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Percy Viosca tribute, conclusion

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Viosca fish scale jewelry

Viosca fish scale jewelry (eat your heart out Mignon Faget!)

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!

Descendants

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.

Charlie and Dottie Viosca on Elvis Night in Dallas

Charlie and Dottie Viosca at an Elvis party night in Dallas

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.

Mayoral siblings Madeline, Nancy and Charlie (photo by Charlie's daughter Stephanie)

Mayoral siblings Madeline, Nancy and Paul (photo by Paul's daughter Stephanie)

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.

Percy’s personality

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. viosca cut screens article

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!

Percy’s accomplishments

- 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.

Last days

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.

Staigg family gravesite, where Percy and Corinne Viosca are buried

Staigg family gravesite, where Percy and Corinne Viosca are buried (photo by Emilie Bahr)

Len Bahr

Little frog placed on Percy Viosca gravesite

Little frog placed on Percy Viosca's gravesite (photo by Emilie Bahr)

*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


LSU library Viosca photos

Newspaper clips, photos, etc.

Family tree

Tulane museum

LSU Sea Grant

Publications on Amazon.com

Louisiana out of doors

Viosca geneology (by Shirley)

Harmless snakes of Louisiana


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  1. Definitely, what a splendid website and educative posts, I surely will bookmark your blog.Have an awsome day!

  2. Hey this is kinda of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding expertise so I wanted to get advice from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Tasia Viosca Denapolis says:

    I love finding old family stuff online! Makes me smile.
    Thank you!

  4. Edwina Kavanaugh says:

    My family bought the Percy Viosca Jr. house on Dreux Ave. in Gentilly Terrace in ’62 and I lived there until I graduated from UNO in ’73. We 4 kids loved the house, the ‘hood, the ponds and banana trees on the lot next door (the land had been divided by then), the specimen jars and fish scale jewelry and copies of his 1933 book left behind in the basement. I’ve always wanted to know more about Mr. Viosca and thanks to you, now I do. Funny think is that I am now a water and wetland attorney working for the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, so I really can appreciate Mr. Viosca now!

  5. Don Boesch says:

    Len, this was really nice work. It was both enjoyable and sobering to read about this Louisianan who was clearly ahead of his time. I am glad you mentioned Percy’s very significant work on Louisiana irises in the last part.

    As a kid growing up in the 1950s I knew about Percy Viosca from reading my father’s treasured copies of the Louisiana Conservationist. In the early 60s I remember participating in high school wrestling matches between Jesuit (where Rene Viosca–Percy’s brother’s grandson–was a state champion heavyweight) and Holy Cross (where and I was a stringbean also ran). This Rene was also a standout lineman who blocked for Jesuit football phenom and later Baton Rouge Mayor Pat Screen. His father, also Rene, was a District Court judge who in 1957 issued an order directing the City of New Orleans to provide nationally contending prize fighter Ralph Dupas a white birth certificate.

    Only fairly recently did I come into possession, courtesy of our friend and pack rat Don Davis, of a sportsman’s map of Louisiana that Percy Viosca published that had been drawn by my uncle William E. Boesch, a draftsman and cartographer who owned the New Orleans Map Company for many years.

    I’m pleased to have these peripheral associations with Percy and his interesting Louisiana family.

  6. This was a labor of love and the compliments are much appreciated.
    My brother-in-law Maurice Fox has volunteered to help put together a Wikipedia page for Percy Viosca, Jr. Suggestions from fellow admirers of Percy are invited.

  7. Mark Schexnayder says:

    Len, Excellent series, I think you’ve captured his essence quite nicely. One of my favorite Percy tales is that he would say that, if dropped from a plane anywhere in Louisiana blind-folded, he could tell exactly where he was by the type of water snakes and irises he would find there.

    Thanks for all of your efforts with this and your other posts, Mark

  8. Love those images of the ganoid scale jewelery. The family game me a good sample, but again – lost in Katrina. Has a real “1950s” feel to it.

  9. Ed Bodker says:

    Thanks Len, this was a nice write up about Percy Vicosa. His work with crawfish was some of the first I came across many years ago when I was studying soft shell crawfish.

  10. Rex Caffey says:

    Len,

    Very interesting series. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

    Rex

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