Jim Bradshaw: State senator never forgot 'the little people'
Armand Brinkhaus was a memorable member of the Louisiana legislature in a time when the capitol was filled with colorful folk. He was also one of its most effective members.
He served in the legislature for 30 years, chairing some of its most important and powerful committees. But he never forgot his roots and the “little people” he represented.
He grew up in Sunset when the sweet potato was still king in St. Landry Parish and the little town was the center of the industry. As a boy he earned a chestful of Boy Scout merit badges. As a young man he played a mean clarinet in some of the area’s hottest dance bands.
He picked up the clarinet when Kenny Bowen (who later made noise as the mayor of Lafayette) came to Sunset to teach music. “I played clarinet because we had one,” Armand said. “In those days you didn’t buy a new instrument, you played what you had.” Over the years he also mastered the saxophone and the piano.
In a long interview in 2006, he told me a hot summer job in a sweet potato kiln convinced him he was meant for “inside work.” He’d already tried medical school but found out quickly enough that he and medicine weren’t made for each other.
He left school and went to work at the Dezauche sweet potato plant, where just a couple of weeks of unloading box cars in the summer heat convinced him that wasn’t his life’s work, either. He applied to pharmacy school, law school, and dental school.
Law school wasn’t his first choice, but Loyola was the first to accept him, and that was that. He married Grand Coteau native Margaret Bellemin while he was in school and was the father of two of their seven children before he got his diploma. His first law job was as a clerk to Judge J. Cleveland Fruge of the Louisiana appellate court in Lake Charles.
He went back to Sunset to partner with the late John Olivier in the fall of 1962, and never left. He was still active in his practice at the time of his death, more than 50 years later.
He said he was interested in government even as a youth. “I can remember even as a Boy Scout I would make it a project to encourage people to vote,” he said. “I was a 13-year-old on a mission.”
The mission eventually took him to the legislature where he established a reputation as a defender of everyday folk, or, as he put it, “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker — the farmers and others who could not speak for themselves.”
He was one of the prime movers in the creation of CODOFIL and remained active even after leaving the legislature in keeping alive the traditions of French Louisiana. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he was a major promoter of his alma mater, UL Lafayette, at a critical time in its physical and academic growth. He also worked tirelessly for teachers, bus drivers, lunchroom workers, and the students they served.
He was effective because he genuinely believed in the stands he took, sometimes virtually alone, on important issues, and because, in addition to being a colorful speaker, he was one of the hardest working legislators in memory.
In some sessions, he said, “I would have 200 bills that I was responsible for, actually handling, and another couple of hundred positions either in bills to maintain or amend or in the appropriations bill. I don’t know how the hell I did it, but I did.”
Two hardworking and efficient secretaries had something to do with that, but I think it was also because he had a mind that resembled the desk in his law office, piled with a jumble of papers and maps and correspondence and memos concerning the many things that required his attention or that simply interested him. To people who didn’t know him, there could be no way he could find anything in all of that stuff. But he could always put his finger on just what he needed, just when he needed it, while telling an entertaining story of why he’d kept it.
Armand Brinkhaus was my lawyer, a constant and reliable source of information on all sorts of things stored helter-skelter in his curious mind, and, most particularly, my friend.
He was 81 when he died Sunday.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.