Louisianians of the Year


Choosing the Louisianians of the Year is a rewarding undertaking for the staff of Louisiana Life. Each winner is a person who is impacting their industry on a local, national, or international level, as well as the communities in which they live. Fortunately, Louisiana is chock full of people doing their best to make the world a better place. In fact, it can be a challenge narrowing it down, since there are so many people  around the state doing great things.

So who are 2017’s Louisianians of the Year? What kind of people are they? You can’t reduce the Louisanians of the Year to one type of person or one profession. There’s a poet, an artist, a rock star, two fried chicken kings, a nurse and a teacher. But there is no one way to make a difference in the world. You can do it by bringing artistic beauty to others, making people dance, educating children, helping burn victims, finding the poetry in everyday life, or making delicious fried chicken. What these men and women have in common are their abilities to positively impact communities through their work.

It’s hard to do justice to such an amazing group of people in just 400 words, but we’ve done our best to introduce you to this eclectic group of Louisiana residents who are making a difference.



AJ Haynes, lead singer of the Shreveport rock band the Seratones, fuses punk, rock, gospel and jazz for an intoxicating musical experience.



musician / shreveport

America is a melting pot, and that’s true of its music, too. AJ Haynes, an African-American woman in Shreveport, was a fan of artists like Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald growing up. But her interest in punk rock led her to meet Connor Davis, Adam Davis and Jesse Gabriel at punk shows in Shreveport. They formed the Seratones, a band whose style has elements of punk, rock, gospel and jazz.

Those sounds may seem like an odd marriage to outsiders, but Haynes sees similarities in the genres.

“It’s a powerful sound that hits you in the chest, and it’s uncomfortable sometimes, but you will experience something,” Haynes said.

The Seratones’ biggest break came when they were opening for the band NERVS in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 2014. NERVS’ lead singer told Haynes after the show that the Seratones were so good, he didn’t want to have to follow them on stage again. He put them in touch with the president of Fat Possum Records. Shortly thereafter, the Seratones had their first record deal for what would become 2016’s “Get Gone.”

“It was absolute serendipity that we got a record deal,” Haynes said.

Haynes was a former English teacher who left the profession when her band started taking off. She fondly remembers her days as an educator, but is happy to live the life of a touring musician.

“[Touring] is constantly being displaced, but for me that’s really comforting,” Haynes said. “I feel at home when I’m traveling.”

In a statement that contradicts the image many people have of the rock star lifestyle, Haynes said performing has made her more health-conscious than ever. The grind of constant travel and performance is so exhausting that she can’t afford to be unhealthy.

While Haynes loves traveling, she also loves Louisiana. She was born in Japan, but grew up here.

“Louisiana takes the best of a lot of really cool stuff, mixes it together, and makes it taste, sound and feel really good,” Haynes said.

Feeling good is part of what Haynes loves about music. She said she’s never written a song about a break-up or depression. One of the new songs she’s writing for the Seratones’ second album (release date TBA) has a refrain of “Don’t let them take your joy.” Joy is what she finds in music, performance, and her band mates, and she plans to keep finding it.



New Orleans master of “feel-good” art and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival poster artist Terrance Osborne has just opened his gallery on Magazine Street.



artist / new orleans

Many artists aren’t able to make a living solely from their art. Painter and gallery owner Terrance Osborne, 43, figured he might be able to do it in his 60s. He did it a lot sooner.

Painting is in Osborne’s blood. His mother painted as a hobby. Osborne did not begin painting until he was in the 10th grade. He met local artist Richard Thomas, who gave him his first painting materials. Osborne would sell that debut work for $55.

As he got older, Osborne kept painting, but didn’t really entertain the idea of art as a career. He taught for five years at Alice Harte School in New Orleans and painted on the side. After Hurricane Katrina, he was laid off. He thought of looking for another teaching position, but his wife Stephanie encouraged him to take the leap and try art full-time. He has never looked back.

Osborne has categorized his paintings as “feel-good art.” His work, which includes four New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival posters, is full of bright colors and often depicts joyous New Orleans scenes.

“If I was born on a farm, I’d be painting cows and chickens,” Osborne said. “But I was born in the eclectic, beautiful and loving city of New Orleans.”

While Osborne has been a very successful artist for many years, he delayed opening his own gallery because he knew it would be very time consuming. He has three children (ages 14, 17 and 23) and wanted to wait until they were old enough before taking the plunge.Osborne’s gallery (terranceosborne.com) opened in May 2017 at 3029 Magazine St. in Uptown. He didn’t want to simply have a space where people can look at or buy his paintings. He wanted to create a multi-sensory experience for visitors. There’s the visuals of the art, the scent of lavender, the sound of upbeat New Orleans jazz music on the speakers and the feel of a plush red carpet beneath their feet.

