In the 1960’s and before, a woman with a career outside the home was considered an anomaly. Those who either chose or were forced by circumstance to work away from home were often employed in “unskilled” jobs like clerks, waitresses or office clerks. A few women held professional jobs which required a degree, such as teachers and nurses. Fast forward 50 years and the landscape had changed dramatically. Currently, women make up the majority of the work force and today’s working woman can have a career in any field she chooses. Her own hard work and perseverance can take her to the top of her game.
Central Louisiana is blessed with many accomplished women, who drive the economy, enrich the cultural experience and lead the next generation as they grow—too many to recognize in this limited space. That said, we have invited a few of these deserving individuals from diverse fields to share a bit about their professional journeys. We hope that, in addition to recognizing their individual accomplishments, their experiences will also serve to encourage and empower young women in Cenla to grow into leaders by reaching their greatest potential and becoming the next generation of Cenla’s Wonder Women.
President, Central LA Regional Chamber of Commerce
I am originally from Baton Rouge, having graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy. I attended Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas and later earned certification in Non-Profit Management from U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Institute for Organization Management, West Institute in Los Angeles, California. Having lived in Dallas after college, I decided I wanted to move back to my hometown. There were no immediate openings at TV stations there, but an anchor/reporter position opened up at KALB-TV in Alexandria. I thought I would stay for one to two years. Then, I was set up on a blind date with Mayor Ned Randolph. I fell in love with the man and with Central Louisiana.
I left broadcasting in 1993 when I was hired by Sister Olive Bordelon to develop a governmental advocacy program for St. Frances Cabrini Hospital. After 11 years at CHRISTUS, I formed a governmental affairs consulting business in 2005. In the Summer of 2011, I was offered and accepted the position of President of the Central LA Regional Chamber of Commerce.
My parents told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to if I worked hard in school and developed a good work ethic. They instilled in me the belief that the only limits I would have would be those I placed on myself. My parents gave me the gift of their blessing on my education and career choices. Professionally, Sister Olive Bordelon, former COO, then CEO of Christus Cabrini Hospital, became a mentor to me during my tenure at the health system. She truly led by example and I learned more things from her than I could possibly list. She was a leader who connected me with a sense of higher purpose. She inspired me and other employees to bring energy and creativity to our jobs. Because of her, I became more committed and engaged.
I would give this advice to young women embarking on their careers: Seek to discover what you are passionate about. Once you know, let your sense of higher purpose guide your career. Do the very best job you can at each stop on your career path, even if you know you are qualified for a better position. Value yourself, and learn how to properly negotiate your salary and benefits with your employer. Be bold and willing to take chances to advance your career. Once you reach your career goals, consider mentoring other women.
Catherine Crockett McCrory Pears
Museum Director/Artist/Designer/Instructor, Alexandria Museum of Art
I was born here in Alexandria and moved to Lafayette the summer before I started the 1st grade, eventually graduating from Lafayette High School. I grew up in Lafayette, but made plenty of trips to Central Louisiana as all of my grandparents were here and it is where we had all family and holiday gatherings. Having earned BFA in Graphic Design at LSU, eventually my studies brought me to Natchitoches, where I earned an MA in Painting at Northwestern State University.
My career path a bit complicated, as I have had to reinvent myself several times. When I graduated from LSU in 1983, Louisiana was in deep recession and jobs were few. I moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the late 1980s to take a position at the newspaper as the first artist ever on staff. I worked with reporters to envision how their stories could be enhanced visually. Following my time in Mississippi, I secured a job painting large backdrops and building sets for commercial trade shows, theatrical productions and entertainment clients in Chatanooga, Tennessee. After a couple of years we were back in Hattiesburg and, at the newspaper, I was once again immersed in learning the advances of computer graphics on the job having been out of the field for a couple of years.
We moved to Alexandria in the early 1990s. I began leading the music programs at St. James Day School for a few years. Then, I joined other artist moms to start Family Playhouse, a children’s theatre nonprofit. In addition, I taught arts in education workshops in area schools and was a resident artist at River Oaks Art Center producing mainly paintings. After studying at Northwestern State, I taught classes and served as technical director of theatre at LSUA. At the same time, I began serving as part time curator at the newly acquired Alexandria Museum of Art. After two years, I became the director of the museum and led it through a successful reaccreditation. We have built a professionally staffed, award-winning museum with a strong reputation for community engagement, thoughtful exhibitions and impactful programming. I consider myself an activist director presenting exhibitions that tell untold stories, uplift different cultures in our community, and address social change when we can. We have a great staff who make it happen.
