Publisher’s Note: The Bayou Brief is enormously grateful to former Gov. Buddy Roemer and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press for agreeing to share his story with us. Scopena: A Memoir of Home is available for purchase from Octavia Books in New Orleans and in print and digital versions on Amazon.
I am seventy-four, and I had a stroke July 2014. The stroke affected my fine motor skills and weakened my right side, but with physical therapy I’ve managed to regain my physical abilities enough to return to work in an investment bank that my son, Chas, started seven years ago. And although the stroke causes me to slur my words occasionally, the biggest enemy to my good health is diabetic-neuropathy.
Neuropathy is an affliction of your nerves causing you to lose feelings in your legs and other nervous connections. It is the result of Type 1 diabetes—in my case, a disease that I’ve had since I was twenty-nine. As a result of my neuropathy, I walk with a cane.
My stroke occurred when, as my wife Scarlett and I were leaving Sunday School one July morning, I slurred three words in talking about going to eat lunch.
Scarlett, a registered nurse, and I decided to go quickly to India’s Restaurant to eat and avoid the onset of a diabetic attack (due to low blood sugar). We didn’t have the testing meter for blood sugar with us, and Scarlett thought that if we ate I would be alright. So we did, and things were fine at the restaurant, but while we stopped at a gas station on the way home, I slurred several words, and Scarlett decided to rush me straight to the emergency room at the local hospital.
She called ahead, and they were ready for me. I was former governor of Louisiana and was well-known by most people, so I waved at a couple of folks on my way into the hospital. As a nurse, Scarlett was trained to let the doctors know what was happening with me.
I was feeling no pain but I noticed that my face was drooping and that the hand motions that they wanted me to do were not going well. I couldn’t touch the end of my nose with my right finger-tips, for example. They decided to do an MRI and, as they suspected, discovered I had suffered a stroke that affected me in my small motor skills and right side of my body. They kept me for several days, and finally released me to go home with a cane, recommending physical therapy on a daily basis.
About nine months after the stroke, I was struck with the on-set of neuropathy, a nerve disorder common to many people as they age, but particularly pronounced among people with Type 1 diabetes. People with neuropathy lose feelings particularly in their feet, but all nerves are affected. As a result, people affected often walk haltingly—like a person older than their age. While my speaking and walking had improved in strength for a year after the stroke, my neuropathy has decreased my walking abilities to about 50 percent of my former self.
So I have had a challenging two years with a stroke and operations on my right and left carotid arteries as a result, surgery on my prostate unrelated to the stroke, two cataract surgeries, and neuropathy. I have survived, and I have started thinking about my childhood and growing up on a cotton farm in north Louisiana—Scopena. My parents had both died recently, so I started remembering my childhood, how different it was from most people’s, how I was the oldest child and the natural one to tell about the events at Scopena, and how it might be of interest to new family members.
For years I have resisted writing about my growing up on Scopena in south Bossier Parish in the far northwest corner of Louisiana. I’m not a writer. Never wrote a book in my life. But Dad died on July 7, 2012, after a twelve-year bout with Alzheimer’s at the age of eighty-nine, and Mom died at ninety-two in bed at home in February 2016, and, in effect, I was free for the first time to write my own personal account of the events on Scopena in the 1950s, when I was growing up. Plus I felt a need to tell about events of which only I knew.
Despite my stroke, I count myself lucky not to be handicapped in my thinking and writing skills. I wish I could speak better—clearer and stronger and in my old rhythm, but it is a miracle that I speak at all. In the past my ability to speak well has always played a role in my success. Now, the premium is on listening. Dad always told me it would be that way—“Listen, Butch. Listen,” he would say, when I hadn’t paid attention to some important instruction. He was right, as usual.
So, unable to be as physically active as before, and with more time on my hands, my thoughts began to turn to writing about my Dad, my Mom, and our life at Scopena. It’s something that others have asked me to do over the years. Why have I resisted? Writing seemed something that somebody else did. Besides, to write about one’s father and mother is something that I hesitated to do. The damage to the perceptions of the living is always a danger. People might have different memories of events or they might have been told a skewed version of the truth that they have come to believe. Plus, it seemed almost arrogant to me for a man to write about himself, although when friends would write a book of memories or of some event, I would read it with pleasure. It was not something that I would do myself, I thought. But I was wrong, and worked for more than two years on this memoir of my early life and growing up on Scopena.
Dad and Mom were wonderful parents: careful, loving, protective, so I don’t write to expose a flaw I found in them. Any flaw is in me. What can I add to their legacy? Mom was a wonderful mother of five, smart as a whip, and beautiful as a spring morning. Dad was a leader in everything he did: Bossier Rural Electrification Cooperation, Bossier Farm Bureau, Louisiana Generation and Power Cooperation, National Democratic Party, and Louisiana State Commissioner of Administration, not to mention the father of five children who spent countless hours with each child when they needed it most.
Any flaw or fault that someone finds in these pages is a result of my experience. These are my perceptions and no one else’s.
