Category: Press Release

Ponchatoula Christmas Lighting Story

Each year on a Friday evening early in December, hundreds of people of all ages fill downtown Ponchatoula to enjoy “Christmas Lighting” – but how many know the story behind the event and the beautiful lights that stay on throughout the season?

It began late one night in 1995 when new City Councilman C. W. Kinchen and his wife, Mary Barbara, were driving past Ponchatoula City Hall and saw Mayor Julian Dufreche on top of the building attempting to decorate with a few strands of Christmas lights.
After asking how they could help, the idea was born: The next year, instead of one man on a roof and a few businesses with a few lights in a few windows on dark nights — involve the whole community for a celebration of the season while delighting in that old-time home-town feeling.

The purpose was twofold: “1. To create Christmas in Ponchatoula for children and 2. To encourage locals to visit the antique stores that night to realize what we have and return later to shop.”
The mayor caught the vision and named them to head the lighting project, giving them free rein to do whatever they wished.

Having seen the beauty of using only clear lights in Williamsburg, Virginia, they were off and running early in 1996, visiting store owners to ask if they would decorate their windows, even buildings if possible. They never asked these merchants for donations but began knocking on doors of other businesses, organizations, and individuals to participate by giving.

The community eagerly began to donate money toward new decorations and needed materials to refurbish old ones. Everyone felt a part of the project and even some on limited income wrote notes of appreciation, enclosing smaller gifts to go along with the larger ones.

From various storage places, dusty, musty, rusty old decorations were dragged out and volunteers joined the Kinchen’s at night after work to remove strings of lights and broken bulbs before cleaning, sanding and painting heavy metal frames that at some time had hung from light posts. The eight-foot doves seen now were stripped of old fringe and painted white to show up better with new clear lights.

The first “Santa’s Elves” to volunteer were C. J. and Mary Scandurro, Milton and Dot Hill, Corrine “Dee” Jacob, Lucy Mirando, Alton and Gay Brignac and Kathryn Martin.

NODOCO staff members, Keith and Jeff, constructed the long stringers that reach across the main street. These were unrolled from huge wooden spools and stretched from one end to the other of the Community Center gym. The Elves, on hands and knees, crawled along the floor, securing the lines together before adding bulbs so electrician Milton Hill could complete the ends with plugs. City worker Don Boudoin made boxes with “eyes” on utility poles so the lines could be plugged into sockets instead of wired into live power lines. He was joined by Richard Fletcher to work with Entergy.
Mayor Louis Tallo lent Hammond’s bucket truck after hours as the lights were hung at night.

L. E. Wallace and Linda Scarbrough DePaula greatly promoted the lighting, especially on TV, and took on the town locomotive to decorate. The train won the Show Stopper Award each year. (Other awards would be for “best use of white lights on building” and “window display”.)

Realizing there needed to be a special time of celebration, Mrs. Kinchen planned that event. Most lights would already be on, but those on the cypress trees alongside the railroad track would be saved for the “throw-the-switch” occasion.

As excitement spread, so did participation: downtown businesses offered to open their doors to the public with snacks, meals, and family-friendly beverages. Those with parking lots or yards made ready to host all the performing groups. (Berryland Motors, City Hall, Collinswood Museum, Country Market, Fleur de Lis, Jackson-Vaughan Insurance…)

Gloria Tucker McCarthy made bows. Fred Cutrer did welding. PHS Band Director Teddy Forrest asked, “When do you want me?” Colonel James Hulsey and Gunner Ira Brown’s Junior Marines all stood at attention when Mrs. Kinchen visited their class. “It’s for you,” Brown explained.

Jude Wilson’s PHS Chorus joined in as well as Claudia Landry with their band and dance crew. Reeves, Tucker, and Vinyard Schools sent singing groups. Gerline Melancon led St. Joseph bell choir and Angela Pevey, her Girl Scouts.

Santa Claus showed up. Folks like Hezzie Holden with daughter Mary June (Mrs. Claus), George Peltier and C. J. Scandurro always saw to it Santa was on time. (In fact, one year when Mrs. Kinchen was recovering from surgery and couldn’t attend the big event, Santa came directly from the North Pole to her house on his way to see the children downtown!)

Susan McKneely donated her mother’s Christmas tree, so large that city workers moved it by trailer to City Hall. In the lobby, Linda Drake, Tess Beckler, and the Kinchen’s decorated it and Susan was asked to turn on its lights.

The railroad agreed to slow trains passing and the Police Department directed traffic.

One stipulation the Kinchen’s made was, that to avoid the event’s becoming political, no one is recognized during the ceremony. Only after five years, when Entergy sold an available bucket truck to the city, was Mayor Tallo thanked publicly at Mayor Dufreche’s request. The Kinchen’s never allowed their own names to be mentioned in the ten years they served.

