ERATH – It’s not the type of tragedy a small town can forget. When Hurricane Hilda swept through this town on Oct. 3, 1964, a water tower 125 feet up collapsed onto City Hall, killing eight men inside who were headquartered there to conduct emergency Civil Defense operations. They had stayed behind to protect their neighbors.

So Jackie Vincent was heartened when, earlier this month, a plaque memorializing the men was dedicated on the 57th anniversary of the tragedy. Surviving members from seven of the men’s families were there to remember their loved ones.

Fifty-seven Octobers had passed, and that was long enough.

Vincent was touched, she said, when at the plaque dedication surviving family members ran their fingers over the raised letters of the dead men’s names: Joseph Brown, Scotty Bernard, Otto “Cowboy” Bourque, brothers Vernice and Duffy Broussard, Clifton J. Dugas, Felix Dubois and Eutis “Noo Noo” Menard. A local priest blessed the plaque on the site where the water tower collapsed.

But Vincent and her husband, Doug, might’ve had another name in mind that day – Robert Vincent, their son, who died last year of the effects of a degenerative nerve disease after a lifetime of physical struggle. He was 41.

Robert Vincent also died with a litany of personal and community triumphs, including three terms on the Erath Town Council and a law degree from Southern University. He was elected his first time in 1998 — the youngest elected official in the state and the youngest mayor pro tem in the country. When his mother suggested to the then-teenager that he was too young to win, he told her it was his time.

Jackie, who served for five months as her son’s short-term replacement on the Town Council after his October 2020 death, said Robert left behind three unfinished civic projects a year ago, chief among them placing a public plaque to the memory of those men killed in service to his hometown when the water tower had collapsed under the weight of its 40,000 gallons. That’s the plaque on display now at the former City Hall location.

She said Robert, whose law office was once located in the Acadian Museum of Erath, next door to the old City Hall property, would sometimes lament that people — including longtime residents and students — would pass by the site of the tragedy with nary a nod to its historic importance. With the plaque — its color is Erath Bobcat blue — now affixed to a municipal building, it will offer an ever-present reminder of that tragic day as well as permanent testimony to the courage of the men who lost their lives watching over their community.

Robert had been enthusiastic about local history since he was 10, when his father’s first cousin, Warren Perrin, was first putting together the Acadian Museum in an old bank building next door to the one-time City Hall site. Jackie said her son would stop by the museum and ask the adults there questions about what they were doing and why. People would drop by the museum and offer precious memories to the museum donations.

His health was always precarious; it was unlikely the young boy would reach age 20, Jackie and Doug had been told. But their son had three surgeries to help him walk, at least for a while, and he outlived the medical prediction times two. People came to like the youngster, who was cheerful and inquisitive.

Robert’s interest in the 1964 tragedy was heightened in 1999 with the town’s centennial celebration. By then a council member, he had other civic projects on his plate, but the idea of posting a public plaque honoring the victims of the 1964 storm never left his mind. He promised himself he would get the plaque project completed. It just hadn’t gotten done as the years went by, and he was nearly out of time.

Shortly before his death, he asked his mother, “Mom, are you going to honor my dream?” She told him she would and she found support for the plaque project from the family of Earl “Boo” Landry and from Martial Broussard, who had arrived at City Hall that tragic day in 1964 to relieve Scotty Bernard on the radio; Broussard was rescued from under water tower’s rubble. The plaque cost $1,500.

On Friday morning, Robert’s parents visited his grave at Our Lady of Lourdes cemetery — his marker faces the site of old water tower — to decorate the headstone for Homecoming. Shortly after noon, they sat on a bench in front of the museum and waved to friends and neighbors who passed by.

They remembered their son’s lifetime of contributions to his hometown as they watched the Erath High Homecoming Parade pass by in front of the museum. Lots of folks waved back to them.

Watching the parade, the parents were mere feet from their son’s old law office space and barely more than that from the plaque, affixed to the municipal building next door two weeks ago.

The plaque reminded them of a lot of brave men, their son included. It reminded them of promises that were made and promises that were kept.


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.