When Legendary Principals Clashed

In the history of public education in East Baton Rouge Parish, there have been many great principals. Two that stood out in the mid-20th century were Little Fuzzy Brown at Istrouma High and J.A. Smith at Central High.
They were titans in their day.
Little Fuzzy came to Istrouma in 1935 as head football coach and almost immediately won a State Championship. He became principal in 1953 during the era of Billy Cannon and led the school until 1972. In those years, Istrouma strived to be the best at everything. From 1950 to 1962, it won eight state championships. It was the largest high school in Louisiana with 1,800 students in grades 10-12, and it was strong academically.
One of Little Fuzzy’s close friends was J. A. Smith, the legendary principal at Central High. Mr. Smith had come to Central as principal in 1937 because they needed a very tough leader, and he was tough indeed.
J.A. Smith served as principal until 1967 when he moved to Central Private School. He was principal at CPS until 1977 — making 40 years serving the people of Central.
At Central, he probably had the strictest discipline in the state, and every adult living today who attended Central High in those days was greatly influenced by Mr. Smith.
Of course, strong-willed leaders like Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith can also be tough competitors.
Unfortunately, they finally butted heads at the beginning of the 1964-1965 school year.
At Istrouma, Little Fuzzy Brown was always looking for the best students and the best athletes to enroll at Istrouma. It was not unheard of for him to help someone from Mississippi get a job at Exxon or one of the other plants, especially if the man had a son who was an outstanding football player!
Mr. Brown also recruited the best teachers to come to Istrouma. He pursued excellence in every aspect of Istrouma, and he knew that the best teachers would get the best results.
It was great for Istrouma students and the Istrouma community, but it sometimes caused problems with other principals who suddenly found themselves without their top teacher.
Of course, that just didn’t happen with Central High School. Mr. Brown certainly was not going to go after any of Mr. Smith’s top teachers, or so Mr. Smith thought.
But at the beginning of the 1964-1965 school year, tragedy struck Istrouma High School. Mrs. Mildred Creaghan Robichaux, one of the most esteemed members of the Istrouma faculty, was struck with a brain aneurism and died almost immediately. I was in her class. The 1965 Istrouma yearbook is dedicated to her… “Outstanding Teacher of 1964 – Mildred Robichaux – The Great Books… Linguistics… Symbolism… Ideas… all bring to mind the memory of Mrs. Mildred Robichaux. It was through her that many of us came to know the true nature of literature and language. Now our inspiration has gone… It remains for each of us whose life she has touched to continue to uphold the high standards of excellence which she exemplified.”
Her students were devastated. It seemed surreal that she was gone!
The next day, we had a substitute. Then the very next day, we were surprised that we already had a new and permanent replacement for Mrs. Robichaux.
Her name was Mrs. Marjorie Hall and it was obvious that she too was extraordinary. She told us how much she admired Mrs. Robichaux and how no one could ever replace her. But she assured us that despite this great tragedy, our work would continue, and we would have a successful year.
Mrs. Hall was an amazing teacher who brought out the best in us. She soon had us memorizing long passages of literature every day. Things we thought impossible, we were doing!
She was an expert in Shakespeare and made us memorize some famous passage from Shakespeare everyday and then recite it in class. It’s amazing but we were able to do it.
A funny story. One of my best friends was Greg Ellison, who was our only National Merit Finalist. He was brilliant but very unconventional, to say the least. If you gave Greg a test, he would make an A+ but he simply wouldn’t do homework. It’s not that he was being recalcitrant. Rather, he would just forget. He was sent to the office countless times, where Mr. Clyde Lindsey, assistant principal would have to deal with him. If you average out A+ on tests and zero on homework, you probably come out with a D or an F, and those were Greg’s grades.
But there were a couple of other things about Greg.
He was very creative, and he could think on his feet as no one I have ever seen before or since. So, for example, if asked to recite a bit of Shakespeare, he would literally make up the quote as he spoke. It was so authentic sounding that even an expert would think he was correct. Mrs. Hall was an expert.
Another thing about Greg Ellison, he was world class gymnast! In fact, he won the national championship in rope climbing. He was a wonder to watch! Perhaps most astounding was his back flip. There are people who can do a standing back flip. In other words, you’re just standing in place, and you do a back flip. A few. But in the entire world, there were only three people who could do a double standing back flip where you stand in place, leap straight up in the air and do two back flips. He was one of them! In fact, he would do it sometimes at recess for us!
One day Mrs. Hall asked us to go home and memorize a lengthy quote from Shakespeare. Any quote we desired — it just had to be perfect!
Of course, the next day, Greg had forgotten to prepare, but no problem. When she called his name, he bounded out of his desk in the back of the room and like an antelope in two giant leaps he was nearing her desk when in mid-air he did a single forward flip and landed on top of her desk! He landed perfectly — with legs and arms apart — ready to recite! He proceeded to recite the most magnificent Shakespearean prose. The class applauded wildly as did Mrs. Hall. He flipped off desk, leaped twice, and was back in his seat!
I whispered to him, “What was that from? I didn’t recognize it!” He whispered back, “I made it up!”
Mrs. Hall complimented him, said she loved that bit of Shakespeare, and went on with the class!
She never reported him for failing to turn in homework.

Years later, when I was in the legislature, I would often get lengthy letters from Mrs. Hall correcting some statement I had made to the media. She would cut articles from the newspaper and mark them in red, kindly telling me how I must improve my grammar or whatever!
In 2005, when we started the Central City News, I got to know school board member Sharon Browning and learned that Marjorie Hall had taught her at Central High.
More than that, she said Mrs. Hall was her mentor and was the most important person in helping her decide to become a teacher.
She laughed as she recalled that Mrs. Hall also sent her little notes correcting her mistakes right up until her death.
We all were surprised when the Advocate ran a front page story on Marjorie Hall and all the letters she had written to them correcting their mistakes!
So how did Little Fuzzy Brown get Mrs. Hall to drop everything and leave Central High and Mr. J. A. Smith to teach Honors English at Istrouma High School?
Teachers didn’t generally have contracts in those days and theoretically, a teacher could leave at any time. Sharon Browning said friction had been building between Mrs. Hall and Mr. Smith for a long time, but she would never have left under normal conditions.
However, she had a funeral (not Mrs. Robichaux’s) to go to, but Mr. Smith refused to let her go. When she learned of Mrs. Robichaux’s death, she called Mr. Brown to see if he needed help.
We abruptly quit Central and came to Istrouma. She taught three more years and finished her career at Istrouma High School with Little Fuzzy Brown.
What happened to Greg Ellison? First, assistant principal Clyde Lindsey allowed Greg to graduate, even though he was delinquent on lots of his work. “He’ll probably pull some stunt at graduation,” he said. Mr. Lindsey’s fears were justified. Just as Greg left the stage, he did a standing forward flip in full cap and gown!
After graduation, Greg knocked around in various jobs, before finding his niche with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft. He knew Gates personally and reportedly did some groundbreaking computer research for Microsoft. Unfortunately, he passed away perhaps 10 years ago. He left five children.

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