Couple’s 11 children follow parents, earn LSU degrees
SUNSHINE — The 60-year union of Eugene and Rachael LeBlanc has produced 11 children, 34 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two dozen LSU degrees so far.
One blue dress started it all.
Eugene LeBlanc said he was dating around at LSU in the late 1940s, having fun and studying a little, when he saw Rachael Broussard dressed up for a banquet at the Christ the King Catholic Church and Student Center.
“When I saw her in that outfit, I said, ‘That’s the woman I’m going to marry,’” he said with a sly smile while looking at old photographs at his family home in Sunshine.
They married in June 1952, right after Rachael, now 80, finished her bachelor’s degree in home economics. Eugene, 84, worked full time and earned his general studies degree three years later.
After building a home in Sunshine in Iberville Parish on LeBlanc family land along River Road and carving a life out of a few acres there, their 11 children followed the 18-mile path to Baton Rouge to live in the dorms, hang out at the Catholic student center and earn diplomas.
They followed in the steps of Momma and Daddy not because they felt pressured, said daughter Mary Elmassian, but because the university had become an important part of their family. The children saw all the snapshots, heard the story of how their parents fell in love and pored over old copies of Gumbo yearbooks.
“We never felt the pressure,” said Elmassian, the fifth of 11 children. “We just wanted to go. I think it was because of their story.”
The LeBlanc family has lived around St. Gabriel for seven generations. Eugene LeBlanc’s father ran a general store but died young, and his mother was left alone with five children. His aunt, an English teacher, encouraged him to get an education, so in the summer of 1945 he enrolled at LSU.
He was living in the Pentagon Barracks, wondering how he could keep paying for school, when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. So he joined the Navy.
“I was broke. I didn’t have any money,” Eugene LeBlanc said. “The only way I could get enough to do it was the G.I. Bill. Momma didn’t have anything. She had five children.”
After two years in the Navy, Eugene LeBlanc returned to LSU in hopes of becoming a chemical engineer. He admits sometimes he did more flirting than studying, and his photographs from the era — riding bicycles, posing like sculptures and hamming it up — are evidence.
“I think I took everything except astronomy,” he said. “I think I had that ADD. I never could concentrate on one thing. Still can’t.”
He could concentrate on Rachael Broussard once he saw her in that dress.
Born Rachael Broussard in a cattle ranching family in Cow Island, a rural community near Abbeville, her brother and sister had already attended college in Lafayette, and her brother had studied law at LSU. She chose LSU, too.
“She said she didn’t want to marry some old Cajun boy,” Eugene LeBlanc said with a smile, “so she came over here (to LSU) and you see where that got her.”
Eugene and Rachael LeBlanc were active on campus. He was a founding member of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and she was a charter member of Delta Gamma.
His fiancee would not marry him until she finished her degree, so Eugene LeBlanc found a job doing shift work at Copolymer Rubber and Chemical Corp. to save money. After their wedding in 1952, he kept taking classes until he could graduate in 1955, doing shift work at the Copolymer plant lab the entire time.
“I just decided that in order to do better in life, I had to get a degree,” he said. “In my case that was true.”
After he finished his degree, he became a salaried supervisor of the lab.
Starting a family
When their first child, Anne, was born, Eugene LeBlanc was working shift work full time, struggling to finish his degree part time.
“They tell me I was the most excited dad you’ve ever seen,” he said.
Their 11 children would be born over 17 years.
One of his granddaughters asked Rachael LeBlanc if they planned to have such a large family. No, she told her, it just happened.
“You’re either a Catholic or a sexy Baptist, those that have a lot of children,” Eugene LeBlanc said.
In 1959, they built a four-bedroom, two-bathroom brick, ranch-style house on 2 acres of Eugene’s family land across from the Mississippi River levee in Sunshine.
Their lives were built around the dinner table, which was Rachael’s domain, and the garden, where Eugene raised much of their food. All the children helped in one place or the other. They received huge bags of rice and cattle for slaughter from Rachael’s father, so they never ran out of grains and beef.
Every morning, they had breakfast together, and every night at 6, the children found their assigned seats at the table. After dinner, they crowded onto the couch and sprawled across the floor to watch television. Grandpa Broussard gave them all sheep skins from animals he had raised.
“If you couldn’t fit on the sofa, you would lie down on your sheep skin,” Elmassian said.
Eight of the 11 were girls, so “the boys lived like kings” in comparison, Elmassian said. Time alone in the one bathroom the children shared was precious.
Vacations were important to Eugene LeBlanc, his children said. Most summers they went to the beach, often to Gulf Shores, Ala., but once they took a long, memorable trip.
In 1969, when their family numbered 10, they drove their Plymouth station wagon to Vermont to stay at a great uncle’s cabin. They stayed at motels, ate picnics along the way and stopped in Washington, D.C. With every inch of the wagon filled with children, they strapped their luggage to a rack on top.