So too, it’s hard for a son as close to his father as I was, to write about his father—particularly a father who is well-known in political circles, but not well understood; a father who never ran for political office himself, yet raised a son who ran eleven times and won seven, including races for congressman and governor, and lost for president. Dad never ran for political office so he never had to disclose his inner-self or his private records. He could appear to be one thing, but in reality he was something completely different.
He appeared to be in command of whatever situation he was thrust in, but that wasn’t always the case. He was good at appearing in control, but, in truth, he was often ill at ease and asked for guidance from my mother, and from his own mother. The things that confused him at times, that made him seek guidance from someone he trusted, were “people” problems. The people problems weren’t a phobia for him. He wasn’t a head case. He just wasn’t as comfortable with people as he was with the “problems” they caused. He wasn’t a glad-hander, a slap-on-the-back kind of guy. He was quiet, and many considered him a “loner.” He wasn’t a mixer, to put it in a collegiate or political way. He was an “intimidator” in his approach to people. His tone; his attitude; his bluster were all designed to keep people away; to keep people ill at ease; to intimidate them. He would take the position that it had to be done his way or nothing would get done.
“People” problems were something that Dad at times needed help with. His mother, “Mine,” often would advise him about reaching out to people to solve a problem, but Mom was the real champion in quietly talking him into seeing the other person’s point of view. Many a time on the farm I can remember waiting for Dad to listen to Mine or Mom to decide how to implement a strategy that affected people. He was so sure on hedging or planting strategies, yet so uncertain in trusting a foreman to supervise an operation out of his sight.
This flaw was to bedevil him when he found himself, years later, in the turmoil of Louisiana politics—a politics that were “people,” not “performance,” oriented. He didn’t suffer fools well, and he had no patience with people. This was a thicket that Dad wanted to tame—he wanted the challenge—but he tried to do it by himself and without the help he needed from Scopena, including Mom or Mine. In fact, he left Scopena behind for this new challenge. It was a mistake, because he wasn’t prepared to handle the world by himself.
* * *
It has been relatively easy for me to avoid writing about when I was governor. A professional writer called me up after my term ended and made the case for me to write a book under his tutelage that would set the record straight on what I had done and why. I could care less what people think, although there is a story or two to tell about how we had pulled Louisiana back from the brink of bankruptcy and put the state’s finances on a stable path; how we had battled the teacher unions over my efforts to bring greater accountability to Louisiana’s schools; how we had attempted to create a single board to oversee the state’s colleges and universities to bring coherence and coordination to their budgets and planning; how we had gone to the mat with state legislators over my view that they had passed unconstitutional acts to restrict the right of women to abortion; how we had passed the first tough campaign finance disclosure bill in Louisiana history; how we had been the first administration to insist on tough standards to protect Louisiana’s air and water. The writer thought these issues would be most interesting if written from my point of view. Boring, it seemed to me. Too self-serving, I thought.
My problem as governor, looking back after twenty-five years, was often just the opposite of my father’s. He wouldn’t waste (his word, “waste”) any time with people working out a problem. Just do it his way, and everything would be fine. I wanted to hear opinions opposite mine from the people who were most involved. Maybe that’s what made me a “politician,” unlike Dad, who never was described as “political” in any of his dealings with people.
* * *
One thing that I took the lead from Dad on was the suspicion of money and politics. Dad always had a deeply felt belief that Washington, D.C., was too heavily influenced by people with money. He thought that money interests controlled Washington and kept it from representing Americans in general and the average man in particular.
When I ran for president in 2012, I expressed my concern about political action committee (PAC) money and influence-peddling in the presidential campaign of that year. That is what Dad believed, and that is what he taught me. He just couldn’t turn a political phrase with it. He couldn’t run a political campaign with it, because for a man deeply mired in politics—eight years as commissioner of administration of Louisiana—and never elected to a political office, he was the most anti-political animal on the planet. In fact, “politics” was a thing of derision to him. It was a game that he didn’t take seriously.
From Dad I got my cynicism of politics. From Mom, I got my idealism. Both can be valuable traits to have. Mom’s political idealism shone in 1978 when I lost my first race for Congress by two thousand votes in the midst of 100,000 cast ballots because I said a local project was a “boondoggle” with a couple weeks before the election; saying that we should balance the budget before building a “boondoogle.” After dropping to fifth place in a sixteen person field, I struggled to finish a close third in a losing election. Mom said she was proud of me for taking a stand, and the people would come to understand. (I won the next election for Congress two years later in 1980.) Dad said I ought to learn to keep my mouth shut during the two weeks before the election, although I could tell he was proud of me too.
In 2012, a New York publishing company tried to interest me in writing a book about my campaign for president that year under my signature issues: limiting contributions to no more than $100 per individual, not taking PAC or super PAC money, and reporting every penny contributed to the campaign. Let’s shine a light on money in politics, I thought. People now are clueless on where political money comes from and the influence over the politician and the politics that comes with it.
