If you were a student at Alcee Fortier High School in Uptown New Orleans in 1965, you pretty much knew where you stood in life.
You wore the badges of the caste system with pride. If you were a guy and parted your hair on the left, wore Bass Weejuns, drove your daddy’s Volvo, wore Madras shirts with button-down collars and spent your Saturday nights dancing to music by John Fred and the Playboys at the Valencia Club, you were a “frat.”
Female frats had pretty much the same sense of fashion as their male counterparts.
If you were a guy and your hair was held down by something gooey out of a jar, and you wore black slip-on shoes (white lightning bolts along the side were optional) and colorful polo shirts and parked your ’57 Chevy Bel Air on the Nashville Avenue side of the building, you were a “cat.”
Cats seemed to always be talking about spending the weekend shooting pool at Grit’s Bar and Pool Hall or sitting under a blazing sun at the LaPlace Drag Strip.
Female cats were simple to spot: Tons of teased hair held aloft by hairspray from an ever-ready can that could be whipped from a purse in a nanosecond. They wore pointy-toed Capezio shoes and skin-tight skirts, the hemlines of which seemed to rise as the year wore on.
For the seniors graduating in 1965, Fortier High School was the place to be.
A changing world
Outside, the world was more complicated. A president had been murdered a couple of years earlier, there was talk of going to the moon and guys from Fortier were being shipped off to some place called Vietnam.
Under Layne Romagosa’s senior photo in the “The Tarpon,” his activities are listed as Drill Team and “A Company Commander.” First Lt. Romagosa was killed in combat in Vietnam in 1970. Lane Anderson Carson (voted “Most Likely to Succeed”) married his Fortier High School sweetheart, Laura, fought in Vietnam, was wounded and came home to build a sterling political career that included six years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and a long stint as assistant district attorney in St. Tammany Parish.
Carson now operates Lane Carson & Associates, LLC, a busy law firm in Covington. He and Laura live on the north shore.
Lenny Fontana, a 1965 Fortier graduate, spent his service years in Seoul, South Korea. Fontana, who designs costumes for parties and the long-running MOMS Ball and operates a one-chair beauty salon from his living room near the school, may have been an exception to the rule: He found the high school caste system a little confusing.
“I never knew if I was a frat or a cat,” he admits. “I wavered between the two. I got along with everybody. I dressed in a way that let me walk the line.”
Fontana talks nonstop about his beauty shop being wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and re-establishing his business in his living room. He also is a painter, applying his art to fan blades, coffee cans and fence boards.
“But Fortier,” he says, “man, what a great place to be. I loved it.”
Classmate L. Ron Forman spent his Fortier years tying up the “Swan Boat” to the dock in the Audubon Park lagoon. He famously took over a rag-tag zoo in the early 1970s and built it into the internationally renowned Audubon Nature Institute. Today, Forman is president and CEO of the Audubon Institute.
Larry Juster’s prowess in football, baseball, basketball and track showed early. When he was just a big kid at Live Oak Junior High in the Irish Channel, Juster was recruited by high school coaches the way college coaches rabidly recruit high school athletes today.
While every school — Warren Easton, Nicholls, Jesuit, Holy Cross — wanted Juster, the kid was only in the eighth grade, and back then high schools were comprised of 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Most of the coaches resigned themselves to waiting a year.
Fortier Coach O.J. Tournillon had a better idea. Tournillon brought Juster to Fortier a year early. Juster became the only ninth-grader attending Fortier. A class of one.
Tournillon saw to it that Juster took all ninth-grade subjects — and played football on the high-school level. The following year, Juster moved up as a “freshman.” You could almost hear other high school coaches around New Orleans say in unison: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Juster retired as a major after 30 years on the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department. He now works in management for the global Wackenhut Security firm.
Along the way, Juster founded and played on the Blue Knights, a semi-pro football team made up of police and firemen. Today, Juster and his wife live the good life in a home with a pool atop a rolling hill in Bush.
The 6-foot-4 Juster smiles as he recalls Tourillion and coach Milton “Mook” Clavier.
“God, I loved those men,” he beams. “What a time that was in my life. Great, great days!
“I remember the week we beat St. Aloysius. No public school had ever done that. I was named Player of the Week and went on the Hap Glaudi Show. Hap Glaudi himself presented me with the trophy. You don’t ever forget things like that.”
Ironically, Juster lives just down the road from Joe Candilora, a baseball player at Fortier and now the town marshal for Abita Springs.
Candilora struggled through his earlier years until he was diagnosed with severe hearing problems.
When that was corrected with hearing aids for both ears, Candilora went on to a 31-year career with the post office. But it was a 10-year successful battle to adopt two children of which he is most proud.
“My wife and I couldn’t be prouder of our children,” Candilora says. “It was a long struggle, but we decided we were not going to give up. It was a success. And that’s one thing I can say about everybody I know who went to Fortier. They’ve all been a success at what they tried to do. There are no failures from that class.”
Mr. and Miss Everything
Take the case of Richard and Carol Osborne.
Richard was president of the 1964 senior class. The following year, Carol won the top honor of “Miss Everything.” It was no shock when the two were married in 1970.
But then in 1998, the “made for each other” couple divorced.
“But we still loved each other,” Carol says. “We got back together in 2007 … not married, just together.”
Richard retired after more than three decades at Kaiser Aluminum. And although she’s had hip replacement surgery, Carol is a community whirlwind in their historic Algiers Point neighborhood. She founded and promotes Wednesdays on the Point, a popular, free weekly concert at the Algiers ferry landing.
Richard and Carol have three children and five grandchildren. And perhaps the most common sight today is that of Ricky and Carol Osborne walking hand in hand around their historic Algiers neighborhood.
You can almost hear Joe Candilora in the background saying, “Ya see. That’s what I mean. Nobody failed.”
Near and far
In 1989, after the Berlin Wall came down, lawyer Joe Exnicios traveled the crumbling Soviet bloc, preparing those nations in everything from how to run free elections to how to start a business.
Tragedy struck in 1995 when Exnicios’ wife suffered a brain injury that meant she would spend the rest of her life needing constant care. Exnicios tended her round the clock.
A few years later, Exnicios’ aging mother would also need his constant care. He keeps it in perspective.
“I retired, took care of them, did a lot of gardening and kept up with my reading. I have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren. I spend a lot of time with one of those grandchildren, Emy. Nobody out there hates me. I’m very satisfied with my life.”
Exnicios’ mother died in 2001. His wife of 39 years, Susan, died in 2013.
Fifty years on
Over the years, Vietnam became Iran and Afghanistan. Going to the moon became ho-hum.
Even Fortier High School itself has changed. It is now circled by a tall fence that bears the name “Lusher.” And it’s now a charter school.
On Saturday, men and women from the 1965 graduating class of Alcee Fortier High School will get together at Ron Forman’s Aquarium of the Americas to celebrate the 50th anniversary of walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.
They plan a memorial for Vietnam casualty Layne Romagosa and other Fortier students who served and gave their lives for their country.
While most of the grads still live in the New Orleans area, some have settled as far away as Oregon, Washington state, California, Arkansas, Dallas and upstate New York.
You can’t tell the cats from the frats anymore, because most of that hair is history.
But regardless of politics or the riches obtained or lost or even the number of marriages or kids, everybody will agree: Alcee Fortier was a great place to have spent a little piece of their lives.
And 1965 was the best time to do it.