What to get the man who’s seen it all

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 22, 2010

By David Vitrano


NORCO – Longtime Norco resident Norman Waguespack turned 99 this week, and he celebrated this milestone as he has so many of the other milestones throughout his long life — surrounded by family.

A reunion last weekend doubled as a birthday party for the man the Waguespack family lovingly knows as “Wag.”

As generation after generation greeted him, Waguespack sometimes spoke not only their name but their birthday as well. Because he lost much of his vision years ago, he has little use for televisions. And when he is not listening to his radio he spends much of his time going over the birthdays of every member of the family, sometimes throwing in a multiplication table or two just for variety’s sake. The device has served him well as his mind remains exceptionally sharp for someone nearing the century mark.

But before his vision began to dim, Waguespack’s eyes saw much over the decades, many of which were spent in the town created by the New Orleans Refining Company.

By the time his parents, Louis and Delphine, moved the family to Norco, Waguespack had already spent portions of his childhood in towns throughout the River Parishes. Born in Edgard in 1911, he spent some time at San Francisco Plantation while an elder Waguespack worked there. He lived in Wallace when the infamous Hurricane of 1915 trampled the area.

“I just remember the wind blowing,” he said, recalling that the only way he could tell exactly how hard the wind was blowing was by the number of overturned outhouses lying scattered about.

He also remembers being 6 years old, receiving his first communion, while the dual-spired St. John the Baptist Church in Edgard was being constructed.

Waguespack said when he first moved to Norco, there were only a handful of houses, water was obtained from a cistern, and there was no electricity.

“I was here before the spillway was here,” he said.

He recalled spending his free time as a youth in the woods and marshes surrounding the small town. “All you could do was go fishing or rabbit hunting,” he noted.

Eventually, the vacant lots surrounding his parents’ house began to fill in, many of them with houses built be family members. Until fairly recently, the blocks surrounding the original Waguespack abode were littered with the houses of their descendents.

Waguespack finally got a job with the New Orleans Refining Company in 1927. He worked as a welder’s assistant and made 25 cents an hour.

In the years that followed, during which he married the woman the family knew as “Blackie,” who he met at a graduation dance, and began to sire a family of his own. He fondly remembered sharing a honeymoon meal consisting of a 5-cent loaf of bread, a 10-cent pack of luncheon meat and a bottle of RC Cola.

In 1941, he returned to refinery work, this time with Shell. He remained with Shell until his retirement in 1972.

After his retirement he devoted most of his time to taking care of his ailing wife. She died in 1997. “Now I’m trying to take care of myself,” said the nonagenarian, who still manages to live on his own, though with the aid of daily visits from his children.

The changes to the landscape Waguespack has seen over the years include the rise of the automobile and subsequent decline of rail travel, the construction of Airline Highway and the invention of numerous items Americans now take for granted.

“I don’t believe nothing else can change. I’ve seen (Norco) grow up. Now it’s begun to shrink,” he said.

He also lamented the deterioration of the neighborly feel that once permeated the small town.

Some approaching a 100th birthday might be content to live in the past, but Waguespack, with his radio as his constant companion, was quick to comment on the current state of affairs. He pointed out that the current problems with flooding in the region are because of inadequate planning for growth.

Still, he tries not to let the current state of affairs weigh him down too much. He said one of his personal philosophies is to only worry about what one can do something about.

After, living in a state of worry is not what got him this far. He takes a very nonchalant, easygoing attitude toward what the future may hold for him.

“I’ll take it as long as they give it to me,” he said.