Laura Balthazar is a remarkable woman. As the first female African American to hold the posts of Chief Criminal Deputy and Chief Civil Deputy in Louisiana, to hear her speak you’d think that she reached that status through simply being in the right place at the right time. In fact, her strength of character, her refusal to lie down in the face of adversity and her determination to do the right thing have led to her being regarded by many as an icon for women and people of Creole heritage everywhere.

Laura is originally from Eunice, Louisiana, but moved at the age of seven to Lake Charles so that her family could find work. That move proved to be difficult, since it happened in the early days of the integration policy, in around  1964. Integration meant that for the first time black and white children were sent to the same schools as each other. Laura was one of perhaps just 40 black children in a school population of over 1,000 at Lake Charles High School.

Even among the black children, Laura felt like an outsider because, in her words, “I’m yellow, alright… I couldn’t pass for white and I really wasn’t considered black because I wasn’t dark enough.” Constantly harassed over the color of her skin and unable to find her place within the school’s student population, she recalls that she had very few friends.

From school, Laura says that she studied for a while at Delta School of Business to try her hand at office work. Subsequently, she went on to work for a nursing home, initially as a cook and then as a nurses’ aid.

From there, after having two daughters, she became an engineering clerk for two construction contractors’ firms. She divorced her husband and married a horse jockey, “A little small person… 118 lbs!”

Foray into law enforcement

As Laura is talking, it’s easy to get the impression that new jobs and career changes simply fell into her lap. She is utterly humble and gives all credit to God for her rise to such an ultimately powerful position in her career. She told us that she decided to open a horse track and run horses with her horse jockey husband. This was initially profitable but soon folded. However, the business forged a link with the town’s sheriff, whose horses were being exercised by Laura and her husband.

“One afternoon he said, ‘Girl, whatcha doing?’ I said, ‘nothing much’ and he said ‘you wanna come work at the sheriff’s department?” Her initial reaction was to decline the offer, but then, “I thought, you know what, that’s not too bad. So I called him up on the telephone and I told him I think I want to try it.”

Over time, Laura worked in every department with every detective and became secretary to the Chief Deputy. A move to a new building prompted the need for someone to take over control of the communications office and the Chief deputy suggested that Laura should do so. The prison was connected to the communications office, so Laura simultaneously became the assistant warden of the prison.

She knew nothing about the job and had to take up a lot of training just to find her feet. Once again, Laura found herself in a minority, “I was the first female who had ever worked there in that capacity, dealing with the male population pretty much all of the time. But me, being the type of person I am, and I was from Lake Charles, I didn’t keep my tongue well.”

She dealt with all manner of incidents, including attempted escapes and hostage-taking. But, true to her strength of character, she remarks, “I had to show them that I was not scared of them.” She specifically recalls an attack by a female prisoner, one who was strong enough to grab Laura and throw her to the floor. “Since that incident I have never turned my back on any of them but I will still go into the cell block talking to them when they had a complaint and this and that.”

In 1993 the Chief Criminal Deputy retired and the sheriff had to choose a replacement. Perhaps, it was her years of feeling like the underdog or her natural humility but when she realized that the job would either go to her or one other – a white male – she assumed that she would miss out. Much to her surprise, though, the sheriff called her into his office and said, ‘’I’m going to go ahead and appoint you my Chief Criminal Deputy, you ready for the task?’’

Before she knew it, a press release had been sent out and, “I was the first female Chief Criminal Deputy.” Then, when the Chief Civil Deputy left, the sheriff decided, “Hell, you’re going to be that too, so I did that too. So I was in charge of the detectives, narcotics, the jail, tax – everything.”

She recalls a time when a member of the press wanted a soundbite for a news item and asked to speak to the Chief, “I said ’well I’m the Chief’ and he just looked and said, ‘Really? You look like a little child!’

In her role as Chief Deputy, Laura says she is most proud of their programme for senior citizens, “They can listen to talks about crime prevention and how to protect themselves but also meet other senior citizens, make friends, play bingo and so on.” Her faith in God has always played an important role in how she has conducted herself in her life and through her work. She recalls an incident that no amount of training could have prepared her for (particularly since she had actually received very little formal training and yet her natural fortitude and stoicism helped her to cope formidably.

The incident happened in Melville in June 2006, when a young man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend. The man had run away into the woods and was refusing to come out to be arrested. Laura managed to speak with him on his mobile phone and he told her that he would hand himself over to her if she personally walked up to the fence line near to where he was hiding. Her colleagues tried to stop her, “So I told them I’d wear a bullet proof vest. So I prayed to God and I said, ‘Look if I don’t get to see my children please watch over them.”

She did go over to the fence and he handed himself over. Why did she put herself in danger like that?“He threatened to kill and he had nothing to lose, and he had so many high powered rifles that we found in the field where he was. He meant not come in at all or we were going to have to kill him.” She managed to avert that disaster and saved more than one life that night.

Work and motherhood

However, Laura’s career has left her with some regrets. In dedicating her life to a 24/7 job, “Many times I felt like my family came second and my job came first and now I realized that it did… I would do some things differently but pretty much I’d do the same thing again because I enjoyed what I did and I think I helped a lot of people.”

A role model for women

Laura acknowledges that many women – black and white – have told her that they consider her to be a role model. They were comfortable talking to her about the issues they were facing because they felt that she could identify with them.

Her message to young women today would be,“Go out and try your best, do whatever you have to do, do what makes you happy and still be a prominent and respectable person … someone you really believe in.”

Regrets

Despite having been the Chief Deputy twice over, Laura’s one regret is that she never became Sheriff of St Laundry Parish. She lost by 111 votes, because she says the black members of the community did not go out to vote. She puts this down to voter apathy, since evidently a lot of them later said that they had assumed she would win the vote so didn’t bother adding their tick at the ballot box.

Life outside the law

Laura has suffered loss within her family – one of her brothers died in Hurricane Katrina, her father died of cancer, and her mother died when Laura was just 18 years old. She harbors a deep sadness that she was unable to see her mother before she died and until relatively recently she did not even feel able to talk about her mother’s death. Her married mother had been shot and killed by her lover. This was a source of great shame for many years, until a Take Back the Night event when she finally felt able to vocalize her thoughts and feelings.

Now, though, Laura enjoys spending time with her three children (two daughters and one son), she also loves to travel and is currently looking forward to visiting Paris for her birthday. She has a passion for music, particularly that of Chief Larry, and her Creole heritage is something she identifies with and influences her book choices. She enjoyed reading Born on the Kitchen Floor in Bois Mallet by Lovey Marie Guillory.