Bourgeois retiring from SJA after 34 years

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, May 20, 2014

By Stephen Hemelt

LAPLACE — Larry Bourgeois Jr. will end his 34-year run at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in less than a month.

The elementary school principal describes his retirement and the physical act of leaving the school as the hardest things he has ever had to do. However, a stay of more than three decades was never part of the plan when he first walked on the campus.

His first professional dream was to teach history in college.

“When I graduated from school, my father said ‘why don’t you stay in and get your master’s degree and I’ll pay for it,’” Bourgeois said. “Like a foolish young man, I said, ‘No, I want to work.’ The idea at the time was I was tired of my dad paying for my way. I wanted to pay my own way.”

He arrived at St. Joan of Arc with the intention of staying a year to save money for graduate school.

“I fell in love with the children and never really wanted to leave,” he said. “One time I had the opportunity to actually go back to the university to teach, and surprisingly enough, I turned it down to stay here. Tell God your plans, and you’ll make him laugh.”

Bourgeois worked for 14 years in the classroom, starting as a middle school social studies and religion teacher. He became assistant principal under Sister Mary Germaine, the last of the Dominican Sisters to run the school.

He took over for her when she retired in 1999.

Bourgeois said his and his staff’s greatest professional accomplishment was becoming the first elementary school in St. John the Baptist Parish to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

SJA was deep in the accreditation process when Hurricane Katrina struck the region, and the school quickly took on 200 additional students in 2005 because so many people were displaced from the greater New Orleans area.

“We had to carefully reflect, under the stress of the situation, if we could actually do this with the amount of work that was involved,” Bourgeois said. “We decided we were going to press on and do it anyway. We soldiered on through the difficult year of ’05 and ’06 and then in the fall of ’07 became accredited with SACS.”

Along with his commitment to students, Bourgeois has remained engaged with his passion for music.

He started a concert band program at the school and considers its operation one of his greatest achievements.

The band recently returned from state competition and received high marks in stage performance and inside reading.

“It is amazing to me that more schools don’t do band,” Bourgeois said. “We’re like the only elementary school in the area with this large concert band. All the research shows children that are in band achieve more academically. Why don’t more people do it? I don’t understand. I guess it is money. They don’t think it is a priority.”

Bourgeois’ last day is June 19, but a retirement celebration is planned for after the 4:30 p.m. mass Saturday. All former students are welcome. The Reserve native has no intention of leaving the region or his school community this fall.

“This is my home,” he said. “I have already told them I am a phone call away if they need help with anything. I will be present for any special events, and I told the new principal (Jeff Montz) I will pinch hit for him whenever he needs help.”