My ideas didn’t get much of a hearing, however. I got a good reception when I appeared on cable TV shows like Morning Joe, but the Republican Party established rules that shut me out of the debates. They set a minimum percentage in the latest poll for a candidate to qualify for the debate. I never qualified. I was always a point too low. If four percentage points were needed to qualify in South Carolina, I had three. If five were needed in New Hampshire, I had four. The highest I got was Florida at nine percentage points. They set the bar for entry at 10 percent, of course.
It was very difficult to gain in the polls if you didn’t participate in the debates because that was the way that you gained name recognition with the masses. And if you didn’t gain name recognition with the masses, you didn’t climb in the polls and earn a right to be in in the next debate. As Dad would have expected, since I had no money of my own, I ended my campaign for president after getting only a handful of votes in New Hampshire. Donald Trump four years later was to prove the power of my campaign stance. He didn’t know anything about politics except one important fact: money controls everything in Washington, D.C. I just couldn’t get the publicity he could, and he had wealth of his own and cut right to the chase: he didn’t care what the insiders felt, because they were the problem.
The idea of writing a book about running for president was a good one, but I was too frustrated with the result of the campaign. I was fed up with the sham the general election campaign had turned out to be. It was too painful, too recent for me to want to do it, given the difficulties of the effort. What seems so obvious to me—important elections are too often bought by the special interests—wasn’t so obvious to everyone else, or, if it was obvious, they didn’t want to acknowledge it. I was too close to the race, and too upset to write unemotionally about my race for president.
* * *
My thinking has changed about a book about my childhood and my Mom and Dad now that they are gone, and now that I’m over seventy and realize that I probably won’t be so lucky on my next stroke. I warmed to an idea I had been thinking about for a long time: writing an account of what it was like to grow up on Scopena—our farm where I lived as a boy from 1950 until 1960, when I went away to college at age sixteen—and what lessons my Dad taught me about family, hard work, race, and life; and Mom, about love and people. Dad was a wonderful father. He raised me to be independent in all my interactions with people and with groups. And Mom—she was the best.
From the very beginning, I was an unusual politician, an independent-minded congressman in a highly charged partisan atmosphere who refused to take PAC money. Because of my independence, I stood out from other Democratic congressmen in joining Republicans to work for what I thought was the good of the country. For example, I joined some forty members of Congress—all Democrats and out of 535 house members—to form the “boll weevils” caucus to support the initiatives of President Reagan, a Republican. But no colleagues joined with me to prevent the purchase of Congress by PACs by not taking their money. Many were good, decent members of Congress, but they were compromised by taking the PAC money. I see it now; I didn’t see it then.
I decided it would be important for me to go back to my roots at Scopena and try to gain an understanding of why my views were so different than those of the typical politician. Was it an accident of time and place, or did it have to do with my upbringing?
I grew up during a time when “family” meant security and sharing more than it does now. There are many examples of lessons learned that can still be relevant in twenty-first-century America, but they are seldom taught these days. My Mom and Dad were extraordinarily devoted parents who had unusual ideas about childrearing that led them to raise five gifted children. This book is about my mother and father, mostly my father, because of the tragedy that befell him when he dared stick his head into Louisiana politics. But most of all, it is about the farm that we grew up on in the 1950s. It is about Scopena.
In those ten years that I lived at Scopena, I formed my views of the world based on the value of individuals rather than on the color of someone’s skin, and I learned the keys of success that I carried into the world far from there, keys like hard work, team effort, honesty in reporting what you saw. The truth is that the highest hurdle I had to jump in life and the thing that prepared me the most for politics, Louisiana-style, were the demanding standards set by my father years ago—at Scopena.
Scopena is a place. You can see it from Highway 71 South, and see its cotton gin, tennis courts, swimming pool, shop, its big front yard, and its tall pecan trees. But the heart of Scopena—the life of Scopena, the magic of Scopena, the uniqueness of Scopena—was Mom and Dad, raising five kids under a philosophy that ignored what the rest of the world thought and that emphasized individual effort. With Dad and Mom gone, I want to tell the story of Scopena before it too is gone or unrecognizable.
Race relations in the 1950s were relatively progressive at Scopena, unlike what was happening in the rest of the South. This is not to say that black people had no problems at Scopena, many of their rights as people were not protected, but Mom and Dad ensured that on Scopena they counted as much as white families—in pay, in housing, in opportunity for advancement, even in voting. Regardless, to be black, even on Scopena, was to be a second-class citizen.
* * *
In the 1950s, when the bulk of this tale takes place, Scopena was a big, and getting bigger, farm, far away from the city and what was happening in Louisiana and in the nation. It was far from Louisiana politics. It was a scene of political discussions to be sure, but it was the type of place to which politicians came to seek support and money, not a place that grew politicians. For a long time when I was growing up, Scopena meant farming, not politics. For me, Scopena was the most important place in the world, but to most people in the city, it was where we country-people lived.
We were twelve miles from Bossier City. Dad was the boss man. And there was nothing to challenge his dominance. He didn’t have to put up with backtalk from anyone, because we lived in a special world, in which he was in charge.
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