In early 1976, Gerald Ford was in the midst of his two-year stint as an accidental U.S. president, the United States was getting ready to pop the cork on its bicentennial celebration, and Peter Gitz won an election in Madisonville for the first time.
In 2016, for the first time since that year, Madisonville will hold a mayoral election without Gitz on the ballot. He has decided not to seek an 11th term as the town’s mayor.
In his lengthy tenure, Gitz has seen the little town on the Tchefuncte River go from a riverside village filled with rowdy bars to one of the north shore’s quaintest and most popular residential communities.
The funny thing is, Gitz didn’t set out to be mayor. He already had one career, as a supervisor for PreStressed Concrete, the company that produced the concrete pieces for the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Gitz was there for 27 years. In 1976, he also was about to embark on a second career, as a restaurateur owning Badeaux’s, a local drive-in, which he ran for 34 years.
“People talked me into running. I didn’t even campaign,” Gitz recalled. Nevertheless, he won a seat on the town’s council, and because he got the most votes, he became the mayor pro tem.
And when then-Mayor John Frere had to resign early in his first term because of illness, Gitz took over — and found he liked it.
It should go without saying that Gitz has seen a lot in his almost 40 years in Madisonville Town Hall. Projects like bulkhead improvements on the river that help keep floodwaters at bay. Disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, both of which flooded much of the town, including Town Hall. Controversies, such as when the popular riverside restaurant Friends burned down and the massive rebuild drew opposition from neighbors.
Gitz also presided over one of Madisonville’s most legendary episodes: the show trial of the rooster Reveille, which faced charges of disturbing the peace. The whole thing began when a woman who had moved to Madisonville from New Orleans showed up at a Town Council meeting to complain about a rooster that would crow every morning just outside her house.
“The way she described it, you would think it was a tiger,” Gitz recalled. “The council didn’t want to laugh. We told her we would do what we could about the rooster.”
Gitz checked with police to see if there were any ordinances that addressed the avian nuisance, and when there weren’t, he decided the rooster, which other town residents had named Reveille, would be charged and tried in Town Hall on a Sunday. Another resident made a cage for the rooster that looked like a jail cell. The media noticed, and several hundred people showed up at the trial, most of them rooting for the rooster.
The District Attorney’s Office prosecuted, and Covington Mayor Ernest Cooper was enlisted to defend the noisy cock.
Gitz presided over the trial as judge.
“We served beer at the trial,” Gitz said with a laugh. “I found that rooster guilty.”
Gitz sentenced Reveille to community service: He had to appear at all community events.
The town capitalized on Reveille’s notoriety for months, taking it to parades in New Orleans and putting up “rooster crossing” signs in the town. The signs, alas, kept getting stolen. And Reveille, who was the toast of Madisonville for a while, eventually disappeared without a trace.
Over the decades, Gitz noted, the town’s character has changed. When he first became mayor, Madisonville was known for its barrooms and taverns populated with local shipbuilders from the Jahncke shipyard. Fights in the street were a relatively common occurrence, he said.
Now, there is far more traffic on the river, and Madisonville has grown calmer, known more for mossy oaks, restaurants and coffee shops than saloons and fisticuffs. And even though the town hasn’t grown much in population — it hovers around 800 residents — the staff at Town Hall has.
Gitz began with one policeman, one clerk and a handful of public works employees, he said. Now, the town has 35 employees, including 16 in the Police Department, though some of them are part-time.
Through it all, Gitz has been there: restless, preferring to be out in the field or building something to sitting behind a desk in Town Hall shuffling papers.
Asked about his proudest achievement, he points to 1,400 feet of concrete bulkhead along the Tchefuncte River that he worked on in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Or he motions generally southward, toward the town’s Maritime Museum, which he helped open in 2001. Or the town’s famous Wooden Boat Festival, which began in the late 1980s. Or the town’s branch library, which is one of the largest in the parish.
“I always had a goal, every time I ran,” he said. “I love building things.”
Gitz will be 81 early next year, but his eyes seem younger. They flit around, lighting up with humor at times and turning expressive when he talks about projects. His hands are weathered but strong.
He said he’ll miss the people the most, but he’ll still be around, maybe building up the cattle stock at his farm outside of town.
The two men who are vying to replace him aren’t trying to fill his shoes.
“The man’s practically a legend,” said Mark Badeaux, a councilman. “People are going to be saying, ‘You know what Mr. Pete would do.’ ”
Badeaux is familiar with long-term mayors: His father, Edward, preceded Gitz in the job, serving from 1960 through 1976.
Badeaux is facing Jean Pelloat, a fellow councilman, in the March 5 election.
Both have known Gitz their entire lives.
“Certainly, I will look to him for advice and leadership, and I hope he will be there for me to call on,” said Pelloat, who was elected to the Town Council in 1976, along with Gitz. He has served on the council for 28 years in all.
Covington Mayor Mike Cooper, who has known Gitz his entire life — and whose father, Ernest, was a close friend of his fellow mayor — said Gitz’s personable nature was a key to his longevity in office.
“Being a personal, friendly guy helped,” Cooper said. He also praised Gitz’s connection to the town — four generations of Gitzes have lived in Madisonville — and the town’s close-knit sense of community. And, he said with a laugh, Gitz didn’t face today’s calls for term limits.
What will the man known as Mr. Pete do when he leaves office July 1? He plans to spend time with his wife, JoAnn — their marriage had an 11-year head start on his administration — and the couple’s seven grandchildren.
“She probably wouldn’t have married me if she knew all the trouble,” he said with a chuckle.
Not surprisingly, Gitz has been doing a lot of reflecting on his tenure since he decided not to run again. And while he’s proud of his accomplishments, he wanted to make sure a reporter understood that he didn’t think he was particularly special.
“Anybody who’d been in office could’ve done the same things,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.