Somewhere in Ohio, they left behind child number eight, Rachael, at a rest stop. When they figured out she wasn’t crammed into the front seat or anywhere in the back, Eugene had to cross the median and speed back. What is funny now was terrifying then, Elmassian said.
“Mother never yelled,” she said. “She was patient, she never cursed. It’s amazing, with all those kids, being that calm.”
Vacations on the beach were where their mother felt most at peace, Elmassian said.
“Mama was pretty strict on us as far as nutrition,” said Eugene LeBlanc Jr., the sixth child of the 11. “We had a very balanced meal every meal, but on vacation, all rules were out. She would say, ‘There’s the ham and there’s the bread.’ She was definitely taking a break.”
Eugene Jr. was right in the middle and the first boy and the sixth of 11. When the third-oldest sister Jeanne was diagnosed with diabetes, doctors tested all the LeBlancs, and Eugene, 8 years old at the time, came up positive.
He remembers waking in the middle of a hot night during one of his diabetic attacks, his mother pressing a warm can of Coke to his lips.
“She was a guardian angel for me,” he said.
Sixteen years ago, Eugene LeBlanc Jr. had to have a kidney and pancreas transplant. Five years ago, his body rejected that kidney. He was given another kidney by sister Laura Comeaux, who also became an angel to him.
Life an adventure
Eugene and Rachael LeBlanc truly needed one another, their children say.
“Dad was fun, an adventurer. Mom was the one who kept the peace,” Elmassian said. “She was the one that was the common sense. Without her structure and order, I don’t think we could have made it.”
Eugene LeBlanc loves to talk and tell stories, while Rachael LeBlanc reminds him to give his listeners a rest. She would put her few words in, and they mattered, said child number nine, Estelle Hill, who lives near Houston.
Their family got by on hard work and prayer, Elmassian said. When Eugene worried about finances, Elmassian said, Rachael LeBlanc calmed him.
“She would remind Daddy that we were blessed,” she said. “That was what kept them going.”
Visitors to the LeBlanc house saw bicycles everywhere and “a whole bunch of people running around,” said Bert Dorgant, who married the oldest LeBlanc child, Anne.
“It was unusual to me, very unique to say the least — unreal to be honest,” Bert Dorgant said. “How could you have that many people under one roof?”
That life was very attractive to friends.
“It was a built-in party,” said Hill. “There was always a gathering.”
The 18-mile trip
When the LeBlanc children attended LSU, they weren’t allowed to stay at home. They didn’t have enough vehicles to make the trip every day, and they needed the extra room at home.
They grew up with LSU and steadily made the trip down River Road after high school.
“It was going to be an honor to go,” said Anne Dorgant, the first of the children to attend. “It was a way to get out and do something on your own.”
Jeanne, the third oldest, studied nursing, which caused her to be the first to travel away from home when her program took her to New Orleans after her first year. Becoming separated from her clan proved difficult.
“That was hard for me,” she said. “I was the first one who was out of town. That was an experience.”
Eugene LeBlanc Jr., the first boy, said he had a difficult time in college compared to his sisters, who always had good grades in high school. His father said he wasn’t sure Eugene LeBlanc Jr. would go to school.
“My grades were not nearly as good. I was kind of the black sheep,” he said and laughed. “I thought a lot about quitting because it wasn’t right for me.”
In conversations around the kitchen, his mother would encourage him to stay with it, and he did, finishing with an agribusiness degree. When he walked the stage, a message taped to the top of his cap told the crowd: 5 down, 6 to go.
Estelle Hill, the ninth child, said she always knew where she would go.
“By the time I came along, it was understood,” said Hill, who majored in math education. “It was important. We were supposed to do well in school.”
Of Eugene and Rachael LeBlanc’s 34 grandchildren, nine have graduated from LSU, with 10 working on their degrees.
A quiet house
After the youngest, Mark LeBlanc, 42, graduated, and Eugene LeBlanc retired from Copolymer after 39 years, Eugene and Rachael LeBlanc began traveling. The rocking chair a neighbor gave him sat unused. They saw much of Europe and the United States and took cruises around the Caribbean.
Eugene LeBlanc Jr. said his father never liked the house empty.
“Dad can’t get used to being there, just them,” said Eugene LeBlanc Jr. “He wants as many people as he can. He’d rather have 50 people there.”
In August 2010, Rachael LeBlanc had a stroke, which limits the use of the right side of her body. Eugene LeBlanc stays with her and welcomes his children and grandchildren who come to visit nearly every day as well as the home health workers who come by to help.
“That sounds like the end of the story here, but it’s not that bad,” he said. “She’s here and can enjoy all the flowers and her own home and the good Cajun cooking.”
He still keeps a garden and pushes fresh tomatoes and eggplant on all who stop in. He’ll drip his special blend of coffee and go over old maps, photos and local history.
Then, when it is time to sit with Rachael LeBlanc, hold her hand and watch television, he’ll walk the visitors to the door.
“We’re going to have some quiet time,” he’ll say.