LaGrange Gators and Barbe Bucs: A 50-year double reunion

Before Barbe High School graduated its first class in 1973, before LaGrange seniors turned their tassels from right to left that same year, the two classes were one, sophomores at LaGrange High School. Friday and Saturday, April 14-15, 6:30 p.m., the 1973 graduates of both schools are invited to celebrate their 50th high school reunion together at L’Auberge.

“I’m just as excited for this reunion as I was to graduate in 1973,” said Barbe graduate Billy Rose. “It’s probably a slightly different kind of excitement with the great anticipation of reuniting with old friends and classmates.”

Rose, Angie Fontenot Peck, and Phil and Suzie Watson Conway are helping spearhead the reunion. They shared memories of that year, when they were all LaGrange sophomores. Those living in what would become the Barbe District, were given the choice to stay and finish their junior and senior year at LaGrange or go to a brand new school.

LaGrange was bursting at the seams. Built in 1954 for 1,000-students, the enrollment was over 2000 students in 1970, according to the Calcasieu Parish School Board school history website. Even after Barbe was built, it remained a large school. Approximately 450 were in the LaGrange graduating class of 1973.

“I remember it as being so crowded, we had one-way halls and stairways,” said Phil Conway. “One class had so many students that some of them had to sit on the window ledge. In our English  class, ten students were seated on this two-foot space along the row of roll up windows.”

LaGrange had so many students, Suzie Watson didn’t meet husband Phil Conway, a sophomore classmate and a neighbor who lived only a mile-and-a-half away, until they were in college, different colleges.

“My mother (Margaret Watson) was head of the English Department,” she said. “None of my best friends left,” so I stayed at LaGrange.

The reunion planners counted 20 couples that they knew – and said there could be more – who had married after attending LaGrange or Barbe together and graduating in 1973.  Six couples were Barbe/LaGrange graduate combo marriages. Phil and Suzie Watson are one of those couples.

Angie Fontenot Peck, decked out in LaGrange purple for the interview, said she didn’t want to break family tradition. That’s why she stayed at LaGrange. Her parents and many cousins were Gator grads. Plus, she was a Gatorette.

Some of my LaGrange buddies who weren’t given the choice to leave LaGrange thought Barbe was cool and far out, Phil said. He explained. That wasn’t just the vernacular of the day. It was a selling point. Classrooms were air-conditioned. The school was – it seemed at that time – way out in the country.

Billy Rose was sold on the cool, air-conditioned classrooms and didn’t give it a second thought when his parents let him choose where he’d graduate.

“Barbe wasn’t only air-conditioned,” he said. “It was closer to home, which meant I could sleep later, and it was fun to be a pioneer,” he said. “I vividly remember picking out our mascot, our colors.”

“The coolest thing about Barbe, and something I think was life changing for our class, is that we basically got to be seniors for two years,” Phil said.

The 1973 Barbe yearbook has this to say about that first graduating class: “First and above all, these seniors chose to come here. Many needed a school closer to home, some just needed a change and some, a challenge. But whatever the cause, these 265 students found themselves in a conglomeration of experiments, ideas and indecisions – together.”

In 1966, Judge Alfred M. Barbe and James Rouyer, trustees of the Drew Estate, made it known that the Estate was prepared to make a generous contribution toward the construction of a vocational or manual training school. It became Barbe High School, one of the first high school campuses with a selection of trades  and industries courses.

Barbe, according to Rose, was the first school to have a ninth grade class. Up until then, high school campuses were 10th, 11th and 12th grades only. It was the first to offer phased classes that ranged from basic skills and remedial help to advanced and gifted classes.

John Nicosia, long-time principal at Lake Charles High, was named principal of Barbe.

“He  made the rule that everybody had to be involved in an organization. I guess it wouldn’t be politically correct today, but back then, if there wasn’t a club that you wanted to join, and believe me, there were plenty, you joined the Outcast Club. Barbe students had 30 clubs to choose from in 1973 and fielded junior varsity teams. (In the 1973 Barbe yearbook, there is a photo of members of the Outcast Club taking part in a campus beautification project.)

Rose’s senior jokes punctuated the interview and he wasn’t talking about the year he received his diploma in 1973. Phil Conway said there will be music at the reunion celebration but no DJ. Some might choose to dance. Some might not.

“We planned this within the perfect early evening three-hour window,” Rose said. “It will end before bedtime for some of us and before our hearing aids and feet give out.”

Angie Fontenot Peck realizes reunions aren’t for everyone, but she considers helping organize this one and the opportunity to celebrate with high school friends 50 years later a privilege.

“We played hard, we loved hard and we grieved with every loss,” she said. Now we can honor those who have gone while sharing great memories and making new ones.” Contact Peck for more information. Email  amfpeck@gmail.com or call 337-794-8510.

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