Dr. Robert Hebert served in different capacities at McNeese State for 41 years and as president of the university for 23 years — the longest-serving president in the school’s history. (Michelle Higginbotham / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, August 06, 2012 3:56 PM
Robert Hebert is standing over a table in his house, going through a stack of congratulatory letters from two years ago.
Official letters from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office, the Governor’s Office, the Louisiana Senate and House of Representatives, the city of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish thank Hebert for his many years of service at McNeese State University and in the community.
“If you stick around long enough, everyone will give you something,” he says jokingly.
Hebert served in different capacities at McNeese for 41 years and as president of the university for 23 years — the longest-serving president in the school’s history.
Hebert said he first became interested in the field of education as an undergraduate at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“I liked the subject area of history and also political science. I liked both of them. I just was interested in learning more about them, but also about the college life,” Hebert said.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to graduate, I certainly wanted that, but I couldn’t really visualize myself leaving the college life and not interacting with students, the faculty.”
Hebert started his career as a history professor at Mississippi State University, but decided he wanted to return to his home state a few years later.
“At the time we (Hebert and his wife) had three little boys who were born in Mississippi, and we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives there. It was a good job, but it wasn’t a place we wanted to live forever,” Hebert said. “So when the opportunity arose to return to my native state, we took it.”
Hebert started at McNeese in 1969 as an associate professor of history. He worked as a classroom professor for 10 years before becoming the director of Basic Studies in the freshman division for one year. He took the job as vice president of academic affairs in 1980. Hebert stayed on in that role until becoming the university president in 1987.
“There were highs and lows in that job, good days and not-so-good ones. The big problems were generally related to budget issues, but we had lots of good times. There were things we did well,” Hebert said.
During his tenure as president, McNeese achieved national accreditation for all four-year and graduate programs, sustained a competitive and certified Division I athletics program, and adopted the university motto, “Excellence with a Personal Touch.”
Hebert oversaw the completion of several new university buildings and renovation projects, including the Shearman Fine Arts Center, the quadrangle and the bronze statue of John McNeese.
He also implemented selective admissions in 2000 and raised the standards again in 2005.
“I think that it improved the quality of our student body. I think it was a very good thing. It’s a better school because of it,” Hebert said.
The accomplishment Hebert takes the most pride in, however, is the growth of the McNeese Foundation. When Hebert helped start the Foundation, it had around $800,000. By the end of his term, that number had grown to nearly $60 million.
“That money can be used for scholarships, professorships. It will always be there,” Hebert said. “It’s something that gives me the greatest satisfaction.”
It is also estimated that Hebert shook the hands of 28,000 students at graduation ceremonies during his presidency.
“Well, it feels pretty tiring,” Hebert said with a laugh. “But that always meant a lot to me. It was a good experience. And, well, four of those were my sons.”
After his retirement in June 2010, Hebert was named president-emeritus by the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System.
“When I left the job 23 years later, I really did feel very good about a lot of what we had accomplished. It makes it a lot better for me looking back on it. I really don’t have many regrets.”
Living with no regrets has been a standout theme in Hebert’s life.
In fact, it was what others would have called a “regrettable action” that led to Hebert meeting his wife, Lilly Ann.
Hebert’s brother was his high school basketball coach, and one night before a game against their cross-town rival, Henry High School, Hebert started “acting up” during the team’s warm-up.
“I was doing the wrong thing just for fun, and my teammates loved it. So he (my brother) rightfully said to me, go take a shower, he didn’t need me. It was a disciplinary action. When I came back from taking a shower, he handed me a clipboard. In those days there was no electronic score keeping. He said you sit at the end of this bench and keep score. I sat next to the scorekeeper from Henry, and that’s how I met her. She was keeping score. That’s how it all started,” Hebert said.
“You can see that sometimes it may pay off to do wrong.”
Hebert and Lilly Ann dated through high school and college and married when Hebert was in graduate school at Florida State University.
They have four sons — Greg, Chris, Gerry and Edward.
Hebert said one family tradition sticks out when he thinks back on his sons’ formative years.
“I got a hold of a Santa suit and I put a big pillow in it. I would go out at night, maybe a few days before Christmas, and start howling and ducking between trees. The boys would watch me through the window. They thought I was the real McCoy,” he said.
“I would usually leave something on the front porch for them. They were really convinced.”
All four sons became medical doctors.
Their mutual love for McNeese has caused some friendly competition with their father for the title of McNeese’s “biggest fan.”
“My sons come close to tying me on this one. We stay very involved with athletics, not just home games, but road games as well,” Hebert said. “It means a lot to us.” SClBLife post-presidency
It’s been just over two years since he stepped down, and Hebert has settled nicely into retirement. He said he spends most of his time gardening and finally enjoying the house he built well before his long presidency at McNeese.
“We lived in the President’s House while I was president. We built this house prior to that while I was vice-president for academics. We decided we were going to keep it and come back here after, and that’s what we did,” Hebert said. “When you build a place like this — we pretty much designed it and built it — it just means more.”
Retirement has also given Hebert more time to travel. In May, he took his 13th trip to Europe. He traveled with his wife and a son, Edward, to Switzerland and France.
“We’re already discussing the possibility of traveling again,” he said.
“The place I want to go is Russia. I used to teach a course in Russian history, but I’ve never been.”