Proud of serving others, as well as becoming a jet fighter pilot
Leon “Sonny” Vial III had served four years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot when he decided it was time for a career move.
Vial consulted his brother who advised he enter law school – and he did. His graduation from Tulane University Law School in 1958 marked his nearly 60 year career in law, which included serving as parish attorney collectively for 23 years of that time.
Now, at age 88, Vial has announced he is retiring effective Dec. 31.
Of his time as a parish attorney, he said, “That was a job I took extremely serious. I worked very hard at it, but politics was always there.”
Under the changing administrations of parish presidents including Albert Laque and V.J. St. Pierre, Vial said his every opinion was carefully researched before it was given – and they could be based on a myriad of legal questions that ranged from changing the Home Rule Charter to derelict properties. Because of the complexity of these many inquiries, he asked those questions be provided in advance of the council meetings but that rarely happened.
Overall, he welcomed the opportunity to serve the people.
“I guess the thing I’m most proud of as a lawyer is making so many firm relationships,” Vial said. “I get a tremendous number of referrals and I’m tremendously proud of that. I’ve always been very happy to be of assistance to people who didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t afford the prices lawyers charged.”
After a little thought, though, Vial added another important moment in his life.
“I was proudest of becoming a jet fighter pilot,” he added. “I was lucky enough to fly F-86 Sabres.”
When it came to his career, he said he understood the importance of making a living.
“I grew up on a farm and I knew how to work,” he said. “But the worst thing was milking the cows.”
This work ethic also came through in his earlier jobs on a pipeline surveying crew, as a roustabout in the oilfield and working for 95 cents an hour at Avondale Shipyard. He also appreciated the many interesting people he met along the way.
“It was all hard work, but I was used to it,” Vial said. “A lot of people thought the Vials were wealthy, but we were like everybody else during the Depression. Nobody had anything and then World War II came long with rationing. We were fortunate to own the land we did to raise our food.”
The Hahnville attorney’s family roots run deep in St. Charles Parish with the earliest mention of the Vial name dating back to the 1850’s. Vial said his grandfather was sheriff, assessor, clerk of court and state representative and delegate to the 1921 state constitutional convention.
His father also served as sheriff.
This understanding of what it took to earn a living directed Vial to Tulane University Law School.
Although he had a geology degree at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now Southwestern University), Vial took his brother’s advice. He recalled bringing his transcript to Loyola University, but no one was available to help him so he walked next door to Tulane. He found a man who told him he was the law school’s acting dean and asked what he could do for him.
“We talked about everything, including the weather,” Vial said. Then the dean told him registration was Monday, but Vial inquired how he could get into the school when the man replied, “You’re admitted.”
Vial showed up and he started law school.
Three years later, he entered practice under James P. Vial in Hahnville for 20 years. He added, “There are lots of lawyers and doctors in the family.”
Two decades later, he started his own practice across from the St. Charles Parish Courthouse and it’s where he’s been since his decision.
Although Vial’s career includes his tenure as parish attorney, he partly gauges his success by noting he’s had the same secretary for 52 years – and is still on the job.
“That’s unbelievable,” Vial mused. “She’s married, smart, a great worker and she ought to be a lawyer.”
Vial also thanked his many clients who trusted his abilities as an attorney to represent them.
But he also readily commented on how his profession has changed.
“There are many more lawyers now then when I began practice,” he said. “It became a lot more competitive and, in many respects, has lost its appeal to me.”
Retirement appeals to him, although he isn’t sure of what’s next for him and his wife, Mary Janet.
“I have no plans about the future and I’ll take what comes,” he said. “I like to read and I have a big garden that will take up some time, but the rest of it will have to take care of itself.”
But when he reflects on his life as a lawyer, he is content.“I’m satisfied with my performance while I could have done better in some cases,” he said. “All in all, it’s been a good run.”