Avondale Shipyard has grown quiet in recent years.
Once the largest employer in Louisiana with 26,000 jobs, after its sale to Northrop Grumman in 2001, the number of employees dwindled to 200 engineers. Shipbuilding operations were eventually moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi.
But thousands of men and women around New Orleans still remember with pride the years they worked there.
That’s why Barbara Johnson, daughter of one of the founders, James Viavant, decided to finance a history of the shipyard.
“Avondale: Model for Success,” documents the life of Avondale, from its inception in 1933 to its sale.
“I always wanted to do a book about Avondale because it was such a good story,” said Johnson. “The men and women who worked there were devoted to the company, and it was fun to see how much they accomplished.”
Johnson said the people who worked at the shipyard were deeply loyal and worked hard for the company, and she wanted to show them their toil mattered. Her coffee table book, illustrated with historic photographs, is meant to honor them and offer them something tangible to hold on to.
It’s a story of a scrappy shipbuilder that grew into a behemoth over time. With a relatively small budget early on, Avondale struggled to pull in large contracts. It eventually succeeded with the help of other New Orleans businesses.
Whitney Bank provided the shipyard with generous credit lines, so that the company could cover salaries while it worked on projects. And John Kinabrew Jr., president of Standard Supply and Hardware Company of New Orleans, provided Avondale unlimited credit against the purchase of needed supplies.
“We know you’re working on a shoestring up there,” Kinabrew told president of Avondale James Bull, “but we know your ability, so come and get what you need.”
Avondale created a relationship with the federal government and the U.S. Navy quickly after its inception in 1938.
Because of the government’s monopoly on steel during the buildup toward World War II, Viavant and Bull approached the U.S. Maritime Commission to inquire about small contracts they could bid on.
After the commission told them, “Give us your price tomorrow,” and they scrambled to pull together an offer, they won a contract to build four tugboats.
Soon, they earned the commission’s trust and were given federal funds to expand their facilities, and won more contracts throughout the war.
These contracts included 14 300-foot coastal cargo ships, more tug boats, 14 coastal seagoing ships and six tankers.
The book took a winding road to publication.
Johnson originally approached Edward Blanchard, a longtime Avondale employee, to create the book.
He started on it, but passed away before he was able to get the finished product to Johnson. His work disappeared, but Johnson’s desire to pass along the story did not. “I would love to get it to the people who really want the story,” she said, speaking in her Garden District home. “We have a lot of pictures and a lot of stories in there that René and Philip had collected from people they could find.”
René and Philip Meric are the father and son team who brought the book to fruition.
René worked at Avondale for 44 years as an engineer and later as a corporate vice president.
Philip, his son, worked for the company in high school and later in their environmental department, but spent much of his professional life with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Philip created a book with a few colleagues, titled “Fortress of New Orleans,” about the flood control work done after Katrina. René loved the book, and so Philip suggested he do a similar book about Avondale.
The idea stuck.
“He started collecting information and making phone calls to his retiree buddies he kept in touch with. This was in 2012. We gathered information for almost a year before we did anything. We just collected scrapbooks and photos and talked to people.”
Ellen Carter, the youngest daughter of Avondale president Henry Zach Carter, contributed her family’s scrapbooks, and the University of New Orleans held a huge collection of photographs and relics from the shipyard.
René died in April 2014, and his son finished the book with the help of an editor from LSU.
Johnson just wants to connect the storied industry with the people who lived it.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said, “getting people to have a keepsake of their life.
“Most of them worked there forever, brought in their families, and just made connections with everybody else.”