Sometimes, being a “cultural preservationist” is not only about formal education, but more about living a life that embraces and exemplifies one’s culture. One of the most prolific examples of promoting one’s culture through living a life out loud, can be found in a slight man from a small town in North Louisiana, Felix “T-fra” Monette. Jr. T-fra lived most of his life in service to his family and community, and engaged people in conversation and spoke on the beautiful and vibrant culture of the Creoles of the Cane River area of Louisiana, using parable like stories and his unmatchable wit and sense of humor.
Origins and the development of compassion
Born to Felix Monette, Sr., and Felecite (Felecia) Coutee Monette on February 14, 1930, T-fra grew up in rural north Louisiana, along the banks of the Little River near the small farming town of Cloutierville. As a youngster T-fra loved to spend time with old people, visiting elderly neighbors up and down the dusty roads near his home, spending hours helping them around their homes and listening to their tales of days gone by. He especially loved to hear stories about his ancestors and how they came to settle in Louisiana, with origins in France, spanning the Atlantic to arrive in Canada and finally to Louisiana. Although he was expected to work hard to help his father and brothers with the family farm, his parents also encouraged his free spirit.
This spirit of compassion and generosity is exemplified in a story he and Cecile shared from early in their marriage as a struggling young couple when they found themselves with less than the bare necessities required to get by. They would go into the fields hungry, but worked a full day to earn their $8 per week pay. Before heading into the fields and at the end of their long day, they checked in on an elderly couple who lived nearby. Cecile recalls cooking for the couple who would sometimes share their left overs with the young couple. “I had to cook their food without much seasoning, so whenever they gave us some beef or beans, I would take it home, season it up and we would eat well. We enjoyed helping those old people, It was a joy and they needed the help. One day the old lady was very ill, and needed to be cleaned up and tended to. I bathed her and made sure she had clean bedding and the house was clean for her. I cooked her dinner and when I brought it to her, she told me to never worry, because she knew that no matter what, when me and T-fra needed something, someone would always be there to help us. I feel like that lady prayed for us, and continues to pray for us in heaven, because just like she said, whenever T-fra or I, or our family was in need, we always had that need provided for.”
Segregation: experienced firsthand
Growing up in rural North Louisiana on the heels of the American Great Depression, T-fra experienced the sting of the segregated South. As a young boy, he spent his free time playing with the children who grew up around him, children from white, Creole and non-Creole black families. Living deep in the country, this was not unheard of or unacceptable. However, when he went to town, where most businesses were owned and operated by whites, being seen with his friends was unacceptable. His white friends were allowed to enter stores through the front door, and hang out from sun up to sun down if they so desired. Creole children enjoyed a slightly less welcoming environment in the area, as the Creole were viewed as “not really black”, but still second class to the white citizens of the area, where non-creole blacks were treated much more harshly, creating a hierarchical structure which is still somewhat felt in the community to this day.
In a recorded interview from 2013, T-fra recalls an incident that left a major impression on him and shaped his views for years to come. “One day, me and my friends walked up to the Cohn Brothers store to get a pop and a cookie. There was about 5 of us, all different colors and we was playing and laughing along the way. When we got to the store, the old man behind the counter sold us our pop and cookies, then told this to us who were darker, to get on out of there, wasn’t no need for us to hang around. He didn’t tell the white ones that, just us. I made up my mind that day, I wouldn’t be hanging out in town like that anymore, so from then on I just stayed back and spent most of my time visiting with the old people in our little area, listening to their stories and learning about our people.” That event and decision made by a young boy experiencing the injustice of racism, shaped the course of a life that influenced and inspired many individuals both inside and outside of his community.
Celebrating a different Independence
During his childhood, T-fra recalls many community gatherings where families from all around the small community of Little River, got together to cook, play games and “visit”. One event that he remembered was the annual community celebration held on June 19th of each year. June 19th, or “Juneteententh”, commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. state of Texas, and emancipation of enslaved African-Americans in the United States.
T-fra recalls the celebration being attended by both members of the Creole community and non-creole blacks, and was a separate “independence” day celebration from July 4th, which was more so observed by the whites in the community.
“Back then, we would gather at a lake, with water so clear you could see to the bottom. We called it Clear Lake. The men would cut trees and lay them parallel to one another and place big cast iron pots between them, lighting fires underneath. The ladies would cook in those pots, using water from the lake, cooking things like greens, gumbo, beans and rice, for the whole group of people gathered there. You see the 4th of July was for the whites, but the 19th of June was for us. It was a time to visit and play our music and catch up on what was going on around in the community. I looked forward to this every year. I did not know what the celebration was about until much later, but as a kid I just looked forward to getting together with everyone. It was fun.”
