Priceless Encounters

By Robert Mann

In this blog post, Robert Mann describes the surprising connections he’s made at events featuring his latest book, Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU.

For decades, my book-talk experiences have been much the same: I speak to a civic club or other gathering about the book, answer a few questions, and sign a few books. I always meet interesting people and make a new friend or two.

But the talks about my latest book, Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU, have been quite different. They’ve been a surprising and delightful series of encounters with grandchildren of major figures in my book.

I first noticed it a few months ago when among the first people to buy the book were grandchildren of Fred Frey, who had served as dean of men during Long’s tenure. A dramatic encounter between Long and Frey is the subject of the book’s first chapter. While I wrote the book, I lamented that I had never spoken to Frey’s late daughter, Mary Frey Eaton, about her father’s encounters with Long. But I was delighted that members of the Frey and Eaton families were so eager to read the stories about their grandfather’s role in creating the modern LSU.

A few months later, when I spoke to a group at St. James Place in Baton Rouge, one of Long’s granddaughters, Kay Long, was in the audience. I’ve known Kay for more than thirty years, so it was no surprise to see her there. But while I was signing books afterward, a delightful woman introduced herself as a granddaughter of Mary Herget. Herget is not a character in the book, but she was LSU’s dean of women during Huey Long’s time.

A few minutes later, another woman mentioned to me that her grandfather was Horace Wilkinson. In talking with her, I discovered that she had never heard the story of her grandfather’s crucial role in 1918 of purchasing the property for the current campus. To her delight, I told her what I had written about her grandfather, then a state House member from West Baton Rouge Parish. He had sponsored the legislation to appropriate the $82,000 needed to buy the land where the LSU campus now sits.

A few weeks later, I was in Shreveport signing books when a woman mentioned that her grandfather was Paul Cyr. Cyr was Long’s lieutenant governor. They quickly became estranged, and Cyr’s refusal to attend the 1931 LSU-Army game at West Point was the reason that Long would not accompany the band, the football team, and hundreds of fans to the big game. If he left the state, his political enemy would become acting governor.

“You know,” I told her, “your grandfather was the reason Huey wouldn’t go with the team to the LSU-Army game in 1931. He was afraid to leave the state in your grandfather’s hands.”

“I know!” she said.

What a priceless encounter!

Not long thereafter, my wife and I attended an engagement party in Baton Rouge for a family friend. I fell into conversation with a neighbor who mentioned something about his grandfather having served as law school dean at LSU for several decades. I had never known that his grandfather was Paul Hebert, a figure in the book who served as LSU’s acting president in the early 1940s in the wake of the Louisiana scandals, when several high-ranking LSU officials, including President James Monroe Smith, went to prison. Hebert and his vice president, Troy Middleton, had saved the school from economic ruin.

A week after that, I spoke about the book to a group at my church. Among those buying a book afterward was a woman who mentioned that her grandfather was Pop Guilbeau. Like Horace Wilkinson’s granddaughter, she had no idea that her grandfather was a figure in my book. What an exciting experience to tell her that the opening chapter of the book featured Long arriving at LSU president Thomas Atkinson’s office to fire her grandfather, then the school’s band director. And Long granddaughter Kay was standing next to her. “Kay’s grandfather fired your grandfather,” I told her. Both had a good laugh and professed no hard feelings about that day over ninety years ago.

Encounters like these happen almost every time I speak, and I often joke with my wife, “I wonder which grandchild of what character I’ll meet at this event?”

I have a half-dozen speaking engagements scheduled between now and the end of September. I cannot wait to learn which fascinating grandchild I’ll be meeting next.

Robert Mann is the author of numerous books, most recently Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon and Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics. He holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University.

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No political leader is more closely identified with Louisiana State University than the flamboyant governor and U.S. senator Huey P. Long, who devoted his last years to turning a small, undistinguished state school into an academic and football powerhouse. From 1931, when Long declared himself the “official thief” for LSU, to his death in 1935, the school’s budget mushroomed, its physical plant burgeoned, its faculty flourished, and its enrollment tripled. But Long’s support for LSU did not come without consequences. Rollicking and revealing, Robert Mann’s Kingfish U is the definitive story of Long’s embrace of LSU.

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