When John Alan Berthelot became the mayor of Gonzales in 1984 at 32, he had no idea that he was related to the founder of Gonzales, Joseph “Tee-Joe” Gonzales.
“If I’d known, I would have used it,” he said, laughingly.
“Tee-Joe” Gonzales, the first mayor, served from 1928-36, longer than any of the seven mayors preceding Berthelot.
“I broke my great uncle ‘Tee-Joe’s’ record,” said the 57-year-old Berthelot, retiring after six four-year terms, making 24 very busy years.
Called Johnny by most people, he plans to spend more time with family and at his camp at Graveyard Island on Belle River.
On the other hand, Gonzales did know that his late father, J.O. Berthelot, was civic-minded, especially when it came to litter.
“He despised litter and we have tried to keep our city clean,” the mayor said. The family lived two blocks from city hall, and his father served one term as city councilman and mayor Pro Tem.
Not until his mother, Doris Hebert, who just turned 81, mentioned Uncle Joe in conversation did
Berthelot learn of his connection with Gonzales. The first mayoral photograph on the wall of City Hall is Gonzales, and Berthelot’s the last. This will change soon when Barney Arceneaux is inducted as the new mayor on Jan. 2, 2009.
The construction of Tee-Joe Park on Orice Roth Road is only one of Berthelot’s multiple achievements, along with a multi-million dollar recreational complex and Public Safety building.
Overseeing the prospering growth of the city, Berthelot evidenced a flexibility with the times, including the influx of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. He became mayor of a city of 5,000 residents, a city in debt.
Soon, he will relinquish leadership of a city of 10,000 plus, almost debt free. “When I came into office, I had to borrow $75,000 from the Bank of Gonzales at four percent interest to redo two water towers,” Berthelot said. “We now have $20 million (unrestricted) in reserve. We’re probably in the best financial shape of any city our size in the United States.”
Crediting the conservative approach to finances that he and the council have, Berthelot noted, “When interest rates were double digit, we invested and made money on our interest. The lifeblood of our city is the two percent in sales tax we receive, totaling over $10 million a year. This is the main source of revenue.”
Also, Gonzales is the commercial hub for the River Parishes. “We have 100,000 shoppers here every day,” he said, stressing the word “every.” “This helps us support our many operations, including police and fire departments and making sure that our roads are safe.”
A major point of pride is the fire department, once volunteer. “In 2001 we became professional. We have over 30 paid fireman and we’ve added a second fire station, that saves the city money,” Berthelot said. “We also have two EMS ambulances.”
Page 2 of 4 - Was he scared when he first took office? “Yes,” he admitted. “It was challenging.”
Looking back, he can be pleased with the leaps in progress, and he, invariably, credits the council and the work done by predecessors on the basic infrastructure for his mayoral success.
He remembers that when he was 24 in 1976 and became the youngest person ever to be elected to city council, people were not getting along. “It was like a circus with all kind of comments such as ‘We have to wear a gas mask because it stinks so much in here.’ ”
He was re-elected in 1980 garnering 87 percent of the vote, the most votes anybody had ever received in the city, then and now.
He served as Mayor Pro Tem under Mayor Nelson Roth for eight years but decided he wanted to “be a chief, not an Indian.”
Although the first primary was close, with less than 200 votes separating three candidates and he came in second, he won second primary with 55 percent of the vote. “The candidate who lost endorsed me,” he explained.
Ever since then, he has been an easy winner. The barber business went by the wayside as he began the demanding job, one that he conscientiously pursued. The skills he did not have at the time, he attained. “I graduated from the School of Hard Knocks,” he said.
Major gains include Tanger Mall, a vast retail outlet on I-12. “While we negotiated, I kept that close to my chest for a year, without the council’s knowledge. We had to make sure that everything went through smoothly.” Happy about what it brings to Gonzales, he applauds the hiring of college students and retirees. “Tanger is a source of many secondary jobs for local people.”
Cabela’s is a point of pride, bringing area-wide shoppers. This is in line with Berthelot’s recreational interests. He was in charge of recreation and fire departments back when he was a councilman, and he is an avid outdoorsman.
When he talked about city-owned facilities and their usage, Berthelot quickly pointed out that “I didn’t build the Civic Center, that costs us thousands of dollars to maintain. The council and I know that you can’t put a price tag on the quality of life. This is also true for Jambalaya Park with recreational equipment and sprayground for the children, adjacent to City Hall.”
The old City Hall is now the police station and has to be maintained. It was costly in 1996 to expand City Hall, where the current offices are located, in a handsome Southern-style architectural design. “We get many compliments on our beautiful City Hall complex,” he said.
Back to the beginning, Berthelot was born at the Baton Rouge General Hospital but his parents almost immediately took him home to Gonzales, where they lived. He attended Catholic and public schools, graduating in 1969 from East Ascension High School. In 1970 he graduated from the New Orleans Barber College, with the required 2,000 hours of training.
Page 3 of 4 - He and Terrell Bourgeois owned The Headmaster. For the first two and a half years, he cut hair. “Then The Beatles era came in, long hair was the fad, and I left barbering a while.” He was a Kleinpeter milkman for six months, but returned to his business. His now-familiar story includes the fact that barbering led him to politics.
“All the men talked about was sports and politics,” he said. When he started shining shoes at age 10, he had learned this.
He took more training, branched out to hairstylist, and 30 percent of his business was female. He also completed a course at LSU Continuing Education in real estate in 1975.
Volunteerism is how he came by his financial acumen. “I worked with many budgets of organizations and large groups,” he said. He had been treasurer of the volunteer fire department. Berthelot’s resume lists over 24 civic and professional groups. He has raised funds for many charitable organizations and groups like the Boy Scouts.
From early days, he was on the move. Popular, he possessed the leadership ability to effect teamwork. The Gonzales Jaycees voted him Outstanding Young Man in 1984; Louisiana Jaycees Outstanding Young Man, 1986, and the 1988 Man of the Year by the Ascension Chamber of Commerce. In 2000 he was IAAP Executive of the Year.
“It hasn’t all been fun,” he said. “It’s hard work, and we have had some issues.” A big issue came at the outset, when the economy was bad and he was trying to keep the ship afloat. “The animal rights people got on us for not taking care of the stray animals, and they were right. We were doing a poor job. We were busy taking care of water leaks, gas leaks, sewer leaks, and working on the roads, and I was not thinking about the animals.” A contract with the then-new Ascension Parish Animal Control helped that problem; this group picks up the strays and houses them. “We do a lot better now,” he said.
He remains pleased on the compliments on the city’s cleanliness.
He looks ahead to more service for the area. “Doors are opening,” he said. “I am being invited to serve on boards, consult, and I will always be interesting in making our city a better place.”
Married 17 years to Paula Chauvin, a branch manager for Capitol One Bank, he is the father of three grown children and grandfather of five, including twins.
Lately, he has been showing the soon-to-be mayor, Arceneaux, the daily routine. The men, though serious about Gonzales and its future, share an easy camaraderie. “He was my police chief for 8 years and has stayed in government,” Berthelot said, then, with a mock scowl, “He’s already brought his hair brush to the office. I had hair when I took office.” He pointed to his inductee picture on the wall.
Page 4 of 4 - “You know how it is,” Arceneaux said, “You never know how the wind will blow.”