Former L’Observateur owner tells its history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 14, 2001


PHOTO: Joseph A. Lucia Sr., long an innovator in newspaper technology, keeps up with the trends as he works on his computer at home. The retired L’Observateur publisher celebrates his 87th birthday soon. (Staff Photo by Leonard Gray)

LAPLACE – Joseph A. Lucia Sr. guided the fortunes of L’Observateur through 30 turbulent years and he is so laid back even his grandchildren call him “Joe.” Nowadays, Lucia, who is nearly 87, enjoys his family, playing computer games and working on his memoires of 40 years of Louisiana journalism. Lucia was one of a partnership who purchased the weekly St. John the Baptist Parish newspaper in 1949 from founder Wallace Lasseigne and steered its course through the 1950s, 1960s and until his retirement in 1977 when he turned it over to his son, Joseph “Tardy” Lucia. Tardy Lucia, in turn, sold the newspaper to the current owners, Wick Communications, in 1985. Joe Lucia was born July 25, 1914, making him little more than 18 months younger than the newspaper itself. He was the son of Vincent and Josephine Milazzo Lucia of Lutcher and brother of Madeline Sexton and the late Concetta Lambert and Morris Lucia. Lucia graduated from Lutcher High School in 1931, and also worked as a reporter and sportswriter for the now-defunct River Parishes Journal. He completed his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1936 at Tulane University. While at Tulane, his fellow staffers on the school paper, The Hullaballo, included Hale and Lindy Claiborne (later Boggs) and Howard K. Smith. He also found time to earn a letter in baseball. In 1937, he found his first professional newspaper work in Mississippi as city editor of the McComb Daily Journal for $20 per week. However, it was a Tulane football game which got him his biggest job. “I was passing by the Times-Picayune office when I got a flat tire. I went in to use the phone and ran into managing editor George Healey, who asked me if I’d like to work for him,” Lucia recalled. Healey called Lucia’s boss in McComb and when he returned, he found a note which stated his “services were no longer required.” Lucia happily packed up his desk and left, joining the Times-Picayune staff on Oct. 11, 1937, for $30 a week. After two years as a general assignment reporter, he was assigned to cover the New Orleans Police Department and the criminal courts, where he continued to cover the hottest police stories for the next 27 years, while commuting from Lutcher each day. Lucia married Eula Vedros in September 1942, and the couple had three children: Joseph Jr., Patricia Lucia Austin and Ellis Lucia. Tardy received his lifelong nickname by missing his birth due date by three weeks. In 1945, Lucia founded The St. Jamesian, a quarterly pictorial magazine for St. James Parish. He even left the Times-Picayune for nine months to devote full time energy to the journalistic venture, but it only lasted for seven well-remembered issues. Lucia soon returned to the New Orleans-based daily. Lucia continued running into financial problems, with no health insurance and family illnesses, and this prompted him into the purchase of L’Observateur in 1949. Wallace Lasseigne, who founded the newspaper in 1913, hoped to pass on his work to his son, Larry. However, Larry Lasseigne died in action during World War II and the heartsick father decided to sell. The partners who bought the paper included printers Milton J. Landry and Arthur J. Louque, who were printers at the News-Examiner. The first issue under the new owners was dated June 30, 1949. This also marked the change from L’Observateur’s original format of half-French, half-English. By this time, L’Observateur consisted of four pages and had a circulation of 250 subscribers. The selling price was $6,250. “Louque had no editorial experience at all and needed an editor,” Lucia recalled. He also remembered telling his Times-Picayune bosses of his purchase and “they weren’t too pleased.” Lucia hoped the additional income would help his family’s finances. “It didn’t help that much,” he said with a smile. Some of his major stories covered during this period included a massive police scandal in 1957 when New Orleans police officers were discovered to have been involved in safe-cracking – a story which got national coverage. Another was the 1956 disappearance and apparent murder of Audrey Moate near LaPlace, a case still unsolved. A 1964 heart attack prompted another change in Lucia’s life. He departed his police beat in New Orleans to take on the challenge of becoming the new “Upriver Bureau” of the Times-Picayune. This, joined with the growing fortunes of L’Observateur, made his presence in the local media considerable. He departed New Orleans with several honors, including a “Number One” press card from the NOPD, named honorary citizen of New Orleans by Mayor Vic Schiro and honorary captain of the NOPD by Superintendent Joseph Giarusso. Among his major stories during this period were the Luling ferry disaster of 1976 and the murder in 1977 of the Rev. Alcide Clement, Sister Mary Patrick Herrington and housekeeper Leah Lejeune at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edgard. L’Observateur during this period also exercised considerable community influence. In 1962, the newspaper prompted the formation of Riverlands Country Club in LaPlace, the formation of volunteer fire departments in Edgard, Garyville, Reserve and LaPlace, public libraries on each side of the river and helped establish River Parishes Hospital and the Andouille Festival. In 1973, Lucia was named an honorary county agent by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service and an honorary state senator by Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris. Lucia retired in 1977 and in 1978, he was honored by the Louisiana Press Association “in recognition of years of dedication to improving newspaper journalism in Louisiana.” In 1982, he received the LPA’s lifetime achievement award. Lucia relocated L’Observateur from its original Reserve office to new quarters in July 1959. In November 1974, he built the newspaper’s present location. His contributions also included moving the paper from the old Linotype process to offset printing in 1967. “My gang didn’t like it a bit,” he recalled of the change to offset. Lucia even found time to take up golf in 1962 and, by 1970, was the LPA’s golf champion. He also founded the St. James Golf Association in 1977 and served as its president for 10 years. His other publications include a biography of Msgr. Jean M. Eyraud and Catholic Education in St. James Parish. Lucia also cited the professionalism and accomplishment of staff members to L’Observateur’s lustre, including Edith Vicknair, Darlene LaBranch, Janet Duhe, Roland Williams, Scotty Bourgeois and Hal Ledet, among others. The late Vicknair, he said, “was one of the finest reporters I’ve ever known.” Lucia and his wife of 58 years are now blessed with seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Son Tardy is now a contractor in South Carolina and son Ellis is a photographer for the Times-Picayune. He still reads the newspaper and commented, “It’s as good a newspaper as you’ll find anywhere.” And he still maintains an eagle eye on current events in the River Parishes. “Memories are great, arent they?” Lucia said with a broad smile. Joe Lucia has much to smile about. After all, his legacy surrounds us.