Bert Piboin calls Madisonville home. Well, one of four homes.
Bert Piboin calls Madisonville home. Well, one of four homes.
His time here serves emblematic of the constant change that took place throughout the country many years ago and set the stage for a storied life that has taken him from the farmlands of Madison County to the streets of Paris.
Despite the death of his parents and siblings, which made him the only surviving member of his immediate family, Piboin finds his way back to visit the Madisonville Cemetery around this time of year to pay tribute to his folks on their wedding anniversary.
This year would have been their 79th anniversary.
Piboin, according to family lore, was the last child born in the city’s Heath Memorial Clinic. He spent his youth in Madisonville before attending the University of Texas following his time as a member of the first graduating class from the new location of Madisonville High School. Since college, Austin has been a second home to Piboin, who lives there to this day.
His 70-year journey has also taken him back to his roots in France, where he visits regularly in better times. He considers France to be one of his homes -- along with the entire state of Louisiana, where his parents were born and raised.
Lamar “Bert” Piboin Jr. was the youngest child born to Lamar Sr. and Norma Piboin in 1949. Lamar Sr. and Norma married in Louisiana in 1941 before moving to Huntsville. Both of his older siblings, Louis and Pamela, were born in Huntsville before the couple moved the family to Madisonville in 1947.
“Those first seven years, back in the 1950s, we were living out in the country on Highway 21, about five miles from town,” said Piboin, reflecting on his early days. “I had a little bit of a country upbringing. Dad, although he had his federal job, had 22 acres of land and did a little bit of farming because his father had been a vegetable farmer in southern Louisiana.”
Norma Piboin, Bert’s mother, had her teaching certification and decided it was time to get back into the classroom by the time he was five years old.
“The next year, they decided we needed to move into town, so we wound up on Whistle Street, which was about a block from the Heath Memorial Clinic,” Piboin said, reflecting on a childhood spent so close to the spot he was perhaps the last infant delivered.
“That is what my mother told me,” said Piboin. “I know the county hospital was built around that time, so it probably makes sense that I was the last one or close to the last one born there.”
The family’s new location may have been Whistle Street, but the house was exactly the same. The person who purchased the family’s land on Highway 21 was not interested in the home, so Lamar Sr. moved the house to the empty lot on Whistle Street before adding on to it.
“The house we used to live in out in the country still exists on Whistle Street today, although you would not know it if you saw it,” said Piboin.
Lamar Sr. worked for the Soil Conservation Service. In 1947, he became the District Conservationist for the Bedias Creek Soil Conservation District, headquartered in Madisonville. He was instrumental in helping establish the Lake Madison Park facilities.
Norma taught home economics. After moving to Madison County, she spent five years working as a mother before returning to teaching (she had previously taught for five years in Louisiana). She taught in Austonio, Centerville, North Zulch and Madisonville.
Piboin would make multiple trips back to Madisonville each year before his parents passed away. His father died in early 2000 and his mother followed in December of 2007. The ashes and headstone of his brother Louis are situated next to his parents at the Madisonville Cemetery along with a headstone and some of the ashes of his sister, Pamela.
Most of his relatives can be found in Louisiana, but Piboin still makes a point to come back to his original hometown once a year, around the time of his parents’ July 19 anniversary.
As he becomes reacquainted with his old stomping grounds, he cannot help but reflect back on the time he grew up and all of the changes that have since transformed Madisonville into what it is today.
“I think about how different the square is from when I was a kid,” said Piboin. “Where the (Truman Kimbro Convention Center) is now, there were a few businesses. This included Westmoreland Grocery, where I worked for several years. My brother did, too. Fred Westmoreland was the first boss I ever had and he sometimes scared me to death. If he didn't like something, he would let you know.”
He recalls stopping by a number of other grocery stores that used to inhabit the square, along with Reed’s Department Store, where he bought his first stereo when he was 15.
“I didn't buy my first album there, because I don’t think they sold them,” said Piboin. “I went to Foley’s in downtown Houston and bought my first two albums as soon as I could. It was an interesting combination that fits the way I grew up and the kind of music I like: Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash.”
He also has fond memories of the old Madison County Courthouse, which burned down the same week he graduated from MHS.
“Just before I headed off to Austin, (the old courthouse) burned down,” said Piboin. “The new building is alright, but it is just not the old building, which was a classic Texas courthouse.”
Piboin attended the old Madisonville High School for three years before becoming a member of the first senior class to graduate from the new location. It was also the first time students from the all-Black Marian Anderson High School were allowed to attend MHS.
While no Black seniors opted to leave Marian for MHS, Piboin recalls roughly 15-20 Black students in the grades below him. He does not recall any major racial turmoil as a result, apart from the occasional offensive comment directed at a Black classmate by a white student.
“It was pretty subdued compared to what other places probably experienced," said Piboin on race relations following desegregation. “I can tell you I heard some kids use vulgar remarks occasionally. But generally, nobody attempted to make confrontations that I can remember from that year.”
As an underclassman at the old location, Piboin can remember when his academic experience went from extremely loud to relatively quiet, essentially overnight. This occurred when the interstate was finally completed and cars traveling through town were redirected.
“At one point, the traffic was sent right through (state highways) 21 and up 75,” said Piboin. “Then one day they finally opened up the interstate all the way. I’ll never forget that day, because all of those big trucks that we used to hear from the high school, which were so loud the teacher would have to stop teaching and wait a second, were all of a sudden gone for good."
He, too, would soon be gone, but not for good. Piboin spent the 1967 “Summer of Love” familiarizing himself with Austin, which would ultimately become another home during and after his days at UT.
He had a class with Madisonville native Randy Parten, with whom he still keeps in touch.
After graduation, he decided to attend law school at UT rather than opting to attend graduate school elsewhere. He then got a job with a research organization, where he worked primarily with statistics.
“After a year, I separated from that and then got a job with what was then the Texas Employment Commission,” said Piboin. “That is pretty much where my career went law-wise. Unemployment programs were about 95% of what I did there over the years.”
At one point, Piboin believed he might transition into foreign language as a career. He grew fond of French, partly due to his heritage, and studied the language at UT. He would ultimately spend a year in France during what he called one of his “sabbaticals”.
“There is a family (in France) I met, we are probably very distantly related, and I ended up spending a year living with them,” said Piboin. “I took a lot of French classes and spent my days getting as fluent in the language as possible before I got pulled back to Austin.”
He ended up assuming his old job in Austin and still considers the French language his avocation. He travels to France quite regularly and calls it one of his four homes. He has spent time in Paris, where he lived during his sabbatical, but also frequents the commune of Dinard, located in Brittany in northwestern France.
“It is absolutely beautiful,” said Piboin on coastal France. “(Dinard) is a town of about 10-15 thousand on the coast of the English Channel. It is right on the water with beautiful beaches and rocky cliffs, which is a big pull right there.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic will make it impossible for Piboin to travel to France in the fall.
Piboin has been able to reconnect with a number of his former friends and classmates via Facebook in recent years. At the Madisonville Cemetery, Piboin visited with Clarke Osborne, President of the Madisonville Cemetery Association, and Laura Cannon, with whom he attended school.