For this diverse crew, going to work means upholding decades of tradition.
In today's tech boom and its accompanying Blackberries, Power Point presentations and wireless connections, we're always a mouse click away from the latest breathless report about how technology is making our lives faster and more efficient. The classifieds trumpet careers in software design, system analysis and Internet marketing. The subliminal message is always the same ' Faster! Faster! Faster!
Thankfully, Acadiana knows how to balance that need for speed. Every leap forward like the Lite Center and Lafayette Utilities System's fiber initiative doesn't change our appreciation for a slow-brewed cup of coffee, a long lunch on Friday or a leisurely stroll in Girard Park. And for these Acadiana workers, doing their job well means helping you remember the charms of the pre-e-mail era.
Nelson Sonnier sits on a small wooden stool, his black Velcro shoes only partly reaching the elevator's tiled floor. Dressed in his standard blue polo shirt and jeans, with his cell phone and ring of keys attached to his belt, Sonnier peers out of the elevator across the hall of the Acadia Parish Courthouse and smiles as Robin, a blonde woman in khaki pants who works in the clerk's office, steps into the elevator beside him.
"Hey, how's it going?" she asks with a smile.
"Good," Sonnier says, shutting the elevator's main doors and then its gold folding gate.
"Second floor?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer.
Robin nods and Sonnier pushes down on a small lever in front of him. Shortly after the old antique Westinghouse elevator ' installed in the courthouse in 1950 ' begins its slow smooth ascent, Sonnier releases the lever and the elevator glides to a perfect stop at the second floor.
He gets up, pulls back the gate and pushes down on a metal bar attached to the elevator's main doors, sliding them open.
"Thanks for the ride," Robin says as she steps out into the second floor hall.
"You're welcome, ma'am," Sonnier replies. "I'll send you the bill."
Over the past 27 years, Sonnier has performed this task countless times. A slim man no taller than 5 feet 6 inches tall, with thinning hair and a grey mustache, he is probably the most recognizable face in the courthouse.
Leaning back on his stool in the elevator, a buzz goes off and Sonnier looks at the panel of numbers in front of him. The tab for "U 1" lights up, telling him that someone is buzzing from the first floor to go up.
He pulls back on the lever and the elevator hums back into motion.
"This is a great job," he says. "You see all kinds of things. You get to know a lot of people."
As chief custodian of the courthouse, the 60-year-old Sonnier's duties include much more than serving as the building's chief elevator operator. Partly because it's such a pleasant job, he and the other four custodians trade off working the elevator in shifts. It affords them a good respite from their other labor-intensive chores, and lets them catch up on all the courthouse talk and political gossip.
Already well acquainted with where everyone works, Sonnier rarely bothers to ask courthouse regulars what floor they're going to.
"He's kind of a landmark here," says Katry Martin, secretary of the Acadia Parish Police Jury. "He keeps this old building unbelievably operational. He's a great guy, a real jewel for the parish as an individual and as an employee."
Martin says that the old manual elevator ' and elevator operator ' will remain at the courthouse for the foreseeable future, partly because putting in a larger, more modern automated elevator would require a major renovation. Besides, he adds, the people that frequent this courthouse are used to it being this way.
"I guess if we ended up with an automated elevator, they'd be puzzled," he says. "This just seems to be the natural thing at this courthouse, always has been and I guess they always expect that it will be. It's just kind of the norm for us."
Whenever newcomers to the courthouse walk up to the elevator, Sonnier occasionally gets strange looks.
"Some of them will look at me," Sonnier notes, "and say, 'Are you not getting out?'"
He cracks a smile. "I say, 'Well no, I'm your chauffeur.'" ' Nathan Stubbs
Mitch Veronie has your neighbor's back door key. He might have your mother-in-law's as well. If he has your key, he knows what's in your refrigerator and could probably posit what you'll need for the weekend when company comes for dinner. No need for alarm. The guy pacing the neighborhood at five in the morning is just plying his wholesome trade ' he's the milkman.
