Bill Minor, Thursday, May 6, 1999

AUTHOR: MINOR

Bill Minor, Thursday, May 6, 1999

BOGALUSA, La. – Republicans were no doubt heaving a sigh of relief Sunday after learning that they won’t have to bear the burden once more of ex-Klansman David Duke vaulting onto the national media stage waving the GOP banner as a contender for a seat in Congress.

Duke, race-baiting once more, was eliminated in Saturday’s voting to elect a successor to Rep. Bob Livingston, the would-have-been House Speaker, in Louisiana’s First Congressional District.

But not by a whole lot.

Dave Treen, the solid, grey-maned Republican former governor from Metairie who held the seat back in the 1970’s, led the 9-candidate open primary, narrowly over state Rep. David Vitter, also a Republican from Metairie, into the May 29 runoff. Duke, again a surprise to forecasters, came in a strong third.

It happened that I was back here in the hometown of my youth for the reunion of my 1939 Bogalusa High graduating class when the nationally-watched Louisiana congressional voting was taking place.

I couldn’t resist mixing my interest in the political drama taking place around me with the fun of visiting with onetime classmates.

Washington Parish, in which the metropolis of Bogalusa is located, was one of the five parishes in the First District voting, and, not surprisingly, Duke ran well here.

This area evidently still bears racial scars from being a civil rights target in the mid-1960s, and Duke’s racially inflammatory rhetoric draws a substantial following. There’s an odd mix here, however: A strong labor union from the town’s longtime chief employer, the Gaylord paper mill on one hand, and a growing black population on the other.

To review quickly how it was that a special election to fill the First District congressional seat was necessary: Livingston, who last November was picked by the Republican majority in the House to succeed the controversial Speaker Newt Gingrich, was suddenly brought down before taking over the speakership by admitting his own marital infidelities at a time President Clinton’s sexual scandal was raging.

The 70-year-old Treen had been ousted as governor 15 years ago by Edwin Edwards, and is making his first attempt at a political comeback, with the blessing of both Livingston and incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Foster.

Vitter, regarded as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, is junior to Treen by 23 years, a factor he is expected to emphasize.

What is fascinating about the Louisiana First race is the huge amount of their own money several candidates poured into their campaigns. Dr. Monica Monica (How ’bout that moniker?) pumped in a whopping $997,000 of her own money and still finished fourth. Vitter had self-financed $538,000 of his race.

Enough of the political sideshow, and on to the main event of the ’39 BHS grads reuniting: The two-day event brought back about 35 out of our 131 classmates and regrets from a number of others. Even two instructors (both quite young for teachers back then) showed up.

In many ways, our high school graduating class was remarkable. Perhaps every high school class believes theirs is special, but ours really was.

To begin with, we were the children of the Great Depression. We knew what it meant to be poor, some of us more than others.

As Gerald Berenson, now an internationally noted cardiologist, recalled, he was “rich compared to most of you” because his father ran the town’s biggest dry goods store and his mother could pick up him and several fellow students in the family car and ride them to school.

Most of us who lived inside the town either walked or rode our bicycle (I was one of those), and some in outlying areas were able to ride the school bus. Having your own car was unheard of, except for a few who had some kind of a rattle-trap set of wheels.

Though all of us had know the hardships of Depression (even Berenson’s father sometimes was paid off in eggs from somebody’s yard, or freshly killed chickens) more in our class than any Bogalusa class before somehow went off either to junior college (a number went to Pearl River Junior College) or to college.

Of course most of us who got to college did it only because of a scholarship and one or more jobs on, or off, campus.

All the while, it must be remembered, this nation was on the brink of becoming caught up in a world war, though we did not know it when we happily marched up to get our diplomas. In a few months, some who stayed home would be enlisting. When Pearl Harbor came December 7, 1941, more joined or were called up. Those in college anxiously hoped to get a degree before we would go on active military duty.

Few males (and some females as well) in the class would wind up not fighting on some war front. Remarkably, only a handful are known to have been killed.

What else was special about Bogalusa High of 1939 was the exceptional group of teachers we had. Remember, Bogalusa, La., was not noted as an oasis in an otherwise cultural desert but we were phenomenally blessed with especially talented teachers in a variety of subjects ranging all the way from Latin to chemistry.

One, Miss Eleanor Ott, my junior and senior year English teacher, made such a lasting impact on my life as to set my entire career track in journalism.

So unusual was she that she personally subscribed to newspapers from several parts of the country, and dished out reading assignments to those of us who wrote news essays in a Louisiana-Mississippi Biggest News of the Week competition.

She was as tough as any city editor of a daily newspaper in demanding tight writing and accurate detail in our essays, and it paid off. We won the bi-state competition two years hands-down.

Miss Ott started me writing, and I can’t quit until a greater power signs off my final “30.”

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.