“This was all done as an act of love for Ponchatoula by many people,” Mrs. Kinchen explained in a recent interview.
But Mayor Bob Zabbia says, “If it had not been for C. W. and Mary Barbara Kinchen, we would not have had these many years of what has become a beautiful tradition for our city, its residents, and its visitors.”

We join the mayor in paying tribute to this wonderful couple for their longtime dedication and service.
(How fitting that years before, when little eleven-month-old Mary Barbara saw her family’s decorated and lit Christmas tree, she spoke her first word – not the usual “Mama” or “Dada”, but “Lights”!)

Warship Named In Honor of 1942 Efforts to Collect Scrap Metal

By Kim Howes Zabbia, The Last Hurrah, c.1985; p. 24.

In 1942, the federal government asked Ponchatoula High School to work on a homeroom wartime guidance program. The report which Principal Will Ed Butler submitted was the basis for the national high school victory corps in which youngsters all over the country collected scrap metal and worked to add their bit to wartime efforts.

PHS, though, collected the largest amount of scrap in Louisiana. “I remember stopping the car to pick up pieces of metal on the side of the road. It was wonderfully patriotic,” beams then student Mary Lou Pierson Burris.

As the metal was brought in, it was piled around the outside of the football field. The students collected so much that the circular pile could be seen above the top of the stadium.

“It looked like Mr. Vesuvius around the football field,” Mr. Butler said, “The kids went around with chalk and wrote Tokyo-Bound on the metal.”

The collection drive lasted about four to five weeks. The U.S. government gave the school about $1400 for the scrap, and Mr. Butler gave the kids a holiday. The army had to use over fifty trucks to haul away the scrap.

A year later, Mr. Butler received a letter from Washington, DC. A warship was to be christened the MS Ponchatoula in honor of the students’ effort.

“To celebrate, we had an assembly,” Mr. Butler remembers. “They sent a Colonel from the army, and he spoke to the grammar and high school. I think he took them in three shifts.”

On Sunday, July 30, 1944, at 4:00 P.M., the Merchant Ship Ponchatoula was launched at the East Coast Shipyard in Bayonne, New Jersey.

USS Ponchatoula – Two Ships – Same Name – Which is Correct?

Much has been written and much has been said about the USS Ponchatoula but sometimes differing numbers on her bow, pictures, and dates of service confuse the uninformed.

Which is correct – a ship in World War II or a ship in the Vietnam War?

The answer is, “both”.

We’re familiar with the story locals tell about our cities collecting more scrap metal for World War II effort than any other community in the country and being honored by having the U.S.S. Ponchatoula named for our waterway. Many locals tell it from first-hand experience because they were some of the school children in the early 40’s who helped collect.

To further verify it, the teacher who spearheaded the effort of the winning 5th-grade class’ collection, Julia Welles Hawkins (age 101 in 2017) pops up now and then anywhere from here to national television.

Records show the first U.S.S. Ponchatoula (known as AOG 38) was a Sequatchie Class tanker, commissioned on October of 1944, leaving New Jersey for Norfolk, Virginia. She then traveled through the Panama Canal to California where she left January 19, 1945, to arrive in Pearl Harbor, February 1, 1945.

In March, she set sail for Canton Island in the Phoenix Islands as a ship for refueling during the war. She then continued to Okinawa in convoy to anchor off the beaches shuttling fuel from large tankers to smaller ships.

Websites for the U.S.S. Ponchatoula contain typewritten first-hand accounts by some of those on board describing bombing attacks by the Japanese, especially the feared suicide attacks that killed so many. One tells of the typhoon that hit, creating waves 60-80 feet high, enough to drive one large ship aground and onto an enemy mine on the beach. The website also includes heart-rending stories by those who endured Mother Nature in addition to the hundreds of Japanese attacks often over several days at a time.

AOG 38 remained in Okinawa until December 1945 when she returned to the States and was decommissioned in California, April 1946.

Since the Navy had begun replacing smaller and slower ships with larger and faster, a second USS Ponchatoula (AO 148) was commissioned January 12, 1956, and began her many years of service, being three times as long and twice as fast as the AOG 38.
She, too, was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and leaves a history too extensive to list including rescue operations and even aiding in the recovery of earlier spacecraft that splashed down in the Pacific. Ever in danger, her main duty was refueling war ships in the Far East from off the coast of Communist China to the South China Sea off the coast of Viet Nam.

The City of Ponchatoula is doubly blessed to share its name with these two ships as well as have a special kinship with the USS Ponchatoula shipmates who risked their lives in such perilous times and dangerous waters.

We continue to honor the surviving members and we continue to pay tribute to those who have gone.

A few written articles simply cannot begin to tell the story. Please visit the USS Ponchatoula Shipmates Association sites to learn more.

Visit the USS Ponchatoula online or on Facebook: USS Ponchatoula Shipmates Association

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