My first major professional influence was Brett Batterson, who I worked for in Chattanooga. He taught me almost everything he had learned getting his MFA in theatre design at Tulane! And second, Richard Gwartney who believed in my talents and hired and mentored me as I began my career at LSUA and AMoA. And last, I would have to say my wonderful grandmother – Mimi – Mary Duncan Crockett who loved life and believed in living it to the fullest. I spent a lot of time with her while growing up and in her last years after moving back to Alexandria.
For young women and women of all ages, my advice is to persevere! Believe in yourself. Trust that you can learn and do what it takes to accomplish your dreams. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t. Don’t get discouraged if your path isn’t smooth and straight! Be brave and carry on. Don’t compromise your principals and take the high road.
We have a vibrant arts and culture scene for a small town and great people. Museums must tear down the walls and invite everyone in, engage their communities—365 degrees—with impactful and educational programming for all while demonstrating excellence. I believe we have done these things at AMoA. Everyone is welcome, we have programming for all ages and have engaging exhibitions. “You might call me a dreamer–but I’m not the only one!” Thanks, John Lennon!
Dr. Virginia Burkett
Chief Scientist for Land Resources, United States Geological Survey
Having graduated from Biloxi High School in Mississippi and attended both Southern Mississippi and Northwestern State Universities, I earned my PhD from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. I move to Central Louisiana from Baton Rouge in 1991 when I married my husband, Don, who has served as the Sabine Parish District Attorney for 34 years.
I started working at LSU Sea Grant right after completing my Master’s degree at Northwestern. Then I went to work as a marine biologist for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. I later directed the Louisiana Coastal Zone Management Program and served as Assistant Director of the Louisiana Geological Survey. In 1988, I was appointed Secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, where I had formerly served as Deputy Secretary. I was the first female to direct a state fish and game agency in the United States. I joined the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 and worked at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette. During the past ten years I have served in several roles at the US Geological Survey, including Associate Director and Chief Scientist for Climate and Land Use Change. I am presently the Co-Chair of the US Global Change Research Program, which involves 13 federal agencies, and I serve as the United States’ Alternate Principal to the international Group on Earth Observations.
During my career, I have published on the topics of global change and low-lying coastal zones. I have also had the honor of being appointed to over 70 Commissions, Committees, Science Panels and Boards during my career. Currently, I am also a Senior Editor of the journal “Regional Environmental Change”. I chaired the board of the Taylor House Domestic Violence Shelter for 10 years and have served on the board of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. I presently serve on the NSU Foundation Board and the Advisory Board for Stephen F Austin’s College of Forestry.
One of the first, and most important, influences in my professional life was Della McCaughan, my Marine Biology teacher at Biloxi High. Along the way, I have been fortunate enough to have several other great mentors along my path, and a supportive husband and sons. For those starting out, my advice is to focus first on getting a solid educational foundation. Go to graduate school if you can, it will open doors for you. Never let anyone tell you that a woman can’t do the job, or that you can’t have a both family and a career. Don’t be afraid to fail or fumble. Be good to people and remember to help others as you succeed.
My husband has deep roots in this region. Our family home is in the middle of a beautiful mixed pine/hardwood forest. Our children and grandchildren love to fish, hunt and hike. I am a bee keeper and a naturalist of sorts. I love the peaceful life we have here in Central Louisiana, which I consider my refuge. Through my work, I hope that I have had a positive impact on our quality of life and on our planet. And that I inspired others to understand our natural world and become good stewards of God’s perfect creation.
Executive Director, England Economic and Industrial Development District
I attended high school at McGavock Comprehensive High School and college at Trevecca Nazarene University—both in Nashville, Tennessee—earning a B.S. Business Administration with a minor in Mathematics. Originally from Nashville, I relocated to Alexandria in March 2013 from Lake Tahoe, California.
