When Ross Fontenot walked across the stage at the spring commencement ceremony in May, he was doing more than just receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering—he was continuing his family’s legacy.
Fontenot is one of many members of his immediate and extended family to graduate from the LSU College of Engineering, and more specifically, from the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering.
“The main reason I chose chemical engineering was because my father and grandfather were chemical engineers,” Fontenot said. “I mean, I did excel in math, chemistry and physics in high school, but going into LSU, I truly had no clue what a chemical engineer was or what they did in their careers. I just figured since my Dad and Grandpa were successful chemical engineers, then I could follow in their footsteps and succeed as one as well.”
The First Fontenot
The family tradition of studying at LSU started with Leonard Fontenot, Ross’s grandfather, who graduated in chemical engineering in 1959.
“I wish I could tell you a glorious story about how I always wanted to be an engineer,” he said, laughing. “But that’s not how it went.”
Leonard made the decision to attend LSU on a whim, more or less. He didn’t know much about the school; neither of his parents had attended college so they didn’t have any influence on his choice; and most of his classmates went to the university now known as University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Simply put: he “just felt LSU would be a better school.”
So he enrolled in 1954 to study chemistry. After two years in that major, after doing some work at a plant and after an enlightening conversation with the chair of the chemical engineering department, he made the switch to engineering.
“Dr. Coates, the head of chemical engineering [at that time], explained that, while mechanical engineers might look at pieces of equipment or electrical engineers deal with electricity, chemical engineers looked at the whole process,” he recalled.
The transition wasn’t easy, Leonard remembered. There was a high dropout rate because of the program’s difficulty, and because he changed his major halfway through his college career, he had a lot to catch up on. Despite the obstacles, he finished after two and a half more years.
During that time, he also participated in ROTC, and met and married his wife, Mary, who received her degree in science education. The couple enjoyed their experience at LSU, he said, particularly attending the football games.
“We went to all the games,” he said. “Mary and I didn’t have much, but we could go to those games for free. And it was the most glorious thing because we were there for the 1958 national championship. That was the real deal.”
After graduation, Leonard served in the army, took a job with a paper company in Bastrop, Louisiana, and was then employed in the power production area of an electric company in central Louisiana, where he climbed the ranks to eventually become the vice president.
‘It’s in their Genes’
Meanwhile, he also grew his family. Leonard and Mary had three sons who all went on to receive degrees in engineering—one in chemical and the others in electrical—and a daughter, who graduated in science education, like her mother, and who married a chemical engineer.
What’s more: Eight of their grandchildren are either graduates of LSU or currently enrolled here. Of the five graduates, two graduated in chemical engineering, one in construction management, one in finance and one in geology, and of the three current students, two are studying engineering.
“It sounds like we took a stick and beat them until they went to LSU engineering, but I promise we didn’t,” he said, laughing. “It’s in their genes. The way they look, the way they ask questions, they don’t think like everybody else.”
Though Leonard denies he forced his children and grandchildren to attend LSU, Glynn Fontenot, his oldest son and Ross’s father, said the family’s love for purple and gold was engrained in them from an early age.
“There was some brainwashing involved,” he joked. (It should be noted, too, that all but one of Glynn’s four children attend or attended the university).
Glynn graduated in chemical engineering in 1983 and worked at Georgia Gulf until 2012. He is now a plant manager at Methanex USA, LLC, and he credits LSU for much of his success.
Asked what he remembers most fondly about his time here, Glynn recalled influential professors, like David Wetzel, who retired in the spring after more than 40 years in academia; the Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium; and the satisfaction of finding out he passed his exams.
“LSU chemical engineering has been a big part of my life, starting with the influence my Dad had on me and ending with my connection to the campus, the sports,” he said. “It was so gratifying to see the day the third Fontenot, Ross, graduated in the same curriculum.”
‘May the Engineers Continue’
Ross, who now works as a process engineer at Georgia-Pacific, agreed: “Dad and Grandpa spent the entire day with me leading up to the actual graduation ceremony, and it was really one of the best days of my life. I could tell how proud both my Dad and Grandpa were of me for what I had accomplished at LSU.”
Very proud, Leonard said. “When Ross finished, it was really special. It’s hard to believe it could go down that far, that you would have so many finish in chemical engineering.”
“I’m probably the most blessed man in the world,” he said of his career and his family. “It’s been a fascinating ride. It’s kind of a dream. It’s not something that happens very often.”
“And,” he added, “may the engineers continue.”
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