By Bill Buchanan
A few days ago, Gayle Bertsch and I were on the phone discussing the upcoming Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce gala. The local gala will be held at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, Thursday, Feb 24, and sounds like a fun night. If you have not already purchased your tickets, you may call the chamber office at 646-8126, or go on the website to order them.
In the course of our conversation, I told Gayle about one particular chamber of commerce banquet I attended in south Louisiana. I have been to many chamber of commerce and other board functions over the years, but that Donalsonville Chamber of Commerce event was the one I shall never forget.
The food, cooked by local chef John Folse, who later had a cooking show on TV, was fantastic; the attendance, probably 350 or more in town of 7,500, was impressive; and the speaker, a popular columnist for the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, was entertaining. But those things had nothing to do with why it was such a memorable event No, that distinction was reserved for the town’s mayor, “Big Ralph.”
For the uninitiated, everyone who runs for any political office in south Louisiana has a nickname. For all I know, it may even be required by state law. Almost every politician we ever wrote about had an additional moniker. Many of these nicknames were based upon physical appearance. Hence, you had “Boxcar” (a large, blocky man); “Smiley” (who displayed a really cheesy grin); and “Needlenose” (one look at him and no was explanation necessary). Some of the nicknames were given so long ago, and were used so often that people did not recognize the person by their given name. If you had written about Milton Vicknair, people would have said, “Do you mean Needlenose?”
Louisiana politics are famous, or some would say infamous, for a lot more than just nicknames, and have provided some great stories over the years — both real and fictional. For instance, one of the great stories was that of a state official who had been accused of wrongdoing. When confronted by a reporter, he is supposed to have replied, “I strongly deny the allegations and demand the right to confront the allegators.”
The story of the mayor’s election was no different. He ran against three other opponents. One dropped out immediately. Of the two remaining, one was the incumbent mayor —- and also Big Ralph’s uncle. The uncle won the election, but did not have a majority. Big Ralph and his uncle were slated for a run-off election, but shortly before the contest was held, the uncle died of a heart attack. Big Ralph was then declared mayor with well less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
As we fast forward to the chamber banquet, it was my job to introduce the speaker for the evening. After the introduction, I was to ask the mayor to say a few words and present the speaker with a key to the city.
The mayor sat all night at his spot at the head table, moving only to refill his Scotch on the rocks. I finished my introduction of the speaker, and nodded a cue to the mayor to come up and present the key to the city. The mayor rose from his seat, but instead of walking purposefully to the podium as scripted, he performed what can best be described as a half-gainer —- diving backward into a lattice-work facade, knocking it askew. As the mayor hit the floor like he had taken a shot to the jaw from Mike Tyson, a collective gasp went up from those in attendance. I think I probably gasped, too.
Nothing really prepares you for such a situation. There is no class you take in school, nor any professional seminar offered along the lines of “Public Officials/Public Drunkenness — What Everyone Should Know.”
Now most normal people would have been embarrassed beyond belief if they had fallen down drunk at a public function, especially with a few hundred people in attendance. I mean, after all, most of us turn a little red-faced when we trip on the sidewalk if other people are around. Of course, most of us have a little pride and a conscience. Not Big Ralph. The master of ceremonies and I rushed over, picked him up, and walked him over to the podium. He slurred a few barely coherent words to the speaker, handed him the key, then the emcee and I walked the mayor back to his chair. Big Ralph calmly sat down and acted as though nothing had happened.
It almost made me wish we had left him on the ground. But it certainly made for a memorable chamber banquet.