City Councilman Rodney Geyen: Meet a Lake Charles Black History hero

Published 5:25 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Editor’s Note: Each year, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter features Lake Charles Black History heroes. Hunter recently wrote and published this article on Councilman Rodney Geyen on the city’s Facebook page. The American Press is sharing it here.

By Mayor Nic Hunter

How can one summarize a life so richly lived as that of Rodney Geyen’s? Rodney, himself, attempts to be concise about his professional career by mentioning “The Three P’s: principal, politician, and preacher.” He is also quick to say that “preacher” is the most important of those. In truth, his life is impossible to consolidate into just three roles. Other roles have included those of husband, father, mentor, coach, and community leader.

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Rodney Geyen was born in Lake Charles in 1941. The third child of nine, his father was a chef at various restaurants and his Mother performed domestic work. His father was a hard worker and taught him work ethic. His mother was dynamic. She was a good singer and dancer, even a childhood friend of Nellie Lutcher. She worked outside the home and also as a homemaker. Rodney recalls, “She had to do it all. Mother made us keep the floor immaculate. I remember using Johnson Wax. That floor would shine like you could skate on it.” Neither parents were able to attend college.

Mr. Geyen speaks with great pride about his ancestor, “Uncle George Ryan,” a man responsible for building many homes in Lake Charles’ historic district. George Ryan also moved the old jail from Old Town Road on a barge all the way to Downtown Lake Charles on Pujo St.

According to Geyen, as a child segregation was a known quantity, but not as intense as it was in some other cities. “I do remember that we could not ride in the front of the bus, but I specifically knew some people whose parents initiated an effort against that,” he recalls. He also remembers that some law enforcement were particularly rough, especially downtown.

A young Rodney Geyen grew up in Booker T Washington Courts. He remembers his community as “a community of people that understood and appreciated each other.” He attended Second Ward Elementary School on Mill and Shattuck Streets.

Several teachers made special impacts on the student, including Melvin Guice, Mercidine Green, and Corlethia Polk.

Team sports were important to him as a high school student at W.O. Boston, including football and track. In the 1959 Louisiana state football championship against Bogalusa Central High, Geyen ran for a 75 yard touchdown in the last 2 minutes of the game. It was a very cold night.

In another state championship, he ran for a touchdown against Morehouse High. That game was played at Lake Charles High Stadium.

Rodney was inspired to go to college because he knew some other alternatives would not be fulfilling. He remembers, “There were not a lot of choices we had to venture in, so I decided I was going to college and that I wanted to be a teacher.”

Like most of his high school friends, he attended Grambling State University. They had a good football team. Rodney ran track.

At Grambling, one of the most important introductions in his life occurred. At the student union, Rodney met his wife, Mary. He has fond memories of that day. “I walked into that student union. I had a little cap on, some good looking pants. I was looking cool.” Mary knew Rodney’s cousin, and it was truly love at first sight. Throughout their married lives, Mary worked as an administrative assistant and in education and banking.

The Geyens raised three children. Rodney and Mary would go on to enjoy 56 years of marriage, until her passing in 2022.

After graduating with a BS in education, he taught at Pinecrest High School in Winnfield, LA. He would later attend McNeese State University, where he received a Masters plus 30. Rodney recalls, “McNeese was great. People got along. We worked together. One statistics problem will make you want to pull your teeth out. I was the organizer and my group succeeded.”

Mr. Geyen’s first teaching job in Lake Charles was at Second Ward Elementary. He took Mr. Guice’s wife’s place because she was expecting. The Geyens had a short stint in Los Angeles, when he went to work for Douglass Aircraft, but Rodney’s high school coach convinced Superintendent AJ St. Dizier to get Rodney back to Lake Charles. The pay at Douglass was twice that of a teaching job in Louisiana, but it was not home and it was not a job in education. “So I loaded up my TV and headed back to Lake Charles. I started teaching at Reynaud Middle School.”

He left a positive mark teaching at other schools, including W.O. Boston High, Lake-Charles-Boston High, TH Watkins, JFK, and Pearl Watson. It was at Pearl Watson where Principal Geyen would reach the pinnacle of his educational career, indeed an exemplary milestone. Under Geyen’s guiding hand, Pearl Watson became a National Blue Ribbon School, due to academic growth for five consecutive years. Pearl Watson was one of only two National Blue Ribbon schools from Louisiana that year.

After 50 years in education, Rodney retired when Mary’s health took a turn for the worse.

When asked about one of the most important aspects of education, he answers “Reading comprehension is key. I instituted new techniques at Pearl Watson to improve reading comprehension and writing skills. Don’t crucify the child if he gets the wrong answer. Have patience.”

When asked about the greatWest tidal shift in education over the years, the lifelong teacher answers “One word: discipline. This changed in education. Schools were afraid of law suits. And the breakdown of the family unit. It’s not money, not special programs. It’s discipline.”

Geyen regrets the closure of LakeCharles-Boston High School, though this was not his decision to make at the time.

Faith and trust in Christ has always guided Rodney Geyen. When asked about the moment he felt called to become more active in spiritual leadership, he answers “I was a trustee in the CME Church and my job as a trustee was to take care of the properties. One Sunday morning in church a young lady starts singing and something hit me in my chest like a strong punch. It almost took my breath. I was looking at the cross. I even remember the song was “Father I Stretch my Hands to Thee.”

He is very serious about his faith and according to him, “Nothing derails me from doing my job.” Today, he preaches at two churches, one in Sulphur and one in Moss Bluff. Bible study is on Thursdays.

A run for City Council came as a result of concerns about infrastructure around his neighborhood. “Fellowship and friendship with fellow council members has meant a lot to me.” Over the years, Councilman Geyen is proud of multiple street and drainage repairs. The infrastructure in Mr. Geyen’s district is far superior to where it was when he first came on the Council, 27 years ago. Multiple recreation investments occurred thanks to his support as well, including upgrades at Huber Park and a natatorium at Ward Three Power Centre. He also served temporarily as mayor when Willie Mount went to the state senate.

For Lake Charles as a whole, he is proud of “Our relationships as citizens. We don’t exhibit friction. We settle things in a calm and decent way. We try to keep the peace. Being around this long is a gift from God.”

Mr. Geyen is excited about Lakefront development, attracting new businesses to Lake Charles, and having more family-friendly amenities. “Engagement with education along the lakefront will be beautiful, to see so many yellow school busses.”   

Rodney asserts that “Family is most important. I know from experience now how important it is to have a wife and children in the home. Education for them and planning activities. Family is the root and the basis for sending kids out into the world.” He laments the general lack of family participation in education.

“God blessed me every step of the way in my life and career since leaving WO Boston High School. A phenomenal feat I cannot claim myself. Only happens with God.”   

Family, faith, education, work ethic, and service all describe the life of Rodney Geyen. According to the data available to City staff, Rodney Geyen is the longest-serving City Councilman in Lake Charles’ history. Mr. Geyen is the epitome of a Lake Charles Local Black History Hero, and this author thanks him for his friendship, wisdom, and incredible community impact.