Percy Viosca tribute, conclusion
Editor’s note: This concludes a three part LaCoastPost first year anniversary essay on Percy Viosca, an unsung coastal hero. I strongly recommend reading the first and second parts before this concluding section.
The following is based primarily on interviews with: Percy Viosca’s son Charlie, who lives in Dallas; three of Percy’s grandchildren in New Orleans, Madeline Mayoral Root, Nancy Mayoral Airhart and Paul Mayoral; and Percy’s niece Shirley Viosca Stakelum, a daughter of Percy’s older brother Rene’.
My thanks to each of these friendly folks.
What’s in a name?
The first Viosca to arrive in New Orleans was Joaquin Joseph Biosca (1796-1880) from Igualada Spain. In Spain the “b” in Biosca was pronounced like a “v” so the name was anglicized in New Orleans.
Paul Percy Viosca, Sr. and his first wife raised eight children (five boys and three girls). After the mother of all the Viosca children died the senior Viosca remarried, again became a widower and married once more late in life.
Paul Sr. named his second child and second son Paul Percy Viosca, Jr., but family members say that the son never used the name Paul. When asked about the derivation of his name, Percy always insisted that it was an old family surname and not a nickname for Percival. The Paul Percy Viosca name lives on, having been recently bestowed on Percy V!
While many members of the Viosca clan had large families, Corinne and Percy Viosca had only two children, Yvonne and Charlie. This sounds strange, considering Percy’s fondness for kids* but his descendants say that as a serious ecologist he was concerned about global population growth and a strong advocate of family planning. In my opinion Percy was once more far ahead of his time, given the current world population of 6.8 billion and growing.
Yvonne and Charlie grew up in a virtual zoo and museum. The yard of their home in Gentilly (see part two) featured subtropical vegetation and a fish pond with frogs and a small alligator. The Viosca basement was lined with shelves stacked with specimen jars. Behind the house were three wooden pens that contained living amphibians and reptiles.
This setting was an irresistable magnet for neighborhood kids. Taking a cue from his dad, young Charlie impressed his chums by occasionally jumping into the pond with its critters. Both Yvonne and Charlie were fearless around reptiles and other wild creatures. As for their cousin Shirley, not so much!
At 19, Charlie learned to fly with the US Army Air Corps, precursor of the Air Force. After WWII he became a commercial pilot with TACA Airlines. Now he builds extremely accurate airplane models. When he discovered that the Smithsonian Institution had accepted a mollusk collection from his dad, Charlie offered to contribute something as well, a precision 1/4 scale model of a racing biplane flown by famed aviatrix Betty Skelton. The Smihsonian Air and Space Museum gladly accepted.
Madeline Mayoral Root, former librarian who retired just before Katrina, says that when she was a child Percy was her favorite person. The grandkids called him “Peepaw.”
Nancy Mayoral Airhart inherited Percy’s love of frogs, snakes and turtles. Percy once gave her a boxed Christmas gift that he told her was a ball but that was actually the microscope that she had coveted. Nancy is retired from teaching and married to a doctor. The entire first floor of their Lakeview home was flooded for three weeks after Katrina and they lost virtually all their family memorabilia, photos, letters, etc.
Paul is the youngest Mayoral sibling, now a practicing attorney in New Orleans. He echoes the warmth and affection for his grandfather (and his Uncle Charlie) shared by all family members.
Paul and his wife Susan live on Kildeer Drive, close to the south shore of the lake. Their home remained “high and dry” during the Katrina aftermath – about six inches above flood waters!
One of Percy’s nieces is the delightful Shirley Viosca Stakelum, who was 90 in June 2009. Shirley is an active member of the DAR and Society of Founders of the City of New Orleans. She has collected and organized family records and genealogy going back to the late 18th century, which she provided to the Tulane University archives.
Shirley was happy to show me the fish scale jewelry manufactured by her uncle Percy’s company (see above photograph). Unfortunately, she declined shyly when I asked to take her photograph for this post.
Percy’s look-alike brother Rene’ Viosca
Shirley’s father was Percy Viosca’s older brother Rene’ who earned his law degree at Tulane and practiced as a law partner in the firm of Sanders, Baldwin, Viosca and Haspel. Jared Sanders was governor of Louisiana from 1908-1912.
In 1933, Rene’ was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as US Attorney of the Eastern District. He served until 1941 when he resigned this august post and became elected city attorney of New Orleans.
Rene’ Viosca once successfully prosecuted and sent to prison former Louisiana Governor Richard Leche (who succeeded Huey Long) on malfeasance. Leche had used public funds for personal benefit, such as building a mansion in Mandeville. It is said that after his release Mr. Leche admitted his guilt and praised Rene’ Viosca for having been a fair and honest prosecutor!
The Leche incident exemplifies a longstanding animus between the Viosca and (Huey) Long families. The friction was probably related to the fact that in 1929 Huey Long had fired Percy from his position as head of state fisheries. Governor Jimmie Davis later reinstated him.
Everyone agrees that Percy was gregarious, fond of puns and word play, possessing a great sense of humor – and a born teacher. The accompanying newspaper clipping cites his tongue-in-cheek recommendation during a famous New Orleans mosquito infestation in pre-air conditioning 1955.
Percy and Rene’ were both avid hunters and fishermen and the entire Viosca family loved fishing, supplying friends and neighbors with fresh fish on a regular basis.
Paul Mayoral told me that once while his grandfather was employed by the Louisiana Department of Conservation he and two of his brothers went bird hunting out of season in the outskirts of New Orleans. When he spotted a uniformed policeman approaching, Percy ran to his car, got his official wildlife badge and made a big show of arresting his siblings to keep them all out of trouble!
- Prolific writer of both technical papers and popular books, including Louisiana Out of Doors (1933) and Pondfish Culture (1937). I found both books on Ebay, as well as a copy of George Henry Penn’s 1962 tribute to Percy from the Tulane Museum in Belle Chasse. Dr. Penn was a college classmate of Percy’s niece Shirley at Tulane/Newcomb, respectively.
- Named a number of new species while at WL&F, presumably including mollusks from L. Pontchartrain.
- Instituted the Louisiana pond crawfish industry.
- Developed pelleted catfish chow, making commercial catfish farming feasible.
- As an expert on the native Louisiana iris he warned the New Orleans City Park board against importing yellow flag (an aggressive exotic iris); they ignored his advice and a competitor of the local iris was unleashed to crowd out the native species.
- Advised New Orleans Health Department officials about mosquito control.
Dr. Ed Chin told me that Percy’s last research project dealt with a serious decline in gulf shrimp populations in the late fifties. I wonder whether the cause of that decline was successfully identified and what it was.
In 1959 Percy was diagnosed with stomach cancer and his family members say that this formerly robust, “gentle bear” of a man became a shadow of his former self.
Nevertheless, in August, 1960, shortly before the cancer ended his life, Percy signed up for the First Governor’s Cup crab derby in Maryland. He noted that the rules didn’t specify a particular crab species so he selected either a fiddler crab or a ghost crab** from Grand Terre Island, rather than the expected blue crab. He called his ringer Lou’s Gumbo and beat all the entries from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware!
Percy and his wife Corinne Staigg Viosca are buried in the Staigg family plot in the St. Louis Cemetery number 3 across from Cabrini school on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans.
Percy Viosca’s 69-year lifespan was short by current standards but he lived long enough to demonstrate remarkable prescience about the future of the world and the southern half of his beloved Bayou State.
*For example, Percy was the idol of neighborhood children and an enthusiastic boy scout leader.
**Accounts differ as to the crab species, but speaking as a native of Maryland I think it’s a great story.
Links to Viosca info