Dr. Rodney Lafon boiled down his decision to announce his retirement last month to a simple factor. With 40 years accumulated in the school system he had come to a point in his career where he would make nearly the same yearly salary as a retiree as if he chose to continue working.
"When you take your wife to the retirement place and they throw that paper in front of you and say ‘by the way your husband’s working for free’ and you’re wife gives you that little look, then you know it is time to say, OK time for a different chapter in life," he said.
Lafon made $170,282 last year alone. His yearly retirement wage will be an average of his top three earnings years, which will likely leave him financially sound and free to do whatever he pleases with his retirement years.
So, for the 63-year-old Lafon, that new chapter in life may be more of a return to a previous phase of his life and the resurgence of his music career.
Back in 1972, just after the New Orleans native had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from Loyola University, Lafon took a job as music teacher at St. Bernard High School.
However, only a few months into his early career the new educator made an abrupt change and took the opportunity to join up with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, an international touring band.
"We did package shows with the Drifters and Billy Joe Royal and all that stuff," he said. "It was wow! A great, great experience to travel all around the country - Mexico, Canada, Cuba, we really rolled."
In his three years as a traveling musician, Lafon also took on the role of road manager for the group. He met and married his wife, Joyce, who traveled with the group after their marriage
"I love to play the horn and back in the 1970s I was a fulltime musician and traveled all around the country and everywhere and my wife traveled with me," he said.
When his stint with the C.C. Riders ended in 1975, he had two choices.
"I could have gone to Las Vegas and been a trumpet player or come home. And I decided to come home and settle down," he said. "Think about that, I don’t think I’ve settled down yet."
Lafon took a job as a music teacher at St. Charles Parish Public Schools. He said at the time he had no idea that he would rise in the ranks and eventually become superintendent.
His ascent to the top was a relatively quick one. After only four years as a music teacher he became assistant principal at J.B. Martin Junior High School in 1979. He made principal first at Allemands Elementary in 1982 and then at Luling Elementary in 1990 before making his way into the central administrative office in 1992, where he served as restructuring coordinator and assistant superintendent. In 1995, he took over as superintendent.
Lafon said his wife was bewildered by his upward progression.
"When she married me she married a trumpet player. I was a little skinny guy 140 pounds, playing trumpet, dancing around doing all that stupid stuff with the show band and on the road," he said. "My wife said ‘What do you mean you are going to be a principal? What do you mean you are going to be assistant superintendent? What do you mean you are going to be superintendent?’"
He contributes his success as an educator to other administrators in the school system at the time.
"I didn’t teach for very long, I got into administration when I was very young. The principals would say ‘you need to go back to school to get your graduate degree because you have those abilities to be an administrator,’" Lafon said.
In 1978, Lafon earned his Master’s degree in education and administration from Loyola University and in 1992 he received his Ph.D. in education from Nova University.
However, throughout his career in education Lafon has continued to perform as a musician. For the past 35 years he has been a trumpeter and contractor for the horns section of Luther Kent and Trick Bag, as well as performing with The Wise Guys and with The Jerry Leonard Society Orchestra.
Three years ago, Lafon had a major heart surgery that threatened his music career and he was unsure if he would be able to continue playing music.
"I had an aortic valve replacement," he said. "I had that done and it was successful. I was very concerned because I was worried about playing the horn."
Luckily for Lafon, the doctor who performed the surgery, Dr. Tod Engelhardt, is a trumpet player as well.
"When I told him my concerns he said ‘Don’t worry about it. You are going to play, don’t worry,’" Lafon said. "So, sure enough, two days after the surgery he said ‘Go home and play your horn.’"
Since the surgery Lafon has continued to play and he said he occasionally runs into Engelhardt at shows.
"After some of the carnival balls I play with the Society Orchestra guess who sits next to me? Todd Engelhardt, the doctor, and when he walks in he goes like this," Lafon holds his hand to his ear as if examining a patient. "Still ticking!"
Luther Kent, the front man for Luther Kent and Trick Bag, said his relationship with Lafon spans over three decades.
"Rodney’s got a funny saying. He says ‘Music is like golf. Everybody else’s golf,"" he said. "For Rodney, music is his passion."
Kent said he is looking forward to Lafon’s retirement from the school system because that means he will have more time to devote to his music.
"I’m just thrilled to death that he has had such a great career, but at the same time I’m actually thrilled that we are going to be able to work together a little bit more now that he is retiring," he said.
Throughout their time working together, Lafon has played on six albums put out by the band and has been more than just a member of the band, but also a business partner in the venture.
"Rodney basically contracts all of the horn players and makes sure that they are all aware of all the particulars that they need to know about for the jobs," he said. "He is such a great administrator it is ridiculous. Once I put something in his hands I don’t worry about it anymore."
With Luther Kent and Trick Bag, Lafon has played Jazz Fest for the past 35 years.
At this year’s Jazz Fest, Lafon got a surprise. He was riding in a van at the Fairgrounds on his way to play a gig with the band at the Blues Tent when his life as an educator and as a performer collided.
Lafon said a young man sat down next to him and struck up a conversation.
"He said ‘you gave me my diploma three years ago.’ I said ‘Well what are you doing in the van?" he said ‘I am going to play at the Jazz tent,’" he said. "He’s a jazz pianist and I gave him his diploma. I went whoa!"
Now he is suggesting that the young musician come back to the local schools to give a speech about his success following graduation.
Beaming with pride, Lafon delivered a line he often has delivered throughout his time as the leader of the local school system.
"That’s what it is all about," he said. "It’s about the kids."
|Dr. Rodney Lafon playing trumpet with “Luther Kent and Trick Bag”.|