The year 2006 was a pivotal time for New Orleans. In the first calendar year after Hurricane Katrina, the city and its residents -- those who had returned and those still hoping to come home -- yearned for encouraging news about New Orleans' nascent recovery.
If Katrina and its aftermath taught us anything, it was the importance of self-starting. Bad news seems to happen on its own, and it will come find you. Good news, on the other hand, usually requires human initiative along with lots of determination, hard work and sacrifice.
The process of choosing a Gambit Weekly New Orleanian of the Year for 2007 made us focus more than ever on the simple criteria we established for the designation more than 20 years ago: someone who made a positive difference for New Orleans in the previous year.
If 2006 will be remembered as the year in which New Orleans began its long road to recovery, it also will be recalled as the year in which so many New Orleanians stepped up to the plate to make a difference. And when the "good news" events of the year are listed -- the return of some of our key employers, the return of Jazz Fest, the launch of Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village, the reopening of key attractions such as the Aquarium of the Americas and public parks, the creation of more charter schools and neighborhood efforts to chart their own futures -- one name will keep popping up as the person whose determination, hard work and sacrifices helped make it happen: Shell Oil's local leader, Frank Glaviano.
Donating money to worthy causes has always been a hallmark of good corporate citizenship, but a commitment to hands-on volunteerism sets Frank Glaviano apart. Shell's vice president for production in the Americas says he was determined not to just be "Big Oil writing checks" once the company reopened its regional offices on Poydras Street in its namesake building, One Shell Square.
"We're coming back to New Orleans not just to go to work," says Glaviano, who has been with Shell for more than 30 years. "We want to be part of the rebuilding."
In numerous instances during 2006, Glaviano led a cadre of Shell employees in volunteer efforts ranging from propping up Jazz Fest to underwriting the science and engineering lab at McMain School; from swinging a hammer at Habitat For Humanity's Musicians' Village with former President Jimmy Carter to donating icehouses to the fishing communities in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes; from cleaning up City Park to working in United Way organizations throughout the area. "I call them 'Yellow Shirts,'" beams Glaviano, referring to Shell volunteers, "because when we do volunteer projects, we give our employees yellow shirts with our company logo on them."
Glaviano, a native of the Upper Ninth Ward and graduate of Holy Cross School, says his decision to buy into New Orleans' recovery was a natural one. It started with the decision to bring Shell back to its home on Poydras Street last Jan. 30 after setting up temporary headquarters in Robert, in Tangipahoa Parish.
"Everything that happened in New Orleans happened to Shell in terms of the range of outcomes and experiences -- except that no Shell employees lost their lives," Glaviano says. Some had family members who died, but no Shell employees lost their lives as a result of Katrina or Rita. ... Our first thought was to bring everyone to Houston, temporarily. We were searching for office space."
Fortunately, someone got the idea of using Shell's training facility on 20 acres of land in rural Robert. Glaviano immediately saw the advantages and in just four weeks, his employees constructed 25,000 square feet of air-conditioned office space -- putting 400 people to work where previously there had been 16. "We called it 'Camp Robert,'" Glaviano recalls.
And when it was time to think about getting back "home" on Poydras Street, Glaviano and his team wanted to come back "in a very public way," he says, "not so much to toot our horn as to offer something positive. I was so sick and tired of seeing all the negative stories on TV. I know it's reality, but at some point, the reality wears you down. So we did something that was very photogenic."
A huge crowd featuring dignitaries and local celebrities turned out for Shell's return, which featured Irvin Mayfield playing the National Anthem as the company's pre-Katrina flag was raised once again in the plaza. Glaviano took the occasion to announce several major donations, including $500,000 to a fund to help cops, firemen and EMS workers return home. Immediately afterward, billboards across town that had proclaimed "Shell is coming home" were changed to read "Shell is home" -- with a line through the word "coming."
"Once we said that we were coming back to New Orleans, it became easier," Glaviano says. "We're engineers. We got our checklists and our to-do lists ... and in a very workmanlike way, we planned a celebration."
