cutting edge." Calzone's business smarts are critical to her success, but her "dedication to the city" is what gives her staying power, Frayard says.
"Successful people fail a lot," says Calzone. "The difference between people who have staying power and don't is that the ones when they fail, it doesn't destroy them. It makes them stronger, and it's a learning experience. And, if you are open to learn, and you are open to change, you can stay around a long time."
Besides running her own business, Calzone is also an inventor. The avid horsewoman, who competes, and breeds dressage horses, hunters/jumpers and thoroughbreds, combined her expertise with two partners in Louisville, Ky., Tom and Carolyn Stinnett, to design the Equine Motorcoach. Catering to active horse show participants, the coach is the first motorized RV and all-in-one horse transporter. The Equine Motorcoach has just been dubbed the official horse transport vehicle for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. - Lisa Hanchey
photo by Terri Fensel
Since Mary Neiheisel moved to Lafayette from south Texas 41 years ago, she's made it her life's work to be involved with not just her patients but also her community.
As a professor with UL Lafayette's College of Nursing, in 1996 she became a nurse practitioner and later became the college's first director of the nurse practitioner track. "Nurse practitioners are a real boon to under-served people," Neiheisel says, "particularly in rural areas, who might not need extensive work-up. If they have basic problems they can see a nurse practitioner, get their prescription filled, and get well."
Neiheisel was named the university's first distinguished professor from the College of Nursing and was the first fellow to be named from Louisiana to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. She established the Richard Neiheisel Endowed Scholarship given to a nursing graduate student, in honor of her late husband, who was a professor of history at UL.
When Neiheisel isn't teaching, she runs her own private practice at Faith House, a crisis shelter for women and children. "There's a real need there," she says. "There are people [at Faith House] who haven't seen a nurse in years. They need so much, and there's so much to be done there."
In addition to her professional accomplishments, Neiheisel's list of community involvement is just as impressive - including work with the Woman's Foundation, PASA, VITA, Camp Bon Coeur, the Lafayette Public Library Foundation, the Evangeline Area Boy Scouts of America Council, Junior Leadership of Lafayette, Shots for Tots, the American Heart Association, and the Rotary Club.
That level of commitment may take its toll on some people, but not Mary Neiheisel, who has no intentions of slowing down. "I hope to continue my community work," she adds. "I really enjoy my community service."
photo by Robin May
It's a typical assumption that Catherine Abdalla married into the clothing business, but the truth is fashion was a part of her life long before she met her husband-to-be, Brother Abadalla, in the late 1960s. Catherine was designing and sewing her own clothes at an early age, which certainly may have been part of her attraction to the most successful clothing retailing family in Lafayette's history.
Still, she wasted no time getting a foot in the door.
While in high school and dating Brother, she worked as a gift wrapper at the downtown Abdalla's store and went on to earn a degree in fashion merchandising with an emphasis in business from UL Lafayette (then USL).
Fast forward to 2008, and Catherine's a major reason the family-owned clothing and accessory business is still thriving after more than 100 years of intense competition not only from brick and mortar stores but also from the latest craze in online shopping. Brother and Catherine also refused to let a heated family legal battle kill their entrepreneurial spirit, and their Brother's on the Boulevard store continues to attract the most fashion-forward women and men in Acadiana - offering top designer jean lines and clothing and accessory brands like Brighton, Michael Kors, BCBG, Tommy Bahama and Hugo Boss. "The way we're trying to [market ourselves] is Brother's is all you need," Catherine says.
"She's probably one of the hardest working women around," Party Central owner Frank Gerami says of his longtime friend. "They've adjusted their look; they've moved with the times, responding to changes. They have not been hard-headed."
A family business can certainly have its benefits. "I have every confidence in Brother's ability, but I had a lot of good advice in my mother in law [Irma] and my sister in law, [Carolyn]," says Catherine. "I can still, to this day, call his mother, his sister for advice."
At 56, Catherine Abdalla is keeping her finger on the pulse of the fashion scene and has no plans to back down any time soon. She's wearing numerous hats, serving as the buyer and merchandising manager for the women's side of the store, doing clerical work in the office, and also handling the books for the family-owned Boulevard shopping center that houses Brother's. "Based on the way the history is in the family, we'll probably do this till we die," Catherine says.
