James Kelly Nix, who was elected state Superintendent of Education from 1976 to 1984, died Tuesday, according to a member of his family.

Nix was 85 and had been suffering from lung cancer for the past seven months after a bout with other illnesses, Stephanie Carter, his niece, said Wednesday.

As the head of the state’s public schools for eight years, Nix was responsible for cultivating the teaching of French after years of official attempts to smother the language. He established the first major special educational program in Louisiana for students with special needs and tightened standards for graduating high school.

A 1958 graduate of North Louisiana State University Monroe – now University of Louisiana at Monroe – Nix then received advanced graduate degrees in public administration at LSU in 1961.

Nix served in the U.S. Army overseas, then returned and ran the field operations in the 1971 gubernatorial campaign of U.S. Rep. Gillis W. Long. He was tapped by the ultimate winner, Edwin E. Edwards, as a chief executive assistant and was the state’s liaison to the National Governors’ Conference.

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He ran for education superintendent in 1975.

Nix opposed making creation science part of the public-school curriculum. After passed by the Legislature and signed into law by then Gov. David Treen in 1981, Nix refused to enforce the equal teaching of the teaching the Biblical creation of man and evolution.

Intense opposition to this stance, coupled with two of his assistants going to prison on charges of shaking down a state contractor, helped Thomas Clausen defeat Nix’s bid for a third term as superintendent. The post became appointive in 1988.

Nix was general manager of the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux from December 1987 to December 1988. He founded a firm that handled commercial real estate, where he worked until his retirement.

Nix will be interred in Oak Grove – he grew up in West Carroll Parish – after a funeral service Saturday at the Cox Funeral Home in Oak Grove.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.