The blend of cultures in the Teche Area are representative of the diversity of life experienced by a young Frenchman who found his way for a short time to his family roots in New Iberia.
Recently, and not for one of his Mire family funerals, Paul Thionville, 88, found his way back to New Iberia to have lunch with friends he knew 60 years ago. One, his college roommate Dr. Donald Pavy, orchestrated the reunion and was rewarded by at least one tale he had never heard before.
“My mother was born Ellen Suberbielle, my grandmother was a Burke. My father was French born in Senegal, Africa. His mother died at child birth,” Thionville said. “My grandfather worked many places but in World War I was gassed and couldn’t fight any longer so they sent him to the United States to teach Americans how to use a French gun.”
Thionville is not quite sure how they met, but eventually Ellen Suberbielle married René Thionville. During the Depression when the country fell apart, the young family moved to Guadeloupe, an insular region of France located in the Leeward Islands, part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Young Thionville grew up running free in the volcanic mountains and enjoying the beaches and ocean until one day his mother grew homesick for Louisiana and her family.
At 16, Thionville and his mother hitched a ride on a banana boat headed for America but before they could make it, the ship hit ground, started smoking and they had to abandon ship on life rafts to a nearby island. The next day, a U.S. Navy ship carrying 10,000 sailors hailed the distress call and removed only the two American citizens, his mother and Thionville. The ship carried them onto its destination — Norfolk, Virginia, in winter. Dressed only for the islands, the journey to Louisiana was just beginning.
A train ride later to New Orleans then a drive to New Iberia by an uncle completed the trip. Thionville arrived with a gift in hand for his grandmother, a sack of raw sugar weighing more than 75 pounds.
“During the war (WWII) my grandmother told my mother there was a shortage of sugar. In Guadeloupe we had plenty of sugar, so we decided to carry a sack with us,” Thionville laughed remembering the story to his former roommate. “When the boat started sinking, I went and brought the sugar, put it in the lifeboat with us and the Navy ship. So we’re on the train headed to south Louisiana, and by now the bag of sugar has a small hole.”
Little did Thionville know he would eventually own four interlocking companies that weigh, measure, sample, inspect and freight forward or store commodities of grains and oilseeds going around the world.
Technically, the transcripts from his schooling in Guadeloupe never really transferred. He attended New Iberia’s St. Peters College a few short months and at 17 attended summer school at Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — until school administration wondered how he got in the system without a high school diploma. Before test scores were in to appease admissions, he had joined the U.S. Army and was serving in Italy in 1946-47. Upon his return, in 1951 he earned a degree in biology and chemistry.
The gathering of friends at Beau Soleil Café and Catering were all doctors, the field Thionville thought he was destined to join. Instead, he worked in the lab at Mercy Hospital in New Orleans, until he realized there was no future there. A newspaper ad led him to a company owned by an elderly man and after years under his tutelage, Thionville bought the laboratory and grew it to be an internationally respected service company for the commodity trade.
Since 1961, his company has expanded to four — Thionville Laboratories, Thionville Surveying Company, Hugh N. Evans Laboratory and Schwartz Forwarding Co. — with 50 employees and links to offices throughout the world. Thionville said his success is due largely to the trust of their customers.
“I was not well known and customers were concerned the buyers overseas would not accept my certificates,” said Thionville. “I went to Rotterdam, the biggest port in the world, called on clients and told them who I was. Then I went on to Morocco, Egypt, Greece, India and Pakistan — the first trip. I continued this through my career.”
A widower for ten years, Thionville said his life has been full with a family of four children and 10 grandchildren. His son André is at the helm for the most part now, and with very good employees. Thionville expects to retire in the next couple of years. His younger brother René, who helped build the surveying expansion of the companies, has already done so.
“I missed a lot having grown up in Guadeloupe. At the same time I have gained things I never would have,” said Thionville. “I love sports, I was a decent tennis player and I love planes. No regrets. You see opportunity as you go about life.”
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