Marriage, family and neighborliness
T-fra was fun loving child and enjoyed being with people older than him, He was the favorite of his only sister, Alberta (Bert), who was 12 years older than him and like a second mother. It was through her that he met the love of his life, Cecile “Teal” Rachal. Both T-fra and Cecile say it was love at first sight and after a sweet courtship, their parents gave them the blessing to marry in 1952. After marrying, T-fra and Cecile continued their family’s tradition of farming, share cropping for a short time, saving their money, and eventually buying their own land to farm.
Within the first ten years of their marriage, T-fra and Cecile acquired their own land and were successfully growing cotton and raising cattle. They worked their own land, bringing in their crops, and then took their young family and helped other family members with planting and harvesting their crops. They taught their five daughters the value of hard work and the manner in which loving families support one another.
Felix was a man who did what was necessary to provide for his family, and with the astute guidance of his wife, supplemented his income in various ways. During the winter months he would hunt and trap mink, beaver, nutria and raccoons for their fur, curing the pelts and selling them to furriers. During the Lenten season, he, along with his sons-in law’s caught and sold freshwater fish to local fish markets and neighbors. In the summer, he and Cecile had a robust garden, or “truck patch” as he called it, growing okra which they sold wholesale to a local grocery. Always with the well-being of his community in mind, he set aside portions of his catches and harvest to give to friends, family and neighbors, He lived his creed of being a blessing to others whenever you had the opportunity.
His daughter, Jennifer Wallace, remembers her father as one who emphasized family togetherness, a trait that she has taken and carried on with her own family. “Daddy loved his family and always enjoyed when we all got together. When the house was full, he was happy. I think that is one of the best things I took from him, that sense of family togetherness. I am most happy when my family is together, laughing, talking and enjoying one another.”
This life and spirit of giving was passed on to his children and grandchildren. Felix, Cecile and their girls often worked to help neighbors and family members “make” and bring in their crops, often times after laboring long hours bringing in their own. The couple instilled in their girls that they were extremely blessed and in turn needed to be a blessing to those around them, in short that kindness and generosity were their own reward.
Genetic traits passed on
When his daughters are asked about their father’s greatest character traits, words like “compassionate”, “empathetic”, “hard working” and “loving” are repeated often. Daughter Rhonda Kay says that, “I always try to see the best in people. That’s something I get from my dad. When I come across a difficult person, I stop and think, ‘How would Daddy deal with this person?’ I have never regretted doing this.”
T-fra was known in the community as having a very big heart, loving friend and counsel to all.
His daughter, Felecia Rachal, remembers her father as being patient, forgiving and loving. “Daddy would give people the shirt off his back. He never held a grudge or said anything bad about people. He always wanted us to be respectful of people, irrespective of their status. Everyone was the same to Daddy and he treated everyone from the CEO of the company to the janitor in the hallway with the utmost respect, friendliness and kindness. It is one of the things I admire most about him and try to practice in my own life.”
His daughters tell stories of him helping neighbors, going as far as providing shelter and warmth for a transient man on a cold winter night. Daughter Cathy Lynn Gustafson recounts the night, remembering that T-fra stayed up all night long “checking on the man” to ensure he remained warm, but protectively watching him to ensure the safety of his family. While he was eager to help a person in need, the safety and security of his “girls” always came first.
The role of religion
Faith was the cornerstone of the Monette family. Felix and Cecile were a part of a large rosary group, made up of, at its height, 20 families. Starting in the mid 1960’s, each and every Friday night, at 8:00pm, the couple and their girls would gather at the home of one or another of the members’ home and say the rosary as a group.
Felix’s children tell the story of gathering in with their parents and the rest of the group, and praying before being allowed to go out with friends. As the group “matured” the rosary was followed by a friendly game of cards that would sometimes last in to the wee hours of the morning. The group all knew well how to balance faith and fun, creating bonds that lasted for years. The Friday night rosary tradition endured through the relocation and death of members, until disbanding around 2012, after 50 years of existence.
From farm to a state service post
In 1969, with a large family to support, T-fra and Cecile made the decision that he would take a job off the farm, with the State, to provide financial stability and security for the family, which the farm could not ensure. T-fra went off to work at Louisiana College as a journeyman, Cecile continued to oversee the operations of the farm, arranging for workers to tend the crops and bring in the harvest. Her days started early to provide transportation for the workers to the farm, working side by side with them all day, and transporting them home in the evening. Cecile remembers that time as one where everyone had a role to play to ensure the success of this decision. “Before T-fra got up to go to work, I was up getting things ready for the day. I would go out and pick up the people who we hired to help work in the fields, worked alongside them ‘hoeing’ or picking cotton. I oversaw the weighing and tracking of what was brought in that day, then drove them all home once we were done. It was hard, but we made it work, doing it together as a family.”
