In 1968 attorney and former State Senator and U.S. Representative Jimmy Domengeaux* (1907-1988) of Lafayette founded the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, known as CODOFIL. Impressed with the initiative, Louisiana Governor John McKeithen pushed through a bill that granted the organization the necessary state credentials.
In order to save the French culture in Louisiana, Domengeaux, CODOFIL’s president from 1968 until his death in 1988, championed the French language, reintroducing it into the state’s public schools. Through an ambitious plan, he imported teachers from France and Canada to Louisiana and (remarkably) convinced the French government to fund the program. The first one hundred and fifty applicants chose between two years in the French army and two years in the small town parishes of Louisiana. They lived in private homes and taught the proper French, as opposed to the Cajun dialect, a controversial decision that resulted in mixed and prolific press for Domengeaux, whose bigger-than-life persona attracted considerable public attention.
“He was sarcastic, flamboyant and crude,” explains artist George Rodrigue about his old friend, “and he was desperate to preserve the unique culture of south Louisiana, just as I tried with my paintings. We got along great.”
It was Domengeaux who told Rodrigue about Cora’s Restaurant, a combination country store, boarding house, restaurant and bar located during the 1930s and 1940s in the country outside of Lafayette.
“There’s no record of these old places,” explained Domengeaux.
Rodrigue painted the long-gone establishment using his imagination, but based on his friend’s description. According to Domengeaux, the restaurant’s cuisine was more Creole than Cajun. Known for great food, Cora’s and places like it were unusual because of their diversity, attracting Cajuns, Creoles and African Americans. The place employed a large staff, including children, most of whom boarded on the property. For the painting, Rodrigue invented the people, recreating them in his typical Cajun style, all in white, without shadow, and locked into the landscape.
According to Rodrigue, Domengeaux grew frustrated with the general lack of interest in this faded part of Louisiana’s history. In Cora’s Restaurant, beneath the enormous oaks, these timeless figures glow with Louisiana’s culture, reinforcing on canvas both Rodrigue’s and Domengeaux’s mission.
In addition, Domengeaux and Rodrigue held shows in Lafayette for French painters Valadier, Surrier and Brenot, presenting the artists with keys to the city and exposing the local population to these French masters. At one such exhibition in the late 1970s, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing attended, with hopes of further strengthening the Louisiana-France bond.
By the late 1970s, Domengeaux's fame extended to France, where people often thought he was the President of Louisiana. According to Rodrigue, Domengeaux enjoyed more clout than Governor Edwin Edwards. At one point, in fact, the CODOFIL president tussled with the State Department for cutting a deal on his own with a foreign government. As usual, however, Domengeaux charmed his way out of the mess and got what he wanted.
Whether or not we condone his methods, Jimmy Domengeaux’s pride in Louisiana’s heritage drove his life’s mission and deserves admiration. His efforts produced a lasting and positive effect on our state. At a time when many dismissed our fading culture, particularly the French influences within small town, southwest Louisiana, he cherished it. Through CODOFIL, one man made a difference.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
*the pronunciation of “Domengeaux” is close to “DiMaggio,” as in the baseball player
-for a photograph and detailed history of the painting Broussard’s Barber Shop, depicted in the newspaper clipping within this post, visit here
-for more on CODOFIL, see its entry in KnowLA, the on-line Louisiana Encyclopedia