Before refrigeration, milk delivery was a daily necessity. By the mid-1950s, home refrigerators were the norm, but many households hung onto the habit of having milk delivered to their door. Guth Dairy in Lake Charles and Vermilion Creamery in Abbeville were two dairies with country routes. Borden's was a milk processing plant rather than a local dairy but started buying up smaller companies and adding on their delivery routes.
"It was 1984. I was partly unemployed, partly farming, and not making a living at either one," Veronie says. His sister in Erath had her milk delivered. One morning, her delivery man told her Borden's was looking for someone to cover a route, and she promptly offered up her brother. A week later, the 30-year-old Veronie donned the familiar blue uniform, squared up his cap and drove off toward Crowley in the big yellow and white Borden's truck.
"Back then, you were running from 5 in the morning to sometimes 10 o'clock at night. Country people lived and worked on the farm, they didn't go to town. We'd go house-to-house, averaging 300-400 customers per day," Veronie says.
About the time Veronie signed on with Borden's, it became the only delivery game in town. Modernization arrived with the shift to plastic jugs, but while the cheery rattle of a rack of glass bottles settling on the stoop has been silenced, the early morning arrival of milk continues.
Milkmen have keys to customers' doors and deliver straight to the refrigerator. "When I got off of a retail route at 20 years, I had people I had never met face to face but had keys to their house," he says. Veronie is off the road temporarily, recovering from a heart attack. He's anxious to go back to work, he says, because he misses what he loves most about his job ' getting to know his customers. For the most part, home delivery includes an interaction with families. "When you deliver milk you sit down and you shoot the bull and you drink coffee and you rock the baby. It's just like family you'd be visiting."
As big chain stores with lower prices began to eat away at home-delivered milk, Borden's expanded its original model. Veronie says he always delivered juice, eggs and bread, but the list of groceries goes on. "We sell soda water ' that's the Coca-Cola products ' we sell Bunny bread, sausage, Savoie smoked sausage, bacon, beef patties, hamburger patties ' a bigger assortment of items every year. We try to compete with the local grocer to where we can keep as many customers out of the store as possible."
Veronie has a vested interest in keeping his customers ' his paycheck is based on sales. And he says when you compare the cost of locally bought groceries with his prices, and then realize that he's delivering them straight to your refrigerator, he's actually beating the competition.
Traffic, Veronie says with a sigh, has gotten much worse. But some things never change. Vanilla always has been the most popular ice-cream flavor. Kids still dance when he stocks the freezer with fudgesicles. The uniform is the same one he donned 23 years ago. But mostly, it's all about his customers. "You know more about their life than you do about yours," he says. "They gonna tell you the good things and the bad things. Most of the time you're going to know what they need food-wise. The milkman knows what you need better than the people themselves. We're just one big happy family." ' Mary Tutwiler
FILL 'ER UP
Talking with him in the office of his Johnston Street gas station, it's hard to believe how Tally Fournet got his nickname. The smiling, self-proclaimed eternal optimist ' and one hardworking businessman ' is one of 10 children, the middle of seven boys, born to the late Jean Jacque and Aurore Fournet. In his early years, little Howard Louis was called Retaliation, then Retal, later "softened" to Tally, a much better fit for the happy-go-lucky demeanor of this 80-year-old. "My older brothers, and my older sister, used to abuse me," Fournet recalls with a laugh. "And my mom said sooner or later I'd always get even with them."
For the past 55 years in Lafayette, Tally Fournet's name has been synonymous with unparalleled customer service. On Feb. 19 of this year, his full-service Johnston Street gas station, Fournet's Winnwood Chevron, celebrated its golden anniversary. Joined in 1986 by his son, Brian, and later grandson, Brian II, Tally has cut back his hours. But his station, like the bustling Johnston Street thoroughfare it serves, shows no signs of slowing down. One of only a handful of full-service stations left in the city and likely the oldest, Fournet's Chevron's self- and full-service aisles see a steady stream of customers Monday through Saturday.
For as long as people drive vehicles fueled by gasoline, Tally says Fournet's Chevron will be in business. The full-service is most often used by women, a number of them widows, and the staff is especially busy in inclement weather. "On a cold, rainy day in February, sometimes my full service will outsell my self-serve," Tally says.