The couple’s girls took on household chores, cooking and cleaning the family home and tending the cattle in the evening. The family’s success truly was a group effort and created an unshakeable family bond that has kept them close to this day.
Promoting and preserving the Louisiana Creole Heritage
In 1971, T-fra left Louisiana College and joined the Northwestern State University (NSU) family, as a plumber, eventually working his way up to a supervisory position. During this time, he forged close relationships with many of the faculty and staff members of the University, easily engaging them with his quick wit and jovial nature.
During this time, he met Dr. Hiram “Pete” Gregory, an anthropology professor at NSU, and curator of the Williamson Museum, a Louisiana natural History museum housed on Northwestern’s campus. Dr. Gregory and T-fra struck up an easy friendship, exchanging stories of the history of Louisiana, one providing the learned, formally educated view of the topic, the other providing the “school of life” perspective, creating a holistic view of the Creole culture in North Louisiana.
Dr. Gregory encouraged T-fra to share his memories and story telling talents on panels speaking on Louisiana culture and language, which was the impetus to T-fra becoming formally involved in Louisiana Creole cultural preservation efforts. He participated in many panel discussions organized by the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center, a heritage preservation collective, which promotes the preservation and spread of education of Louisiana Creole culture. T-fra, as one of the last fluent Louisiana Creole French speakers in the area, was also interviewed on multiple occasions by Dr. Thomas Klingler, Director of Linguistics at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, in support of his work on Louisiana French dialectology.
T-fra became the resident historian for the area, being interviewed for many documentaries, articles and Louisiana cultural studies projects. He continued to support efforts of the Creole Heritage Center, and the local French language preservation group, Le Tableau Francais aux Natchitoches, which is moderated by Dustin Fuqua, a Louisiana Creole from Avoyelles Parish, and National Park Service Cultural Preservationist.
Death but T-fra’s work continues
T-fra participated in these efforts until mid-2013, when his health began to fail. In October of 2013, he was awarded the Creole Heritage People’s Choice Award. His health was such that he could not attend the ceremony to receive the award in person. However, in the acceptance speech, given by his granddaughter, Christie Rachal, his message was conveyed, a message of teaching heritage through living that heritage, being proud of who you are and where you come from, and not being afraid or ashamed to share that heritage with others, to ensure your traditions will live on. That night, she promised to carry on her grandfather’s legacy and ensure that his efforts and his name endured for generations to come.
T-fra passed away in November of 2013, and true to her word, Christie, her mother Judy Rachal and sister Courtney Rachal, spearheaded efforts to establish a scholarship in T-fra’s name. Education was important to T-fra, even though he only completed his own education up to the 6th grade. He was most proud of his 5 children and 9 grand-children, who among them possess two doctorate degrees, multiple masters and bachelors degrees from well recognized universities across the country.
His pride in his family was evident to anyone who visited the Monette’s humble home in Derry, Louisiana, where photos of all his girls and grandchildren in their graduation garb, are proudly displayed on the walls. Cecile often jokes that had the family gotten any larger, they would have run out of wall space for all the photographs. No doubt T-fra would have created more wall space for those cherished mementos, as it was a visual display of his heart, which gave him the most joy. His passing was felt deeply not only by his children and grand-children, but the whole community, which was the impetus for the idea for a scholarship in his name.
In 2015, with the full support of Felix’s entire family, a scholarship in his name was established at Northwestern State University, to continue his spirit of providing education in and preservation of Louisiana Creole culture, language, and history. The scholarship has been established to benefit a sophomore or junior pursuing a degree in history with a focus on folklife. Preference would be given to a Louisiana native. The recipient was required to maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better. For more information on the scholarship, contact NSU Development Officer Kimberly Gallow at (318) 357-4414 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit northwesternalumni.com. For information on the Creole Heritage Center, visit creole.nsula.edu.
“NSU is part of our family,” Judy said. “This is something Daddy would have wanted to do. He worked here for many years and knew everybody on campus.”
Felix’s granddaughter Christie sums her grandfather up in very simple terms. “Papa was a man who instilled in us that kindness is the greatest gift you can give to someone. A kind word or gesture could change the course of a person’s day and it costs you nothing. He encouraged us to work harder than you must, because you never know who is watching. And most important of all, we should love people regardless of how they treat you, but remember that sometimes, you have to love them from afar. Papa taught us all of this not only through his words, but from his example. He lived what he believed. I only hope that one day I can find a man of character and integrity with whom I can share my life. He was one of a kind.”