Judge Marilyn Castle
photo by Terri Fensel
Judge Marilyn Castle
Nancy Kimbrough made it crystal clear to her three daughters, all of whom grew up in Opelousas in the '60s, that no glass ceiling would ever deter their career choices. So it's no surprise that her middle daughter, Marilyn, knew by junior high school that she'd be a lawyer. Marilyn recalls as an 8-year-old telling her mother that she wanted to be a ballerina. "That would be a waste of your wonderful mind," she recalls her mother saying. "She made us feel like we could do anything we wanted to do - and that was not at all traditional in the '60s."
After finishing high school in three years and earning a degree in political science just three years later, Marilyn went to LSU law school and successfully ran for 15th Judicial District judge in 1998. Judge Marilyn Castle had no opposition her second time around, and the 55-year-old faces no opposition this year.
Castle's docket includes civil and criminal cases in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes, a diverse workload that in recent times had her presiding over high profile cases like former Councilman Chris Williams' writing on his council desk and the more recent case that resulted in 23-year-old Brian Verret's four year prison sentence for the 2006 deaths of four people in an apparent street-racing accident. No one who walks into Castle's courtroom is fooled by the small frame of the attractive judge who sits before them: she has a reputation for being tough. Sentencing is the most difficult part of her job, Castle says, noting that she doesn't allow publicity and public sentiment to factor into any of her decisions. "I really try not to read or listen [to stories on her cases]," she says.
"Judge Castle certainly follows the law," says 15th JDC Chief Judge Glenn Everett, who met Castle as an undergrad at LSU. "She has great courage and is able to make hard decisions thoughtfully."
Castle says the job has been more challenging - and more rewarding - than she'd ever imagined, noting it was her more than two decades of litigation work that led her to seek a seat on the bench 10 years ago. "With good judges, even if you don't prevail, you feel like you've had your day in court," she says. "But judges that are not impartial really frustrate lawyers. Judges that don't pay attention really frustrate us. When you see how much good a judge that works hard can do, you want to do it."
photo by Terri Fensel
Woman as mosaic. That's the way Valerie Keller envisions her role at Acadiana Outreach. The CEO of the nonprofit to help the homeless get back on their feet approaches her job as a multi-faceted work of art. She brings together people from the business community, government, education, and the nonprofit world to help solve or prevent social problems. "My role is that I can see the potential, and I'm willing to have the conversation," she says. "At the end of the day, when my work is finished, I want everybody to step back and see the creative community setting - everybody had a part of that, everybody has ownership."
Keller works in a field that is not typically thought of as being in the business sector. Acadiana Outreach, however, employs more than 50 people, touching the lives of thousands while providing positive community benefits. "I see myself as operating within the nonprofit arena as a business person with a business mind-set, leveraging government funds and pulling people together. That goes to the core of what I believe society is going toward - the fourth sector. It's a kind of a hybrid of nonprofits and for-profits."
Keller has been with Acadiana Outreach for over a decade and has led the organization for the past six years. Palates and Paté, a fund raiser and art auction bringing together the community's artists and chefs, has been a highly successful event for nine years. Tossed and Found, a social enterprise where UL art and architecture students work with Outreach clients to build furniture and artworks out of discarded objects, is a Keller brainchild. The latest project, a Smart Growth housing development carved out of a warehouse on Olivier Street, adjacent to the Outreach Center, just received federal grant money for planning and design.
Uniting the physical, financial and human resources to realize these ambitious projects takes out-of-the-box creative thinking. Keller operates as the catalyst that helps people join forces. "The mosaic is a very physical representation of my role. If I can pull the pieces together to make something beautiful" she says, "we all benefit as a community."
photo by Terri Fensel
Renée Roberts spent her childhood in a multitude of towns, in stints of 18 months, as a Navy brat. Her mother developed a routine to give her children a sense of stability by involving them in community arts programs every time they made a new home. "Those free programs became a focus for me when I came to Lafayette," Roberts says. "It was a personal goal to make sure that my children had opportunities in the arts available to them on a regular basis. I went from being a volunteer for the Arts Council, doing that with my children in mind, to doing it with everyone's children in mind."
Since 1986, Roberts has been behind the scenes, ensuring that her goal of introducing arts to children through the educational system touches every child in the eight parishes served by the Acadiana Arts Council. She is the director of education at the arts council, and has developed high profile programs such as Bright New Worlds, CitySmarts Art & Science Camp, PACE, Touring Arts in School and On the Road, as well as securing arts grants and professional development workshops for teachers.