And while Tally only spends his mornings there these days, the handoff of afternoons to his son appears to have been a smooth transition. "He trusts me, and I trust him," says Tally, sitting in his office, a converted restroom located just behind the station lobby. "It's a joy."
Outside at the station, Brian says his father is still highly involved in the business and really shines one-on-one with customers. "A lot of times I just need a perspective on how to approach the customer," Brian says, pointing to an SUV that's only worth $7,000 but needs $2,000 worth of work.
"He oversees everything." In addition to fuel sales, the station does a good amount of mechanical and maintenance work ' starters, alternators, cooling systems, belts, hoses, tires, oil changes ' as well as state vehicle inspections.
Notes Tally, "If we can't do it, we point you in the right direction."
Fournet's Chevron originally doubled as a training school for Gulf Oil, and Tally, who had been leasing a spot for his Fournet's Super Service on Johnston Street closer to the university, was hired to manage it in January 1957. After only a couple of years, however, the office shut down, and another employee from New Orleans who had seniority over Tally was asked to keep it going. The New Orleanian decided to return home, and Tally quickly seized the opportunity, initially leasing the station from 1959 to 1973 ' at which time he purchased it.
"He loves everybody," says longtime customer and friend Lucille Sellers, who grew up across the gravel road (Johnston Street) from the Fournet family home ' which sat on the property that now houses Albertsons. Though she's quite adept at pumping her own gasoline, Sellers always counts on an optimistic smile, deep voice and a big bear hug from Tally. "He's a strong man," she says.
When Chevron and Gulf merged in the mid-1980s, Tally Fournet happily changed over to the Chevron brand. "I'll never forget it," he says. "They put me some new tanks." ' Leslie Turk
FULL OF BULL
Bullfrogs have taken over Dozier Lester's back yard, but he doesn't mind. He's even encouraging them. "It's a back yard adventure," he says with a laugh. He's reluctant though to call his operation a job, or even a hobby. "It's an avocation," he says.
In 1973, his 10-year-old son ' Dozier III ' convinced him to purchase six bullfrogs from a newspaper ad for Texas Frog Farms. The company has long since ceased to exist, but Lester has stuck with it. "I'm still trying," he says, "and I'm still losing money every year."
Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, the 78-year-old Lester surveys his back yard in Duson. When he speaks, his delta drawl sounds as if he never left northwest Mississippi, even though the oil fields brought him to Lafayette in 1955. In 1983, he left the oil field for a third and final time. "I haven't been gainfully employed since then," he says.
His yard is peppered with mud crawfish chimneys baked hard by the sun and rambling structures Lester built to house his frogs. Two above-ground ponds on the edge of his property are set aside for breeding. Three giant round white tanks filled with water and covered in a thin film of duckweed are home to some 2,000 tadpoles. There are 1,000 frogs in six different covered pens, with another three pens under construction to house even more frogs. "No two are alike," he says, "just like snowflakes. I don't care how many you've got."
In a smaller area under a roof behind his shed, Lester raises small bullfrogs, who have just graduated from the tadpole stage, where he trains them to eat. Instinctively, frogs will only eat things that move and will spit out anything that doesn't move. A slow moving conveyer belt, built by Lester and suspended above the small pen, drops inert hydrolyzed fish pellets from above. Lester has made all of his frog-raising equipment. He's had no other choice. "They don't make this stuff," he says.
Through his Web site, www.bullfrogs-louisiana.com, Lester sells his frogs at all stages of development ' from recently hatched tadpoles to adult frogs that can run $35 a piece ' and ships them all over the world. He's cornered the market on bullfrogs, at least in Louisiana, and he's defined five distinct markets: educational, research, entertainment, food and international sales.
Lester spends at least a couple hours every day with his frogs. "In the wintertime it's not too challenging because frogs are warm-blooded. When the temperature goes down, they don't do anything. In the summer time it's somewhat interesting because that's when you have them laying eggs and the tadpoles are metamorphosing and such as that."
And with mating season and the summer not far off, Lester's looking for part-time help this summer. Those who don't like bullfrogs need not apply. And for those who enjoy working with frogs, the work had better be reward enough, just as it must be for Lester. "I don't pay much," he says, "and the work's irregular." ' R. Reese Fuller