Osborne says the key to artistic success is for artists to follow their hearts. Yes, sometimes they will have to accept a job for a paycheck and follow orders. But they must always return to what inspires them.

“An artist has to be true to himself,” Osborne said. “If you ignore what your spirit is trying to say, then you won’t be happy.”



2017 Louisiana Teacher of the Year Joni Smith educates the state’s children with a mix of joy, empathy and dedication.



teacher / Hammond

Albany Middle School 7th-grade life science teacher and 2017 Louisiana Teacher of the Year Joni Smith’s teaching career did not begin with glory. It began with tears; lots of them.

Teaching wasn’t even the path Smith envisioned for herself at first. She was pursuing a nursing career at Southeastern Louisiana University when a professor said she’d missed her calling and should have been a teacher. The words echoed in her head for months until she finally chose education.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” Smith said.

But it didn’t seem that way initially. Like many rookie teachers, her start (in 2009 at Westside Junior High in Walker) was discouraging. But while she couldn’t meet her goals for her students and she cried on the way home from school many times, she persisted. Her administrators were supportive and she viewed each day as a clean slate, a motto she passes on to her students to this day.

“I wanted my students to walk into my classroom with no baggage, pain or traumas, and I wanted that for myself,” Smith said.

When asked what advice she would give to first year teachers, Smith said all new educators should find a mentor for classroom advice, sharing ideas and venting frustrations. Lastly, she said they should remember it’s OK to take risks and it’s OK to fail.

Smith’s ability to empathize with her students has been crucial to her success. She had a traumatic childhood, so she understands what many of her students are going through. Her empathy served her well even in her chaotic first year of teaching. Smith remembers a student (who she still is in contact with today) who was very difficult in the classroom, but approached Smith at the end of the year and said, “Thanks for never giving up on me, even when I didn’t give you a chance.”

Smith is eager to deflect praise of her work by saying she has benefited from the assistance of many colleagues and administrators. In particular, she singled out Jennifer Vicknair, her curriculum coordinator at Albany Middle School, where Smith has worked since 2014, as her “guiding light.”

“I stand on the shoulders of others,” Smith said.

Now, Smith is working on getting a master’s in educational leadership. But she never plans on leaving the classroom.

“I need that joy that comes from room 202 in Albany Middle School,” Smith said.



Twenty eight years after Neal Onebane (R) founded Krispy Krunchy Chicken, he and executive vice president Dan Shapiro are taking their delicious fried chicken around the globe.



Restaurateurs / lafayette

Southerners take fried chicken seriously. Anyone entering the competitive fried chicken market in Louisiana has to have a strong combination of confidence and know-how. But 28 years after Neal Onebane founded Krispy Krunchy Chicken in Lafayette, his company has blossomed into a worldwide presence.

In 1989, Onebane had already been in the convenience store business for 18 years. He recognized that most stores didn’t have food options that were appealing to customers. So he began frying chicken in one of his stores and created the Krispy Krunchy in-house brand.

This way, when customers went to a store and saw the Krispy Krunchy logo, they knew they’d get a good product instead of a greasy, day-old sandwich.

Since Krispy Krunchy is already in existing stores, it reduces the overhead that many restaurants spend on securing a location; because of this, Krispy Krunchy can offer a fresh (Onebane emphasized the chicken is never frozen) product at lower prices. Combined with the team’s extensive knowledge of how convenience stores operate, this method has helped the company prosper.

“We know convenience stores,” said Dan Shapiro, executive vice president for Krispy Krunchy Chicken. Shapiro started his working career as a third-shift convenience store cashier and has remained in the business ever since. “We know what works and what doesn’t work.”

When asked what the secret to creating tasty chicken is, Shapiro said it is injecting their marinade into the chicken itself, so the flavor is in both the chicken and the breading, as opposed to just the breading.

The formula is clearly working as Krispy Krunchy Chicken has expanded from its humble beginnings to over 2,200 locations worldwide, including chains in Malaysia and Mexico. Onebane expects Krispy Krunchy locations will soon be open in Egypt and India as well.

Krispy Krunchy is attracting media attention, too. A 2017 Thrillist article titled “You Probably Haven’t Heard of America’s Best Fried Chicken Chain” heaped praise upon the chicken and included a rave from New York restaurateur Dale Talde.

