Quiet Cajun history maker, Roach, dies

by Walter Pierce

The mechanical engineer sued his former employer in federal court three decades ago and in so doing won Cajuns federal discrimination protection.

Calvin J. Roach, a hero of the Cajun pride movement but a man largely unknown to most in Acadiana, even those of Cajun descent, has died. The World War II veteran, who spent a successful career as a mechanical engineer, sued his former employer, Dresser Industries, in federal court three decades ago and in so doing won Cajuns federal discrimination protection. Ten days shy of his 85th birthday, Roach passed away Wednesday night.

The Roach family was originally known by the French name Roche but adopted an Anglicized name - not uncommon in early 20th century Acadiana when mainstreaming the Cajun population was a focus of the political and educational culture. Calvin Roach was born in Rayne on April 5, 1925. He worked the cotton fields when not attending school, graduating from Rayne High in 1941. Following a stint as a gunner in the U.S. Navy from 1942-1946, Roach returned to Acadiana and obtained a mechanical engineering degree in 1951 from South Louisiana Institute, now UL.

His career brought him to Massachusetts, California and elsewhere as he rose to supervisory positions with several major American aerospace, energy and defense companies. While employed by Dresser in Alexandria in 1979 as the corporation's manager of industrial engineering, Roach was dispatched to south-central Pennsylvania to investigate the malfunction at the now-infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant, for which Dresser manufactured parts. Roach's report found that Dresser lacked proper quality control, a conclusion that inflamed his employer and led to Roach being branded a "whistle blower" and a "coonass." Soon after, Roach was fired by Dresser.

The latter slur prompted Roach to file suit against Dresser for ethnic discrimination. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, but not before U.S. District Court Judge Edwin Hunter ruled in 1980 that federal law protects Cajuns from discrimination.

CODOFIL President Warren A. Perrin says, "Today we honor Mr. Roach for his fortitude in protecting our cultural rights."

[Editor's Note: Historian Shane Bernard takes exception with our account of the impetus for Roach's lawsuit against Dresser Industries. Bernard reviewed transcripts from the Roach v. Dresser trial in 1980, and tells The Independent that the Three Mile Island anecdote recounted above, which we got from CODOFIL, is never mentioned in the trial. Rather, says Bernard, it was Dresser management's repeated use of "coonass" in front of Roach while investigating a theft at the company that prompted Roach's lawsuit.]