The celebration, which Glaviano describes as a "mini-Jazz Fest" in Lafayette Square on the afternoon of Shell's return, presaged an even bigger announcement the next day: Shell's sponsorship of Jazz Fest 2006.
"Jazz Fest turned out to be a great opportunity for us to help the city of New Orleans in terms of its economic impact, and to help preserve the culture of New Orleans as well. Immediately after the storm we were all trying to nail up shingles and blue roofs and all those kinds of essential things. But I think it's essential also to preserve the culture of New Orleans ... and there's no better embodiment of our culture than Jazz Fest. It's music, it's our food, it's our crafts, it's our culture -- everything is embodied in Jazz Fest."
Glaviano admits that some might see the union of Shell and Jazz Fest as "an unlikely marriage," but he insists the partnership was a perfect fit.
"The part of Jazz Fest that we really liked was the fact that it has tremendous volunteer opportunities. Jazz Fest relies on hundreds of volunteers to make it go, and we had 250 volunteers at Jazz Fest this year. Some of them came from Houston. We chartered a bus and they came over. They spent the weekend here, volunteering each day."
Jazz Fest founder and producer Quint Davis, who has become friends with Glaviano as a result of the collaboration, says Glaviano is "a model New Orleanian."
"When we needed major financial support in order to produce Jazz Fest in a truly daunting post-Katrina environment, Frank championed our cause within the Shell organization and quickly got our deal confirmed," Davis says. "The result: Shell became the first presenting sponsor in the history of the event, and Jazz Fest 2006 became an important reality for the city during the first year of its economic and cultural recovery."
Davis adds that the Shell volunteers at Jazz Fest made the relationship work "on levels far beyond the financial, and it's a great example of how New Orleans is helping itself recover in so many ways."
Another project that combines culture, music and volunteerism is Musicians' Village. It also tugged at Glaviano's Ninth Ward heartstrings.
"I personally didn't have any trouble becoming connected to this project," Glaviano smiles. "That's where I grew up, and I'm also the son of a New Orleans musician. ...
"Creating housing is fundamental, but Musicians' Village also has the cultural aspect of trying to help bring musicians back to New Orleans. And the first time I heard the addresses, on Alvar Street, I said, 'Wait a minute. That's a block away from where I grew up!' It was literally almost in my backyard."
Shell is sponsoring five Habitat duplexes for elderly musicians as well as the Ellis Marsalis Center, which will provide a gathering place for the new community. And, of course, Glaviano and other Shell employees volunteer regularly at the new home sites.
"I really believe that Musicians' Village will have some role to play in the rebirth of Upper Ninth Ward and the Bywater area. It's large, it's so positive, and people will come make their lives there again. ... It's an excellent example of how the private sector and nonprofits can work together and create positive change."
What makes Glaviano proudest was a comment from former President Carter, who came to New Orleans to help start one of the Habitat houses. "When I met President Carter, I had on my yellow shirt and red hat. When I introduced myself as being from Shell, he thanked me for what Shell was doing and said, 'As I was coming in from the airport this morning ... I saw some projects going on -- and every worker I saw was from Shell.' The yellow shirts apparently made an impression on him."
Glaviano and Shell made equally big impressions on the fishing communities of southeast and southwest Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The storms left coastal fishing villages without the infrastructure they needed to get back to work. Shell already was a worldwide sponsor of the America's Wetland initiative, which seeks to educate the nation about the importance of -- and threats to -- Louisiana's fragile coastline. In the wake of the storms, Glaviano got Shell to step up locally to help fishermen return to their livelihoods by donating three large icehouses to fishing communities.
Two of the icehouses have been combined in Chalmette -- with a total capacity of 40 tons of ice -- while a third now sits in tiny Creole, La., near Cameron.
"It's so compatible with our offshore industry to be working with the local seafood industry," Glaviano says. "We work literally side by side in the same ocean."
