Diversity of success will be Chaisson’s legacy

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 21, 2006

Accomplishments seem too many to list for former judge

Joel Chaisson just shakes his head and thinks for a moment.

&#8220Where did the drive to always succeed come from?” he responded. &#8220I’m not really sure. I think some people are just born that way. Maybe that was me.”

In whatever manner you analyze the accomplishments of one former Judge Joel Chaisson, it is hard not to see a lifetime of a man striving to achieve.

He played three sports in high school, became a lawyer, ran for state representative when he was just out of college, became an assistant district attorney, then a district judge, and now holds the powerful position as executive director of the Port of South Louisiana.


Chaisson smiles as he considers it all, and nods in agreement.

&#8220I’ve always loved a challenge, especially when I was a lawyer,” he recalled. &#8220I would take the cases no one else wanted. It’s just how I was.”

He especially remembers the reaction at age 25 when he decided to run for state representative.

&#8220I was asked the same question you just asked me. ‘Why the hŠ do you think you can do that?’ And I remember telling them that that I thought it was America, and anyone can run,” Chaisson said.

The success for Chaisson seems to have been one story after another during the past 71 years of his life.

Yet today, he sits in his rather luxurious office as the executive director of the port, earning a $176,000 annual salary without even considering the law practice he still conducts. And one thing is abundantly clear.

&#8220I don’t see myself retiring,” he remarked. &#8220I have too many friends that retired, and thenŠwell, you know what happens. Even if I don’t continue with the port when my contract is up in a little over a year, I’ll still practice law. My philosophy is to keep the motor wound up and going as long as you can.”

Born in LaFourche Parish with a dad who worked for Shell and a mother who stayed home with the kids, the only way he remembers his childhood is &#8220great. We knew everyone when we moved to Luling shortly after my dad got moved here with Shell. And I loved sports and was always playing.”

While his parents both came from large families, with 10 to 12 kids in each, Chaisson had two sisters, something that would drastically change when he married his own childhood sweetheart and later would go on to have nine children.

He was a prep star, playing baseball, basketball and football and making all-state as a pitcher at Hahnville High School, before heading to Southeastern Louisiana University on a football scholarship.

&#8220That didn’t last too long since I got on at Shell in the summer and made such good money, I decided to call it quits for football,” he said.

Later finishing school at Nicholls State, and getting his law degree at LSU, the young romance he began at the age of 15, with soon-to-be wife Bobbie at age 13, stuck together through all those years until they married when he was 20, and she was just about to turn 18. They recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.

Their first child, Joel Jr., is now 46, and gave Bobbie the chance to become the homemaker, something she would certainly pay her dues at as the couple eventually had a total of nine children in 15 years.

&#8220We both always wanted a large family. We just love the kids and the grandkids,” he said. &#8220We stopped after nine, but honestly, 12 would have been OK.”

Five of the children became attorneys like their dad, and the couple now has 17 grandkids.

&#8220All I remember is that it was a barrel of fun with all those kids,” he said. &#8220If there were any hard times from having so many, I don’t remember. All I think about are the good times.”

Driven to Professional Success

Meanwhile, Chaisson may have figured he needed to work extra hard to support all those children, because he admittedly &#8220always had the drive to succeed.”

Coming out of college with his degree, he went to work in private practice and found himself finding plenty of success, especially with some challenging cases.

One of those was the first civil jury trial in St. Charles Parish since reconstruction, involving a pregnant woman and her unborn child, as both were killed in a car/railroad accident.

&#8220Back then you had to really prove that a homemaker was worth something. That was my whole defense, and it worked,” he said.

The jury awarded $281,000 to the family in that case, standing as one of the early landmark cases in that arena, back in the time when partial fault was not allowed in such cases.

&#8220Either you had to prove 100 percent neglect on the part of the plaintiff, or you didn’t get anything,” he said. &#8220Those cases were a lot harder to win back then.”

He went on to handle over 10 railroad related cases, and became very successful with them. He also was involved in Indian tribe lawsuits, and still did criminal cases from murders to misdemeanors.

&#8220There is a lot of satisfaction helping a client succeed,” he said. &#8220But this profession can bring sorrow too. However, I’m still glad I became an attorney and have never regretted it.”

A Political Life

But just working as an attorney didn’t seem to be enough for Chaisson. Almost immediately after finishing college, he decided to run for state representative against incumbent Brian Lehman, and although losing in the first attempt, later came back to beat Lehman and three others just four years later.

&#8220I always wanted to try my hand at politics,” he recalled. &#8220I have always liked the public life, even in elementary school, then when I was class president for four years in high school. I just thought I could do better than some of the others, and I wanted to do something to help.”

He even served six months in the military as part of his ROTC obligation from college, making the rank of second lieutenant, although he never saw the military as a lifelong career.

In politics as state representative for District 56, Chaisson left some big marks as he led the way to form the St. Charles-St. John Bridge and Ferry Authority, following a campaign promise that helped the Hale Boggs Bridge get built over the Mississippi River at Destrehan. He also helped create the first free trade zone in Louisiana for Union Carbide, encouraging big industry to locate in Taft.

&#8220People hadn’t even heard of that kind of thing before,” he said. &#8220But now it’s the thing that helps big industry select our area, or Louisiana, to locate. That means a lot of top jobs for many people.”

From there he became judge for the 29th Judicial District Court, where he served for 15 years, all the while continuing his private law practice.

That led to being named counsel to the Port of South Louisiana in 2000, where he served for five years before the board asked him to become executive director.

This position, perhaps the most important job he has held in his impressive career, has put him over the entire operation of the Port of South Louisiana, which has a hand in millions of dollars of commerce for the River Region each year.

&#8220Our job is to promote trade, and bring about economic development for this area, to bring jobs and wealth here,” he said. &#8220I think we’ve done well, and the port is currently growing like never before.”

He sees a continued explosion in growth for the River Region and the port in the near future.

&#8220I think you’ll see a new ethanol plant come here within a few years. There is so much interest for the port right now, and that all means jobs coming to this area,” he explained. &#8220We’ve just got a great area here between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and it’s going to continue to bring big industry and more jobs here.”

The Balance of Life

With so much of his life being committed to his professional career, it begs the question of whether Chaisson balanced family and work as well as he would have liked.

After all, with nine children, there are plenty of young faces who would like to see you around, and all wanting their share of quality time.

&#8220I’ve learned with age that time is so fleeting, and I realize that more as I get older,” Chaisson said. &#8220And I look back and always regret some things I could have done differently. But I don’t think I neglected my family. We always went on family vacations, and we always sat down and had a Sunday meal together.”

He admits that through the years it has been hard to leave work at the office, but it is something he has tried his best to accomplish.

&#8220Sometimes I just couldn’t turn it off at home. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, thinking about all the things facing me the next day. But I really think that overall, I’ve handled it well,” he added. &#8220There certainly have been times I just wish I could walk away from it all, and be the beach comber. But overall, if I walked away tomorrow, I feel satisfied with what I’ve done both professionally and as a family man.”

Like many others in the River Region, Chaisson is Catholic in his faith and has tried to give back to others for the blessings he has received.

&#8220I have always believed you should give back what you can, both with money and with yourself,” he said. &#8220We’ve all been blessed with this great country and we need to share what things we have. I’d like to think I’ve been a generous person.”

&#8220Hopefully when I’m gone I will be remembered as a good, kind-hearted man, who tried to do his best,” he said.