Celebration marks expansion

Bill Grundmeyer was only 5 years old in December 1935.

But he remembers it like it was yesterday.

That’s because then, as now, the opening of a bridge across the Mississippi River was a big deal. Maybe even bigger.

“It was cold, and my mother wrapped me up in her coat,” said Grundmeyer, who, along with his sister Shirley Blanchard, was among a group of about 20 ’35ers, those who were present when the Huey P. Long Bridge across the Mississippi River opened nearly 78 years ago in Jefferson Parish and who returned for the celebration of the $1.2 billion expansion Sunday.

“It was really exciting to us,” Grundmeyer said.

The group participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony conducted about halfway up what is actually the eastbound exit ramp of the bridge but for which the access was reversed Sunday.

“These people are the real stars,” said Sherri LaBas, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, who presided over the official ceremonies. A ribbon-cutting followed a 5-kilometer race across the river, which drew more than 2,000 participants, many of whom stayed around to second line back up the ramp.

“We feel like we’re preserving history having them here while celebrating the modern engineering marvel that the Huey is,” LaBas said.

Shirley Blanchard, 89, didn’t run or participate in a second line Sunday, but she recalled that she, her brother and her parents walked to the apex of the bridge to watch the ceremonies that day in 1935 and then walked back down so they could drive over as well.

“A train came over while we were up there, and we knew our cousin was supposed to be on it,” she said. “He was and he waved at us. We thought that was something special.”

Edward Benezech, 93, had a different kind of ride across the river.

With his father, Edward Benezech Sr., they drove a stagecoach in the vehicle parade across the river.

The horses were provided by Jackson Barracks while Benezech Sr. was commander of the 141st Field Artillery unit of the Louisiana National Guard. Years later, Benezech Jr. would command the same unit after service in Italy during World War II.

“We took three teams of six horses out to the bridge before it opened to see if they could get to the top,” Benezech recalled. “They made it, but they didn’t want to, and we really had to urge them on.”

There were no stagecoaches Sunday, but there were plenty of vintage cars, including a Model T occupied by John “Spud” McConnell, who was in full Kingfish regalia that he wears when doing a one-man show on the flamboyant governor for whom the bridge is named.

“I don’t bring this outfit out much,” said McConnell, who posed for pictures throughout the day. “But this is worth it.”

There were also descendants of Huey P. Long on hand for the celebration, including his great-great-granddaughter Anna Pierce, 3 months old.

Perhaps the oldest of the ’35ers present Sunday was Betty Decker Blanchard (no relation to Shirley Blanchard), 95, of Abbeville, who was a 17-year old freshman at LSU at the time.

But because she had worked that summer at Louisiana Power & Light after graduating from Metairie High School, she was invited to join her former colleagues in enjoying the festivities.

“We walked all the way to the top,” she said. “I know the bridge is a lot bigger (actually wider) now, but back then, it seemed like the biggest thing in the world to me.

“I don’t guess there are any of those girls I worked with who are still around, but I wouldn’t have missed this day for anything,” she said.

Not everyone was in festive mood.

Peter Bennett, of New Orleans, was holding a pair of protest signs, one proclaiming “$1.2 Billion — What A Waste.”

“For the money they spent on this, they could have built a passenger rail line from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that would have served a lot more people,” he said. “That shows you the poor planning that this state has.”

The widening of the bridge — from four lanes that were 9 feet wide with no shoulder to six lanes that are 11 feet wide with shoulders — has been universally praised, especially by those who endured harrowing drives across the bridge.

But Bennett insisted it wasn’t necessary.

“The state cannot provide statistics that there are more crashes on this bridge than any other one,” he said.

But Bennett was in the minority among those present Sunday.

“This thing is so big and wide, it’s amazing,” said Mark Oncale, of Jefferson, who, as a 6-year-old in 1935, went to the ceremonies with his mother, thanks to the kindness of a neighbor, “Miss Moll,” because the Oncale’s did not have a car.

“I’m blessed to be here today,” he said.

Like Grundmeyer, Oncale has sharp memories of that day nearly eight decades ago.

“We only walked halfway across the bridge,” he said. “My mother was afraid it was going to fall down and so we walked back.

“But it’s still here. So I guess they built it pretty well.”