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Living Legends

Robert Desmarais Sullivan
Inducted on May 02, 2023

Robert Desmarais Sullivan Robert Desmarais Sullivan was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on March 1, 1943, to a "Louisiana woman and a Mississippi man." Throughout his school years, he spent the academic year on army bases in the South and Europe, as his army-officer father moved around. Most summer and Christmas vacations he spent in Big Lake of Cameron Parish with his grandparents, Antoine Desmarets and Nathalie Granger.

His great-grandmother, Aline Comeaux, never learned English, but her husband, Philemon "Togo" Granger, taught himself English so well that he wrote articles for the Lake Charles American Press. The articles have been collected in a small booklet for the family. To speak with Maman Aline, Robert had to learn French. He studied French textbooks while speaking with her to figure out how the language was structured. In Sunday gatherings at Maman Aline's and the grandparents' homes, conversations were in French.

Teachers in Big Lake were not friendly to their French students. They said it was not real French. In the Forties and early Fifties, people in Cameron called themselves French. Sometimes Creole. Never Cajun. At that time, Cajun meant the local disreputable French. The younger generation has become proud of being Cajun. The word has changed.

With many teachers unfriendly to the French, Robert learned to be ashamed. Without realizing what was happening to him, he was proud of learning a language that he was simultaneously ashamed of. That mental split stayed with him a long time. When he went to Tulane University as an undergraduate, shame of being French went with him. He found the Jewish students shared more of his values and attitudes than others, so he hung around with them. Besides, they were respected. He passed his last two years passing for Jewish at Tulane. The Jewish students no doubt found it amusing that a goy would do what their ancestors had done in Europe for centuries.

After graduation, he spent a summer in Paris. Upon arrival, he was understanding most conversations. With that he realized his teachers had lied when they told him his French was not a real language. Soon he was having conversations with Parisians. They thought his accent cute, and he did not want to be cute in Paris, so he decided to alter his accent. He returned to New Orleans a changed man. The mental split was healed.

He asked people to pronounce his name the French way: ROBÉRT! He began to use his mother's name as a middle name: Robért Desmarais Sullivan. As a teacher, he transferred from sciences to languages and began teaching French at Benjamin Franklin High School. Upon completion of a Master's in Curriculum and Instruction at UNO, he enrolled for the next semester in a graduate level French course without ever having studied French academically and without asking the University to admit him. The professor taught in French, and they read Rabelais. He did well in the course, and the University decided to let him continue. He transferred to Tulane, where he completed all the course work and examinations for the doctorate. He began research for his dissertation and fell seriously ill and never completed the doctorate. He requested a Master's degree in French literature.

He had a daughter. His wife, Muriel, and he decided they would raise her in both languages. His first Master's degree at UNO had allowed him to learn that two languages at one time would not confuse the child permanently. When the daughter was ready for school, there was no French-language education available, so Robért gathered some parents about him, and they lobbied the Orleans Parish School Board to start one at Audubon Montessori Elementary School. The daughter, Monique, managed to be taught part of the day in French and is now bilingual. The school continues. It is now recognized by the French state as an official French school, and there are now five French-immersion schools in New Orleans.

For his work in the creation of the first immersion school in New Orleans, the French government named Robért a Chevalier des Palmes académiques. He was also the first to do a bilingual radio program in New Orleans. It was called "L'Heure acadienne" and was terminated only when WWNO went classical. He explained he did not have much Louisiana-French classical music.

He was selected to represent Louisiana with three others on the Parisian quiz show, "Questions pour un champion." In a whirlwind two weeks in Paris, he managed to advance to the finals. He lost on the question, "Qui était la femme d'Ulysses?" Once the question was clarified, he knew the answer, but at first in French he heard "Qui était la femme Dulice?" He had read the Odyssey in English and Greek, not French. Not knowing who Dulice was, he lost ten thousand dollars. In consolation, he was awarded a magnificent set of Larousse Encyclopedia, which he promptly contributed to Audubon French-immersion school.

He also helped launch CODOFIL-Westbank. He was the first American teacher at the Alliance Française of New Orleans, and in general has allowed enthusiasm for French to dominate his life. Although he now regrets changing his accent, he defends his choice by pointing out that his present accent of "French from France" is much closer to the language of Maman Aline than English. He is glad he nurtured the French plant in whatever accent instead of allowing it to die.

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