Prominent Donaldsonville man Joe Matassa passes at 95

Greg Fischer Editor-in-chief
Photos of Matassa family businesses in Donaldsonville, Louisiana taken from an old scrapbook made for Joe Matassa by a grandchild.

Mr. Joseph Leon Matassa Jr. passed away on September 6, and besides having been a prominent businessman in Donaldsonville, he leaves a legacy of service behind that is miles long.

Moreover, Matassa was a WWII veteran, what longtime friend Mr. "Boo" LeBlanc referred to recently as a "dying breed."

"I was 11 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor," LeBlanc said. "I had two brothers that had been out of school and had jobs and had to go and another who went, and all three of them came back and used the GI Bill to get college degrees. Otherwise we were 10 kids in a big family in Donaldsonville.

"A lot of people--Joe got his education interrupted. They say [in his obituary] he belonged to Riverdale and liked to play golf. I don't remember that so much. He played when he did, but first of all most of his activities were in church: the Knights of Columbus, the Holy Name Society, the St. Joseph Society.

"He's a good example of a person who did what he had to do to raise a family. He gave them a good life."

"Joe" is what his friends called him. Matassa, whose parents were Sicilian immigrants from the town of Cefalu attended Ascension Catholic from first through tenth grade. Then he went on to finish at Holy Cross in New Orleans at a time when students could board there.

One of Matassa's grandchildren put together a beautiful scrapbook about Joe for a school project. A lasting memory for the family, the scrapbook looks almost as antiquated as the time in which Matassa grew up and thrived in Donaldsonville, Louisiana.

For instance, in their interview, Matassa told his grandson that the roads in Donaldsonville were not paved. Rather they consisted of dirt and gravel. Further, there were no fast food restaurants back then. Catholic mass was told in Latin and the priest faced the altar the entire time.

Matassa grew up playing basketball simply because it was the only sport event that was school-sponsored. But he also participated in skating and dancing at sponsored events hosted by the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion.

Matassa eventually became District Commander of the American Legion in Donaldsonville.

"I'm only 80 years old, but my involvement with Joe dates back a long time," friend and fellow American Legion member Raphael "Ray" Juneau said. "We were in the same organizations. What I remember best about Joe was with the American Legion.

"It's a veterans organization, and I remember him being very much involved. All the organizations he belonged to--American Legion, the V.F.W., Knights of Columbus, and very active and instrumental in starting the St. Joseph Society, where they set up the altar every year and fed 700-800 people--he got me involved in St. Joseph's. I've been in St. Joe for about 30 years I guess.

"He was very instrumental in having the WWII memorial built at the park. He was chairman of the committee."

Years ago, Matassa told his grandson that when he was a child his family would take vacations to Grand Isle and sleep in tents made of sheets anchored to the vehicle or to Hot Springs in Arkansas for the serenity of artisan water baths. He listened to blues, jazz, and later rock and roll music.

One of Matassa's sons, David, recalls him often singing at the house in his later years. David has served as director of mosquito control in Ascension Parish for a long time. He's also the brother of Parish President, Kenny Matassa.

"My family were icons as far as the 1920s," David said. "My grandfather opened up a business on the avenue, right by the Cabahanosse antique store. Next door is the Matassa building. It was a big thing back then--a 'big store.' You know, you got married, World War is over with, great news!

"People come into the store, and you give them a line of credit. Hey, you need a couch, you need a chair, you need a stove, you need a refrigerator, and he had it all, one stop."

Additionally, David wrote down that his father was a very giving man, the kind of person who would give someone a washer out of the kindness of their heart if he knew they needed one.

"He had a very big heart," Mr. Juneau said.

Lastly, Joe told his grandson that when he was a boy he delivered newspapers on foot. As evident in the old scrapbook, he went a long way from delivering those papers to being featured in The Chief many times over--from business advertisements to features written about his civic engagements and accomplishments.