My career path has included three distinct focus areas: public service, business owner/PR consultant and corporate executive. The position with the England Authority was attractive because I began my career in public service and always hoped to one day return to the public sector utilizing all the skills I developed in private business. In addition to the appointment at the England Authority, my proudest accomplishments have been serving as State Director to a U.S. Senator at the age of 25 and establishing my own public relations and business strategies firm, a company I owned for 8 years before accepting a position with one of my clients.
Jim Hall, my political mentor, always rewarded hard work and taught me it was okay to laugh and see the humor in things. Similarly, Charles Martin, my client, mentor, boss and friend, pushed me to soar and taught me the philosophy of a “say yes” culture. In life, my husband, John, who always puts the needs of others first and subordinated his career to raise our children and support my professional goals has been a key influence. Likewise, I also credit my mom, who always made family time her top priority.
My advice for young women starting their careers is to perform and excel at everything you do. Success will not be handed to you. Second, do not be afraid to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of awareness. And finally, never, ever apologize for your ambition. You have a right to set goals and achieve success!
I accepted the position with the England Authority because I have great confidence in the future of our regional economy. I see evidence of our potential through the increase in commercial air travelers, the nearly daily inquiries about the airpark and the efforts by CLEDA, the Chamber and our local business leaders to promote and develop this region. Cenla is a great place to raise a family. We’re large enough to have some great amenities (Art Museum, Zoo, Symphony, etc.), yet small enough to have a sense of community and connectivity. I’m also proud of our business community and major employers who invest heavily in Cenla and support the non-profit organizations that are so vital to our region. As the song goes, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”
Sabine Parish Assessor
I was born in Many, and grew up in Florien, graduating from Florien High School. After high school, I attended vocational technical school in Many. I have lived in Many since I was married in 1985. I began working in the Assessor’s Office as a part-time clerk in 1981. As a result of my diligent work ethic, I was given the opportunity to further my education through the International Association of Assessing Officers, sponsored by the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. Consequently, I earned my certification as a Louisiana Deputy Assessor, and over the years I have successfully completed over 300 professional development hours in the assessment field. After 25 plus years experience in the Assessor’s Office, I earned the elected position as Sabine Parish Assessor, taking office in January of 2013.
My daddy was the major influence on my life by teaching me a strong work ethic, discipline, and values. Throughout my career, numerous mentors and co-workers trained and guided me along the way, for which I am forever grateful. But, by far, the most important influence on my current position, was my beloved, late husband, Butch. He was my biggest encourager and my inspiration. He influenced my interactions with constituents in a profound way, giving me the confidence to solicit support. He “lit the fire under me” and was by my side every step of the way, as we “beat the bushes” during my first campaign for office. Clearly, he was my biggest fan.
I think it is important for young women to be confident, yet humble, courageous, yet cautious, and always be dependable and diligent. Professionalism speaks volumes about one’s integrity. These attributes are necessary in earning the respect of others. Effective interpersonal skills, in my opinion, are the most important skill set among professionals, as they are vital to establishing rapport with people in all walks of life.
In the Assessor’s Office moving forward, I foresee an increased efficiency in record keeping, data collection, and public access to useful applications as a result of technological innovations. Here in our small town, everybody knows everybody, so our community resembles one big family. We take care of each other because we have generational ties and meaningful friendships.
Dr. Karren Laird Russo
Ophthalmologist/Partner, Louisiana Eye and Laser Center
A native of Cenla, I attended Holly Savior Menard High School in Alexandria and am proud to call it home. I completed my undergraduate degree at LSU in Baton Rouge and medical school at LSU New Orleans. I moved to the University of Miami for my residency, then completed my fellowship at Tufts University.
After working for a couple of years following college, I decided to expand my involvement in the medical field by attending medical school. Throughout my education and career, I’ve been most influenced and guided by God, family and many wonderful mentors.
My advice for young women seeking to go into a career in ophthalmology or medicine is to do it! The journey is long and complicated, but extremely rewarding. Ophthalmology is an extremely exciting field of medicine. There has been, and will continue to be, ever improving technologies that help us save and improve vision. I’m proud to say that Louisiana Eye and Laser is at the forefront of these technologies, right here in Cenla. Alexandria is my home. My family lives here. Moreover, the icing on the cake is the kind, giving people of Cenla. I hope that it can be said of my career that I am a good doctor that is passionately committed to her patients, family and community.