West Bank civic leader Frank Ehret Jr. dies at 96

Frank J. Ehret Jr., a West Bank civic leader who helped found both West Jefferson Medical Center and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, died Monday at the Southeast Louisiana War Veterans Home in Reserve. He was 96.

Although formally trained as an educator, Ehret helped shape public life on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish in other ways.

In the 1950s, he was among a group of residents who advocated the establishment of a public hospital on the West Bank, which was then severely underserved.

At a community event celebrating his work in 1996, Ehret recalled that sentiment ran against public borrowing to build the new hospital. But his advocacy was personal, he said: His infant son had died of a rare heart condition in his wife’s arms as they raced to get the baby to an East Bank hospital.

Initial public sentiment against a bond issue eventually shifted, and West Jefferson General Hospital opened in 1956. Ehret served on the original hospital committee.

An avid outdoorsman and conservationist, starting in the 1960s Ehret was an early, sometimes lonely public voice urging West Bank public officials to rethink the philosophy of headlong development that had spurred Jefferson Parish’s rapid postwar growth, seeming to produce steady prosperity.

Against much political and economic opposition, he argued that low-lying land below Marrero would always present impossible drainage problems, making it unsuitable for commercial development. He urged the parish to deny developers’ requests to build new subdivisions there, producing heated policy battles before the Jefferson Parish Council.

Local sentiment and local politics initially ran against him. But backed by new federal environmental legislation that also discouraged wetlands development, Ehret’s views slowly became practice.

During that period he also advocated relentlessly for the formation of a national park to preserve wetlands below Marrero. That work bore fruit in 1978 with the establishment of Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve.

The park’s Barataria unit, which preserves 23,000 acres of wetlands that Ehret cherished, attracted 375,000 visitors last year, Superintendent Lance Hatten said.

“The Barataria unit is a testament to Frank’s conservation ethic,” Hatten said. “He dedicated his life to making his community better. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

A native of Gretna, Ehret earned an undergraduate degree from LSU, then a master’s degree in special education from the University of New Orleans. He was an Army veteran of World War II.

He also served as director of special education in the Jefferson Parish school system.

He is survived by three children: Frank J. Ehret III, Kathleen Ehret White and Mary Catherine Ehret; two sisters, Marguerite Ehret Broas and Verna Ehret; two grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.

Visitation will be at Mothe Funeral Home, 2100 West Bank Expressway, from 6 p.m to 10 p.m. Sunday and from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday. A Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Monday at Visitation of Our Lady Catholic Church, 3500 Ames Blvd., Marrero. Interment will follow at Restlawn Cemetery in Avondale.