C.J. Guillory remembers that when he was a toddler, his father would use a horse and buggy to drive the 6 miles from his family’s farm in Hessmer to Marksville.
Quite a memory for someone who would grow up to sell buggies of the horseless kind, becoming a fixture at three successive Baton Rouge Chevrolet dealerships, which collectively employed him for 67 years.
Guillory celebrated his 100th birthday Wednesday at Gerry Lane Chevrolet, just two years after a second broken hip finally forced his retirement from the Lane dealership he served for 26 years.
“This is what I call the backbone of Gerry Lane,” Eric Lane, president of Lane Enterprises, told a crowd of more than 100 friends and family members shortly after Guillory arrived in a gleaming copper-colored 1957 Chevrolet driven by 77-year-old Lane employee Robert Mims. “Until the day he died (in 2013), my dad (Gerry Lane) thought the world of Mr. Guillory.”
It’s been a winding trip through life that got him there. Guillory was 9 months old when his mother died, causing him to be raised for the next three years by “every Tom, Dick and Harry, they tell me.”
He was 6 years old when his father, who had remarried, managed to buy a used Ford Model-T.
“I lived with my parents until I was 15 years old,” Guillory recently recalled. That was 1930, when he graduated with another boy and seven girls from Hessmer’s nine-grade school. For those nine years, his nightly studies were conducted under the light of a kerosene lamp.
Drinking water came from a well. There was no running water, no air conditioning. The bathroom was an outhouse. Baths were taken in a wash tub filled with cold water.
“I had a scholarship to LSU,” Guillory said. He said he gave it to a classmate. “I didn’t have any money to get to LSU.”
He worked briefly as an oiler on a dragline, building a levee on the Red River near Alexandria. Then, accompanied by his father, Guillory paid a truck driver 75 cents for a daylong trip to New Orleans to accept a job at a broom supply company that paid $14.50 a week.
“That was pretty good in those days,” Guillory added.
Not counting a four-year interruption for U.S. Army service as a military policeman in North Africa during World War II, the still-sharp centenarian was employed in the private sector for more than 80 years.
While working days at New Orleans Broom Supply, Guillory took night classes in bookkeeping, shorthand and other business necessities at Soulé Business College.
When he graduated, his employer moved him out of the broom supply warehouse and “promoted me to the office,” Guillory said. He later traveled to Texas and Oklahoma to grade broom straw inventories at potential suppliers.
In 1938, though, Guillory’s employer went out of business. He sought and won a job as a mail clerk at a New Orleans office of General Motors Acceptance Corp., or GMAC. He then won promotions to posting clerk and assistant cashier.
GMAC officials soon asked whether he wanted to become the main cashier at the firm’s office in Baton Rouge, and Guillory grabbed that opportunity.
While in Baton Rouge, he developed a friendly relationship with Floyd Peterson, who owned Peterson Chevrolet on Scenic Highway.
GMAC officials later assigned Guillory a company car and sent him to Covington to check on General Motors dealerships and collect on delinquent accounts.
At that time, World War II began and Guillory was drafted into the Army. He soon found himself on a troop ship bound from New York for Northern Ireland for training and other preparations for operations in either Europe or North Africa. The young lieutenant, who had graduated from officer candidate school, then found himself in North Africa.
After the war, Guillory resumed his career as a traveling collections agent for GMAC.
But he grew tired of traveling after he met pretty Gertrude Dupuis, a young teacher at the Hessmer school whom he married.
Remembering his friendly relationship with Peterson in Baton Rouge, Guillory sought and won the post of service manager at Peterson Chevrolet in 1946. He remained at that dealership until 1958, when Peterson died.
Herbert Polk, however, was forming a new Chevrolet dealership in downtown Baton Rouge. Polk hired a young salesman, Gerry Lane, away from a Ford dealership and installed him as sales manager. Polk’s second hire was Guillory, who ran the parts and service department.
Polk later moved his dealership to the 6500 block of Florida Boulevard. Lane left to turn struggling dealerships in Mississippi into success stories.
Guillory was still at the Florida Boulevard dealership in 1987, when Lane returned to Baton Rouge and purchased the business from Polk.
He says he would still be there if not for the broken hip he suffered two years ago.
In his lifetime, Guillory survived the great flood of 1927, educated himself during the Great Depression and coped with the Great Recession.
His first wife died at age 54. A second wife died after about five years of marriage.
What helped him and others of his generation persevere through such hard times?
“We had no other option,” Guillory said this week. “You did what was best for you and best for the people around you.”
Education is one thing he considers a valuable protection against economic devastation.
The boy who surrendered a college scholarship for lack of living expenses let all three of his children know how important the issue was to him.
Francis “Boo” Guillory, 62, of Baton Rouge, said: “This is what he told us. ‘I’m going to educate you.’ He paid every bit of our educations.
“He also said, ‘My house is your house,’ ” Boo Guillory recalled. “And he meant it. I lived there until the night before I got married.”
Boo Guillory earned a degree in computer science and worked 34 years at BASF before he retired.
Daughter Cynthia Guillory Collins, 68, of Greenville, Mississippi, added: “All I can say is he’s the best daddy in the whole world.”
Her father paid for her courses at LSU and later funded her speech and English education degree from Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, as well as a public relations degree from the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.
She retired from her education and public relations career four years ago.
Son Warren Guillory, 65, of Baton Rouge, earned his degree in computer programming from a former local business college.
When he retired from programming work at the local school system about 20 years ago, he began a new career — in the rental department at Gerry Lane Chevrolet.
“He’s been the greatest father,” Warren Guillory said.
Lane told C.J. Guillory: “We’ll see you here again next year.”