Theriot told the south Louisiana story
After Roy R. Theriot died in April 1973, he was remembered as “a dedicated public servant, a one-man state chamber of commerce, and perhaps the foremost messiah of heritage preservation.”
He was also one of the best storytellers these parts have ever seen.
According to A. Otis Hebert Jr., historian and fellow Vermilion Parish native, “One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Acadian people, (Theriot) repeatedly said, ‘is their ability to laugh at themselves.’ No one better typified that trait than did Roy. He had an endless supply of stories that made him the most sought-after speaker in Louisiana.” (Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1973),
His storytelling helped make him a successful politician who was elected and re-elected during the decades when it was necessary for a candidate to be able to gather a crowd at the courthouse steps and keep them there with a stump speech that was both entertaining and politically pleasing.
He was mayor of Abbeville from 1954 to 1960, resigning when he was elected state comptroller during in the second Jimmie Davis administration. He held that office until his death, serving through the eight-year tenure of John McKeithen and the early part of Edwin Edwards’ first term.
Roy Raoul Theriot Sr. came from humble beginnings, and not only remembered them, but was proud of them. He was born June 26, 1914, in Erath to sharecropper Lastie Theriot and the former Emerite Barras. He graduated from Erath High School in 1932, did undergraduate work at UL‑Lafayette (at the time Southwestern Louisiana Institute) and earned his law degree from Tulane in 1939,
The law practice he began that year was interrupted by service during World War II. He came home from the war in 1946, and married Helen Roberts on June 7, 1947. They had three children: Barbara Ellen, Roy Jr., and Sam, who followed his dad into politics and was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1979 to 1996.
Roy organized the Abbeville Dairy Festival, first held in September 1949, and used it as a forum to put his town in the spotlight and to bring an impressive list of national figures to south Louisiana.
Harold Stassen, the perennial Republican presidential candidate, was so impressed with the festival that he arranged an invitation for the Abbeville High School band to perform at the inauguration of President Eisenhower in January 1957.
When Harry Truman came to the festival to campaign for JFK, someone in the crowd shouted, “Give ‘em hell. Harry.” Truman shot back: “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Other special guests included. ambassadors, congressmen, senators, and movie stars, as over the years the festival became a “must attend” event for any Louisiana politician who wanted the south Louisiana vote.
But the event that many people consider Roy’s grandest legacy was the Dejeuner de Bochier Acadien, which he began in 1960 as a treat for his office staff and, as Hebert writes, “grew to an enormous breakfast feast attended by hundreds and hundreds of persons from around the world.”
The event grew because of Theriot’s unbounded devotion to the Louisiana French culture, which Hebert suggests is “Roy’s primary claim to immortality.”
“No one was more devoted to the preservation of Acadian culture — its language, its cuisine. its folklore, its music,” according to Hebert.
That devotion and the many things he did to support it brought Theriot the Legion d’Honeur, the highest award presented to a civilian by the French government. But honors weren’t the reason he did what he did.
He did it because he loved the heritage and culture that had formed him and thought it was essential that they were kept alive. Some people who knew him also suspected that a little bit of it came about just because it was fun to do. He genuinely enjoyed putting on his soirees, and, of course, they gave him the opportunity to stand up and tell a good story.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.