It has all been a dream come true for Onebane, who in the early days of Krispy Krunchy traveled around 80,000 miles a year to start new chains and spread the word about his chicken.

“It was 100 percent born in my mind and we’ve managed to execute it,” Onebane said. “I’ve never had to work a day in my life…I love what I do.”



Louisiana Poet Laureate Jack Bedell discovers the beauty and the poetry in both Louisiana’s natural landscapes and its people.



poet laureate / houma

For 2017-19 Louisiana Poet Laureate and Houma native Jack Bedell, poetry and place are forever intertwined.

“I have an incredible debt to my family, Acadian culture and to the region,” Bedell said. “I try to honor that debt as much as I can in my writing.”

Bedell, now a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, first fell in love with poetry when one of his professors at Northwestern State, Dr. Robert, loaned him a poetry book called “The Drive-In” by R.S. Gwynn. When Bedell read it, something clicked in his head about the possibilities of the art form.

“It helped me realize poetry was being written today about family, region and things like that,” Bedell said.

Bedell, who also cites his former professor Jim Whitehead and “Deliverance” author James Dickey as inspirations, has written nine books of poetry with a 10th on the way, titled “No Brother, This Storm.” The majority of the poems in the book deal with how the environment — specifically coastal erosion in Louisiana — affects a person’s family and their home.Just as Dr. Robert influenced Bedell, Bedell tries to inspire his students at Southeastern, where he has taught for 25 years. Many come to his classes thinking that poetry needs to be stiff, fancy or refined. He emphasizes that it can about real life. It can be personal, emotional and informal.

“Art can punch you straight in the chest,” Bedell said. “It doesn’t have to beat around the bush.”

For Bedell, the inspiration is a two-way street. His students shake him out of any bad habits and creative ruts he might fall into.

“That’s the great thing about being at school — every day is an opportunity to learn,” Bedell said. “My students teach me about courage, invention and daring.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the position of poet laureate, it means that Bedell is an ambassador for poetry, writing and Louisiana.

Even during his interview, he was singing the praises of other Louisiana writers, including poets Cassie Pruyn, Darrell Bourque and Alison Pelegrin. In that regard, the position of poet laureate suits Bedell perfectly. He’d rather talk about other writers and raise awareness about poetry in Louisiana than discuss himself.

“I don’t see [being poet laureate] as a medal of honor,” Bedell said. “I see it as a call to duty.”



The 2017 Advanced Practice Registered Nurse of the Year Danielle Bennett helped pioneer the use of telemedicine to aid burn victims on their road to recovery.



nurse / baton rouge

Many nurses see patients for a short time but never see them again. What Danielle Bennett loves about her work as nurse practitioner and outpatient coordinator at Baton Rouge General Medical Center is that she gets to build relationships with her patients as they recover.

“You don’t just get to the see them sick; you get to see them make progress and get better,” said Bennett, who has been a nurse for 18 years.

For her efforts, Bennett, a Baton Rouge native, was named the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse of the Year for 2017.

Bennett helped pioneer the use of telemedicine at Baton Rouge General, providing clinical health care from a distance via telecommunication technology. Since it began in 2011, it has many uses at Baton Rouge General, which serves patients over a 250-mile radius. She emphasized it was not a solo effort and praised her medical directors Dr. Ernest Mencer and Dr. Tracee Short for their work.

Burn victims might need initial treatment at an emergency room in their hometown before coming to Baton Rouge General. The ER doctors can take pictures or video of the wound, send it to burn specialists at Baton Rouge General, and get an immediate response about the right course of action. In the past, ER doctors could make a mistake that set back treatment for the patient.

Telemedicine has benefits outside the ER, too. After receiving initial treatment, patients typically have follow-up visits with their doctor. But since many Baton Rouge General patients come from far away, that can be a hardship for patients without a car. Even for those with cars, it can be a two- to three-hour trip each way. With the advent of  telemedicine, if a patient has already received initial treatment with the hospital, he or she can send pictures or video of the wound so doctors can see its progress and offer advice accordingly.

Bennett’s work goes beyond just technology. She recently organized a day trip to the World War II Museum for her patient Joseph Rockforte, a World War II veteran. The trip also included members of Rockforte’s family and two other patients.

“I really wanted to do this for Mr. Joe someday, but there never seemed to be time,” Bennett said. “Finally, I realized neither of us are getting any younger, our unit won’t ever be less busy…I just have to make the time now. And so I did.”