Former SLU president J. Larry Crain, 79, dies

Photograph by  Picture shot on 12-93 J. Larry Crain during a press conference
Photograph by Picture shot on 12-93 J. Larry Crain during a press conference

J. Larry Crain, former Southeastern Louisiana University president and a former state commissioner of higher education, died early Saturday morning at Carpenter House Hospice Care in Baton Rouge.

He was 79.

Rick Crain said some might remember his father as the SLU president who cut the university’s football program after the 1985 season, but he said J. Larry Crain would want to be remembered as a man of integrity who was committed to learning, higher education and historic preservation.

“Cutting football was a really controversial thing to do in a part of the country where football is religion,” Rick Crain said. “That took guts, but he was able to redirect that money to academia and raise the bar for the university.”

SLU President John L. Crain, no relation, said J. Larry Crain led the university at a pivotal time in its history during the 1980s and played a key role in transforming the institution from a small, sleepy college into one of the state’s major regional universities.

“Dr. Crain will be remembered for his efforts to enhance the academic stature of the university during the ‘oil bust’ years that impacted the state’s economy and severely affected the funding of higher education as well as other state services,” John Crain said.

J. Larry Crain, a Washington Parish native, served as Southeastern Louisiana University’s president from 1980 to 1986 before becoming system president for the Board of Trustees for State Colleges and Universities, now known as the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System.

In December 1993, the Board of Regents named Crain as the state’s higher education commissioner following a contentious deadlock between supporters of Gov. Edwin Edwards and appointees of former Gov. Buddy Roemer.

Crain’s relationship with Edwards dated back to 1970 when Crain was an assistant professor of biology at SLUn and heard Edwards speak at a Holiday Inn one night.

“I was the most impressed with that guy,” J. Larry Crain recalled in an interview with The Advocate. “I introduced him to a lot of people and took him into Washington Parish.”

Edwards went on to win the gubernatorial election and, in 1976, asked Crain to serve as deputy secretary, and later secretary, of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

Crain was an avid collector with an interest in history, particularly the Civil War and Southern architecture, culture and genealogy, his son said.

He was a member of the Civil War Roundtable, serving as the group’s president, and had “perhaps the finest collection in the world” of U.S. Martial single-shot pistols, Rick Crain said.

Crain spent years restoring a dogtrot-style house on his grandfather’s homestead in State Line, including a functioning syrup mill, blacksmith shop and barn.

“I always thought he should’ve sold it to the state as a museum, but the state was too broke to buy it,” Rick Crain said.

Rick Crain said his earliest and fondest memory of his father was when his father was studying evolution as part of a doctoral program and would travel to small churches in Washington Parish to give informational seminars on the topic.

“He was a Christian, and his position was always that there was no conflict, that the two could coexist,” Rick Crain said. “But he was not always well received, and I just thought that took a lot of guts.”

Crain is survived by his wife, the former Jean Lott; son Rick, of Pumpkin Center; son Randall, of Metairie; daughter Rita McIntyre, of Denham Springs; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 407 W. Charles St., Hammond.