Louisiana high school athletics has lost a true trailblazer.
Evelyn Cruse-Blanchard, the first female athletic director for the Jefferson Parish Public School System whose persistence and dedication in furthering prep sports resulted in her election into the LHSAA Hall of Fame, died Tuesday in Kenner from dementia-related natural causes, according to her family.
Cruse-Blanchard was 80 when she died at Laketown Village Residential and Memory Care.
Those who knew, worked and served alongside Cruse-Blanchard remember her as a bubbly and dynamic champion of New Orleans area athletics who helped local schools earn seats at the table in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association hierarchy.
It started in the mid-1980s when Cruse-Blanchard befriended new LHSAA commissioner Tommy Henry and pointed out the lack of public, private and minority representation from the New Orleans area inside the association. Henry took notice and quickly corrected the oversight.
“Do you know how hard it was for a person from that area to get elected (back then),’’ Henry said Thursday. “It was really Evelyn Cruse-Blanchard who opened that up to that part of the state. It was Evelyn who really pushed all of that. It was unseen, but she really pushed all of that through me. She was good.’’
Cruse-Blanchard served 17 years as JPPSS athletic director and head of the system’s physical education department from 1975-92 before retiring as principal at Kate Middleton School in January of 1997.
During her tenure as athletic director, she became a driving force in Title IX implementation in Jefferson schools, she helped Jefferson coaches get their first raise in 20 years and directed an athletic program that experienced the most success of any system in the state. Jefferson public schools won more state championships during her time than any other state system.
Cruse-Blanchard also served as a member of the LHSAA executive committee and helped in the revision of the association’s handbook during Henry’s tenure.
Current Jefferson Parish School Board member Billy North was recruited and hired as an assistant football coach and then head coach at Jefferson’s flagship program at John Ehret by Cruse-Blanchard.
“My experience was that she was always very supportive of her coaches and of the student-athletes,’’ North said. “She was very good to her people. You knew that when she was in a meeting with her superiors that she was there to support the student-athletes. She was a good lady, and she treated her coaches fairly.
“There are some policies that she put into effect in the 80s that are still in effect now. I really believe our system is better off because of some of the work she did 25 to 30 years ago.’’
In addition to earning LHSAA/LHSCA Hall of Fame distinction, Cruse-Blanchard was named National Athletic Director of the Year by the National Council of Secondary School Athletic Directors in 1984. She later was honored by President Ronald Reagan in the White House’s Oval Office as the first woman to be so named.
In 1989 Cruse-Blanchard was named Athletic Director of the Year by the National Coaches Association. She also was named Athletic Director of the Year in Louisiana multiple times by the state coaches and athletic directors associations.
An accomplished amateur singer who twice performed with Ray Charles and a graduate of Ouachita High School and Northeast Louisiana State College (now UL-Monroe), Cruse-Blanchard first arrived in the Jeffferson system as a music teacher at West Jefferson and continued in that capacity at T.H. Harris Junior High before finding her niche in athletics.
Cruse-Blanchard also earned a master's degree in School Administration and Supervision at Loyola and certification in Health, Physical Education and Athletic Injury from Tulane.
“I think the key thing about Evelyn is that she was one of the first people to add a lot of professionalism to athletics and physical education in our parish,’’ said Glenn Dyer, Bonnabel’s veteran athletic director and basketball coach, who started at the Kenner school in 1979. “(Coaches) started going to a lot of work shops and doing a lot of different things. She stressed professionalism within the sports and in physical education.
“She definitely was concerned about athletics and wanted everybody to follow the rules and play hard and be successful and get your kids into college. She was a very nice lady. She always had a smile on her face and was glad to see you. She was always interested in you and what was going on in your life and at your school and with your teams. I thought she was a real class act.’’
Born May 26, 1938, at a family home located in a rural area outside of Holum, La., in the northeast portion of the state, Nancy Evelyn Cruse-Blanchard is survived by her husband John Michael Blanchard, daughter Vanessa Raven Cruse, granddaughter Brittany Evelyna Schiro (Jeff) and great granddaughter Kennedy Marie Schiro along with her brothers, William “Bill’’ E. Cruse, Jr. (Lois Ann) and William “Willie’’ Ragan.
Cruse Blanchard was the daughter of the late William “Willie’’ Ernest Cruse Sr. and Annie Louise Allbritton Cruse and sister of the late Helen Louise Gaspard (Sherman).
Services for Cruse-Blanchard are scheduled for Saturday at Leitz-Eagan Funeral Home, 4747 Veterans Boulevard, in Metairie. Visitation is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. followed by a Catholic Mass and burial in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
“Evelyn was a good friend and involved in just about everything (the LHSAA) did,’’ Henry said. “She may have been the only female athletic director in the entire state at that time. She was a pioneer, and she was really good in her school system.
“She had great integrity. She was really a credit to her profession and everything she attempted to do. I guess you would say she was a credit to her gender. I’m really going to miss her. She genuinely liked people. It wasn’t put-on.
“She had this motto, ‘I’m going to bloom where I’m planted.’ And she did.’’