The St. Bernard/Plaquemines icehouse was dedicated near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the one in Creole near the anniversary of Rita.
"We've spent bigger money to do flashier things, but I've never personally felt more proud to donate something than to give these people icehouses so that they could cut out their two-hour drive each day to buy ice," Glaviano says, recalling the dedication ceremony in Creole. "They were going to Beaumont (Texas) or to New Iberia every day, just to buy ice. All they knew how to do was fish, and all they wanted to do was go to work, to earn a living. No one was complaining about the government or FEMA. All they said was, 'Thanks. Now we can go to work.'
"To donate money and to have it have such an immediate and tangible effect on people with that kind of work ethic -- I can't think of a better way to spend a corporate, charitable dollar. It was a day I won't ever forget."
People who work at Shell know Glaviano in much the same way as guys who attended Holy Cross know him -- a down-to-earth man who never lost his common touch. Glaviano, whose grandparents were illiterate Sicilian immigrants, credits his Ninth Ward roots with teaching him the secret of leadership.
"I still think of the Ninth Ward as being where I'm from in New Orleans," Glaviano says. "It's my frame of reference. It has a lot to do with shaping who I am in terms of how I think, how I lead, etc. I've always said that leaders should never get too impressed with themselves. Coming from the Ninth Ward helps with that," he adds with a laugh, "because in that neighborhood, you grow up tough or you don't grow up at all."
Being a New Orleanian also gave him a sense of humor. He was honored recently by the YA/YA kids for helping their program come back -- and expand -- after Katrina. The kids gave him a hallmark brightly painted chair during a recent Saints game. He proudly shows the chair off in his executive office, along with a proclamation naming him "the Duke of Oil."
Another educational endeavor that earned Glaviano's support recently is the new science materials center at McMain School. The lab is designed to help math and science students on a career track for companies like Shell, which always need employees with technical skills.
"The day I went there to give the check, there were 20 yellow shirts out there raking," Glaviano says, echoing a favorite theme. "These are engineers and geophysicists and their assistants out there cleaning up the grounds at McMain because we want to be there working with the kids as well as writing a check."
Other donations by Shell that Glaviano engineered last year -- he is, by the way, an engineer by training -- include grants to the following causes:
• The Aquarium of the Americas, to support backup/remote emergency operating systems so that the aquarium never again loses fish in the face of a disaster. The project also received significant help from volunteer Shell engineers.
• City Park, which gets little help from either the city or the state (or, more recently, from FEMA), has long been a favorite cause for Shell employees. Last year the company helped restore the historic carousel and replace trees lost in Katrina.
• Broadmoor, a hard-hit neighborhood that has made itself a model of recovery by its own bootstraps, got financial and technical assistance in drafting its recovery plan. In addition to funding, Shell helped the neighborhood contact Harvard's Kennedy School and the Clinton Global Initiative for assistance.
• Shell's Ambassador Program provides up to $1 million grants to small projects where Shell employees live. Grants have been awarded to churches, playgrounds and other community assets.
• Caf Reconcile received a major contribution to build out and expand its Central City facilities post-Katrina. The growth will help Caf Reconcile improve its training facilities, which in turn will help provide youths with career opportunities.
• Louisiana Artworks was given a "tipping point" donation to ensure that the cash-strapped project can open and help New Orleans return as a center of culture and economic development.
Looking ahead to 2007, Glaviano anticipates more of the same. Shell will once again sponsor Jazz Fest this year, and the company plans to erect a first-class parade reviewing stand on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Poydras Street -- next to the plaza outside One Shell Square.
More than one of his colleagues has noted that Glaviano is the first New Orleanian in decades to lead the division of Shell that is headquartered here -- and how providential that appointment has turned out to be. With characteristic humility, he shrugs that off, giving New Orleans the credit instead.
"Having New Orleans roots definitely helped me because there was a great deal of empathy required -- not sympathy, but empathy, understanding what people were going through -- to do this job after Katrina," he says. "Having lived in the Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans, I understood what we needed to do."