Doubt and skepticism loomed among some observers in Pointe Coupee Parish when a consortium of parents took a gamble to build a new school.
Fifty years later, their investment remains solid.
A festival on Nov. 2 commemorated the anniversary of False River Academy, which opened its doors in 1969.
Outside of the school cafeteria, traditional fall festival elements such as food, games, crafts and a dunking booth – amid a daytime high in the upper 50s – highlighted the celebration.
It was a different atmosphere inside the school cafeteria. Alumni, faculty, past and present administrators and previous board members attended the event, highlighted by a discussion about the school’s growth through the years.
The Classes of 1970 and 1971 were thrown into great turmoil with forced busing to shuttle students from one school to another to achieve court-ordered desegregation, said Pointe Coupee Parish businessman Johnny Ewing, the keynote speaker who was part of the inaugural graduating class in 1971.
“Louisiana, including Pointe Coupee, made national news with picket lines at schools and businesses, which were boycotted in opposition to the busing, including our own family grocery store in Innis,” he said. “A lot of emotions were stirring.”
A total of 300 families invested $300 apiece – $2,233, adjusted to today’s inflation – to build the school, which started with T-buildings when it opened in 1969.
“Many families at that time did not make $300 a month,” said Pointe Coupee Parish cattleman Raymond Long, one of the inaugural board members.
The agreement upon purchase was that if the school was not built within three years, the land would be repossessed, Long said.
The school started with grades 1-10 in 1969 and expanded to include a junior and senior class the following year.
Growth came in steps, albeit baby steps.
Ewing recalled the startup of the basketball program in 1970 – without the luxury of a gymnasium, which was completed two years later.
“We used goals on an outdoor court, which meant games were called off whenever it rained,” he said. “It also meant we had to play even when the temperature was 30 degrees.”
The school eventually would expand to include kindergarten in 1973, a football team in 1980 and pre-K in 1988.
Grass roots efforts remained the rule of the day more than 30 years after the school opened its doors.
The dining area, which formed the setting for the discussion, was built almost entirely by volunteers during the 2003-04 school year.
It previously served as the half-court basketball area.
“With a lot of assistance, we modified it into a lunchroom,” Ewing said. “It was impressive, and we did it almost totally from volunteers.
“I would make a phone call the night before and tell our committee chairperson how many people we needed the next day to work and presto, there they were,” he said. “It was amazing, easy … and way under budget.”
It also impressed Gladys Olinde, who taught at FRA from its inception until 1992.
“It’s just nice to see they have a cafeteria these days,” she said. “They’ve built this into a beautiful campus.”
The school has graduated students who have attended universities across the nation. Graduates have embarked on careers in law, engineering, medicine, government and many other fields.
The tiny steps toward progress brought challenges, but students hardly posed a problem, said inaugural Principal Richard Duhon, who attended the event.
“We really didn’t have problems with the kids,” he said. “They were good … they’d act up time to time, but we had parental support, unlike what we see today in schools.”
Ewing said the challenges the school faced in its early years shaped his life by teaching him how to handle adversity.
It taught him one of the most important lessons in life, he said.
“I learned that the early obstacles are not really problems,” Ewing said. “Problems are major events such as friends or families with serious illnesses, or serious accidents, that cannot be cured.
“I learned that when you have a problem, tackle it head-on and swiftly, and get it over and hopefully successfully.”
The progress the school made in 50 years amazed one founding board member, who returned to the campus after several years away.
“We have a wonderful campus, and I didn’t realize how nice it is now,” Ted Melancon said. “They have a beautiful layout here, and everyone working together is what made this work.”
The hard work from the founding families played a role in the school’s perseverance, amid economic fluctuations which affect tuition-based schools, Long said.
A sense of ownership also made a difference, he said.
“This started from zero, and if we didn’t have hard-working families who wanted a better future for their children, we wouldn’t be here today,” Long said.
“If the folks in Washington could work together like these people did, our nation would be in much better shape.”