August 24, 2012
Five or six days a month, 93-year-old Ory Poret drives downtown, where he conducts tours in English and French at the Old Governor’s Mansion. He is known for his enthusiastic presentation of stories of the old building, where he has served as a docent for more than a decade.
Poret is a busy man. He is an active member of the Baton Rouge Camellia Society and works weekly at the LSU AgCenter’s Burden Center caring for small camellia plants until they are large enough to sell to the public. Every second month, he goes with members of the Knights of Columbus to the Louisiana War Veterans Home in Jackson to play bingo with the residents. He works at the Bishop Ott Shelter and has served as an usher at St. Aloysius Catholic Church for 30 years.
“Mr. Ory is a cultural treasure. He is beloved by everyone at the Foundation for Historical Louisiana,” said Carolyn Bennett, the foundation’s executive director. “Personally, I’d like to produce a reality TV show that follows Mr. Poret on a daily basis.”
Poret, who compiled his recollections in November 2000, was born in Avoyelles Parish in 1919 in a farmhouse between Mansura and Hessmer. He grew up on a cotton farm outside Cottonport.
“We went to school at the Catholic convent in Plaucheville, some 4 miles away by school hack, a covered wagon pulled by two horses,” Poret wrote.
The convent, which was heated by a pot-bellied stove, was built 4 feet off the ground because of periodic flooding in the area. The classrooms were lighted with coal oil lanterns.
“Water was obtained from a large wood cistern, as running water was not yet available,” Poret recalled. “Latrines were in the two opposite corners of the school grounds. Lunch rooms were boards under the numerous shade trees on the school grounds.” The students brought their lunches in gallon syrup cans.
Poret attended sixth- and seventh-grades in a two-room schoolhouse in Hickory, between Cottonport and Plaucheville. The building had no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.
“My favorite memory of the Hickory School . . . was my participation in the annual spelling bee,” said Poret. “ I was given the first prize, . . . a box of cream of wheat.”
After graduating from Cottonport High School in 1937, Poret took a business course in Lake Charles, spent a year at Louisiana Tech in Ruston and was attending Southwest Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“Over the radio came the news,” Poret wrote. “Japan had bombarded our naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. We all knew this meant war and my being single further meant my draft number would soon be called.”
Within a month, Poret had resigned from college and enlisted in the Army. His first assignment was an ordnance company headed for the West Coast. Because of his college background and ability to type, Poret was asked by the captain of the company to assist other soldiers with government life insurance forms and beneficiary designations.
On board a troop ship with destination unknown, Poret was asked to take over the responsibility of putting out a daily newsletter.
“News came from a teletype machine from which I would pick out what I felt were the news items of interest to the troops,” he said.
Originally assigned the lowest level of the ship, Poret soon saw that the small news office had enough space for him to lie down. “I immediately went down to the very bottom of the ship, retrieved my barracks bag and moved up to the news office on the deck level,” Poret said with a smile.
Finally after zigzagging across the Pacific, the troop ship landed in Australia, where Poret was asked by the captain to assist in the base office. When the captain was promoted to major, Poret moved with him to the 5th Air Corps headquarters in downtown Brisbane in the same building where Gen. Douglas MacArthur was headquartered.
Poret was later moved into the war zone in New Guinea, where he continued to serve on the office staff. After several months, he was transported to the Philippines “some two days after the infantry had secured the area,” Poret said.
“I remained in Leyte (in the Philippines) several months until one day I was informed by the personnel officer that I had enough points to be returned to the states,” said Poret, who fondly recalls his landing in Los Angeles with military bands on barges playing patriotic music.
Poret returned to Lafayette to finish his degree and arrived in Baton Rouge in 1946 to find a job. He was hired by Lucille May Grace, the register of state lands, then a statewide elected position. (Grace was married to Fred Dent but kept her maiden name professionally.)
“I was hired to set up an oil and gas division within the State Land Office,” Poret said. “Extensive drilling for oil and gas had begun in the state, and even some wells were being tested offshore.”
In 1948, Poret married Sarah Becker. In 1956, they adopted a son, John Garrett, whom they called Rett.
In 1951, Grace resigned to run unsuccessfully for governor. Ellen Bryan Moore, a World War II veteran and former teacher, was elected to the position.
In 1955, Grace was again elected register but died in office two years later. Gov. Earl Long appointed “close political friends to the job,” Poret wrote. However, in 1959, Moore was again elected register, a position she remained in until her retirement in 1977.
In 1976, a change in the state constitution converted the elected position of register of state lands to director of the State Land Office appointed by the governor. Poret became the first director, a position he held until his retirement in 1980.
In 1991, Rett Poret died, and, in 1996, Sarah Poret died. “God has taken many of my family and friends, but this we must accept,” Poret wrote in is recollections.
Over his career in state government, Poret worked with many volunteer organizations including the American Red Cross, Legal Aid Society, March of Dimes, Old State Capitol Memorial Commission, Baton Rouge Inter-Civil Club Council, Boy Scouts, Easter Seals and the Committee for the Preservation of the Port Hudson Battlefield.
Since he moved to Baton Rouge, he has been involved with local and state veterans groups. “It was my good luck to be named commander of the local group of Disabled American Veterans and a few years later being named state commander,” he said. He has also been active in AMVETS (American Veterans) and has served as local and state commander.
“My interest then was matters pertaining to the welfare of veterans including an interest in national cemeteries, where veterans can be interred if they so desire,” he said.
This led to Poret’s being asked to serve on the board and now as chairman of Historic Magnolia Cemetery, where many Civil War veterans are buried. “We work with BREC in seeing that the cemetery is kept nice and neat,” he said.
His efforts with Magnolia Cemetery led to work with the Mid City Cemetery Coalition, an organization of representatives of the downtown cemeteries — St. Joseph Cemetery, National Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery, Sweet Olive Cemetery and Historic Magnolia Cemetery.
“This makes it possible for a representative of each of the five historic cemeteries in the city of Baton Rouge to work together to exchange ideas,” he said.
While serving on the board of the coalition, Poret was asked to serve on the board of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, which he did for four years. Even though he is no longer on the board, he remains one of the foundation’s most active volunteers.
He said he believes in the importance of preserving the past, especially historic cemeteries. “A cemetery is a resting place, and the least we can do is show respect to individuals by seeing that their final resting place is kept neat and clean,” he said.