Collaborations with the Lafayette Parish School System and UL Lafayette led to a Kennedy Center Partners in Education team consisting of Roberts, Sandy Labry and Hector Lasalla. Together since 1993, and winning a Governor's Arts Award for outstanding contribution to arts education along the way, the team has recently brought the weight of the Kennedy Center's experience to Louisiana to help develop a state-wide arts in education curriculum, based on the program they created in Lafayette.
"Business," says Roberts, "is a serious professional enterprise. [But] the majority of what I do I love so much and it's so much fun that it's hard to consider it like that. When children don't have this opportunity it is very serious. It's such a loss when they don't have art as a part of their lives on a regular basis." For 22 years, Robert has been making sure children do have the opportunity to have their lives enriched by the arts. "Here I am, and I still feel the same way about it, and now I'm working with my grandson in the school system, with that same thought in my head. It's a passion for community connections with the arts as a focus. My parents were very hands-on. If we asked my dad to fly a kite, first we had to make the kite. I think all children should have their hands in things like that."
photo by Terri Fensel
When former state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Mary Washington first became acquainted with Melinda Mangham through Democratic Party functions, she was surprised to learn Mangham was a public school teacher. Washington says she knew that Mangham could easily be making make more money in the private sector or the political arena.
"After I got to know her," Washington says, "I understood. She's absolutely passionate about kids doing well and about Louisiana children being able to compete nationally and removing that kind of stigma that unfortunately we have."
Mangham has been equally passionate working on behalf of teachers, ensuring they are recognized for their vital public service. As a legislative liaison, lobbyist and board member of the Louisiana Association of Educators' teacher union, Mangham was instrumental in helping realize a long-standing goal: bringing Louisiana's teacher salaries up to the southern regional average. This year, she worked diligently on a bill that will help minimize teachers' superfluous paperwork.
Entering her 18th year as an English teacher for gifted students at Lafayette High, Mangham also is a prime advocate on behalf of her students. She's developed a reputation as somewhat of a headhunter, with a wealth of connections at universities across the country, working for scholarships and financial aid on behalf of all of Lafayette High's seniors. Each year, those scholarships consistently total more than $15 million. Mangham is just as driven in the classroom. She is a three-time Coca-Cola educator of the year, two-time White House distinguished teacher and a former LAE state teacher of the year. Despite all the accolades, Mangham remains grounded. "It's been an unbelievable privilege," she says. "For me, I learn something new every day. I teach such incredible young people that I'm the one that gains. There's just no profession like it."
photo by Robin May
Four years ago, Michelle MacFadyen and her husband J.P. were looking for a change of lifestyle. The two had been living in Colorado Springs while J.P. worked as an engineer for an international computer-manufacturing firm; Michelle had already given up her job as an engineer at NASA to care for her young children. But J.P. was tiring of the steady travel in his corporate job and Michelle, a native of Eunice, longed to return home to south Louisiana.
"We wanted to have our own business, something family-run" Michelle says. "We wanted a total change, to do something down to earth, basic, that everybody's going to want."
They found their calling at the local bakery. Great Harvest Bread Co., a Montana-based chain specializing in fresh-made whole grain breads and sweets, began advertising franchise opportunities. Michelle and J.P. were already loyal customers of Great Harvest, which has few stores outside of the Rocky Mountain area. The couple was also drawn to the company's trademarked "freedom franchise" agreements, which encourage franchisees to put their own unique stamp on new stores.
"It's almost better described as a co-op," Michelle says. "The advantages of that is the freedom to be a part of our community and be unique, tap into our Acadian culture but also take advantage of the 30 years of experience that the franchise has."
Since opening in October 2005, Great Harvest of Acadiana has been winning over customers with its made-from-scratch daily bread and friendly customer service. Working as a team, Michelle handles the front-of-house while J.P. concentrates on the production end. In addition to co-owning the business, Michelle is working overtime as a mom and teacher (she spends mornings home-schooling her three children). She's also made it a point to ensure Great Harvest gives back to the community; the company donates baked goods to St. Joseph Diner every week.
"The most fulfilling part of my work is being able to give our bread to people who need it the most," Michelle says. "That's the fun part because it always comes back."