Graduate finds hope behind jail walls

Renee Brinkly for Colonel 2014
With her big heart and no-nonsense attitude, Renee Brinkley (BGS ’03) tries to reform inmates in her role as head administrator of corrections for Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office.

A former beauty products businesswoman with a bright smile and warm, welcoming demeanor, Renee Brinkley (BGS ’03) is not the person you’d expect to find running the parish’s correction facilities.

Lafourche’s head administrator of corrections for the past three years, Brinkley oversees the parish jail in Thibodaux — an overcrowded, aging facility housing up to 245 inmates.

At its best, the jail is an unpleasant place to spend a day. At its worst, it can be downright dangerous. But where many people see a place of punishment, Brinkley sees opportunity. She views inmates as people who are facing not only the biggest challenges of their lives but who are also being presented with a chance to change their path.

“Whether great or small, we have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life every day,” Brinkley says.

The first woman promoted to major in the Lafourche Parish Sheriff ’s Office, Brinkley has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, but her path wasn’t always a clear one. She initially struggled with devoting herself to her studies and deciding on a major, and she left Nicholls before finishing her degree. Brinkley later returned and earned her general studies degree after University College Dean Al Davis convinced her that having diverse interests wasn’t a bad thing.

“He really put it together for me when he said, ‘Renee, it’s okay that you want to be Miss America and the president and a veterinarian and a counselor,’” Brinkley recalls. “For the first time I really felt like I was okay being a person who was interested in so many different things.”

A Thibodaux resident for much of her life, Brinkley began her career a long way from the jailhouse — selling bath and beauty products and guiding businesses for Neill Corporation.

When the company was bought out, Brinkley found herself at a crossroads. She ran into Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre at a football game, and he convinced her to work for him as executive director of Weed and Seed, a federally sponsored program that aims to prevent and reduce crime in targeted neighborhoods.

“Working in my community and working with people was always my passion, so, for me, it was the perfect job,” she says.

After watching Brinkley navigate tough neighborhoods, her coworkers suggested she undergo formal police officer training. Having never touched a gun before, Brinkley recalls her training as “shocking” and “life-changing.” Leaning on what she learned at the academy, at Nicholls and in her graduate program at the University of New Orleans, she steadily rose through the ranks, serving as captain of the personnel division, major of the civil department and finally head administrator of corrections.

Running Lafourche Parish’s corrections system takes a firm attitude and the ability to tell people the truth, even when they don’t want to hear it. But the job also takes empathy, something Brinkley has a lot of.

“I have a huge heart, and sometimes I think that’s my downfall,” she says. “I go home and I worry about the people I’ve met, and I pray for people.”

That’s especially tough in the corrections system, where the goal is to reform inmates in hopes that they’ll change their lives and never return. In reality, many end up back behind bars.

“When I see the revolving door, I can’t help but question myself and say, where did we fail? I always want to know if I could have done something more,” she says.

Not everyone’s going to jail forever, she adds. Ultimately, many inmates are coming back into the community. They could be your neighbor, your mother’s neighbor, a co-worker or someone who does your home repairs.

“Wouldn’t you want to know we did something to make them better?” she says.

While Brinkley has never felt unaccepted by her mostly male peers in law enforcement, it took time for her to learn that she didn’t have to change her personality or harden herself. She’s kept her big heart intact, even if it means crying at drug court graduation, which celebrates drug offenders who reach sobriety.

“I was so proud of the graduates,” she says. “For some of them it took years, but they finally beat their addiction and that’s something to celebrate. So yeah I get excited and I cry — I learned a long time ago that it’s okay for me to just be who I am.”

— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

We’re all in the mood for a melody

Joel.JambonComputer science graduate Joel Jambon (BS ’89) finds second career as a piano man at Pat O’Brien’s

The unmistakable melody of “Brown Eyed Girl” drifts through Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, where fruity rum punches crowd copper-topped tables and memories made by millions of locals and tourists thickly coat the walls. Up on stage, seated behind one of two polished baby grand pianos, Joel Jambon (BS ’89) taps his left foot as his fingers build momentum during the spirited chorus.

Once a burned-out computer programmer looking for a more fulfilling career path, Jambon can hardly believe his luck. Four nights a week, he now clocks into work at perhaps the most legendary bar in New Orleans.

“Playing the piano is what I would do to enjoy myself at home, so to be able to earn a living doing this is just the best thing ever,” says Jambon, a piano player at Pat O’s since 2006. “To do what you love is like not working.”

A Golden Meadow native who masks his Cajun accent remarkably well, Jambon discovered his musical talent at age 11, when he began taking organ lessons. Barely a teenager, he landed his first gig of sorts at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a Catholic church just a short bike ride from his home. He later picked up the trombone while at South Lafourche High School and continued playing during his freshman year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

But despite his passion for music, Jambon had been set on pursuing a computer science degree since the ninth grade.

“The Apple II had just come out, and I was intrigued by all the computer stuff floating around,” Jambon recalls. “Computers were poised to keep exploding, and I thought, That’s a growing field I should be a part of.”

Music continued to fill a large chunk of the computer science major’s time, especially after he transferred to Nicholls in 1987. Jambon joined the KNSU radio station staff first as a DJ and then as program director, responsible for training staffers and buying records.

“Sometimes, I’d sneak into the piano practice room in the music building, which they thankfully kept unlocked,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in there playing just to relax myself. I considered changing my major a couple of times, but I stuck with the safer career choice.”

Before graduation, Jambon secured a programming job with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in the Detroit area, but even after five years there, he never acclimated to the snowy conditions. Slowly, Jambon migrated back south, where he ultimately was hired by Hibernia Bank in New Orleans to do Y2K programming.

IMG_0330“I clearly remember attending a summer program in the early ’80s, and they told us, ‘There’s this Y2K problem that y’all are going to have to fix one day.’ I thought it would be fixed long before, but no, it was waiting for me in 1999, and I spent 18 months doing Y2K coding and testing. It was a slog.”

Just as the worn-down Jambon began considering a career change, his mother unexpectedly passed away.

“I had been dissatisfied with my work for some time, and my mother’s death made me think, When I die one day, don’t I want to say that I played more music and did less programming?” says Jambon, who left Hibernia in 2001. “I wanted to do what made me happy, and I thought, What better place than New Orleans to try to make a living as a musician.”

Jambon applied at Howl at the Moon, a dueling-piano bar chain once located on Bourbon Street, and although he had little experience in singing or entertaining a crowd, he got his first professional gig.

“I didn’t even know ‘Piano Man,’ the No. 1 requested song,” he says. “That’s how green I was.”

The new job pushed the introverted Jambon out of his comfort zone. Not only did he have to memorize the 150 songs in Howl at the Moon’s repertoire, but he also was expected to jump on the pianos, tell jokes and pump up the crowd between songs.

Just as he was finding his groove, Hurricane Katrina swept it away. Howl at the Moon never reopened, and when Jambon returned to New Orleans, jobs — especially for musicians — were scarce. Even the esteemed Pat O’Brien’s, then open only three days a week, wasn’t hiring. Jambon kept afloat by playing one-time gigs, including a month-long “pity job” at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras 2006, Pat O’s announced that it was reopening seven days a week and needed piano players to entertain the anticipated crowds. Jambon auditioned, and the manager agreed to try him out for a week.

“He never actually told me I had the job; he just kept putting me on the schedule,” Jambon recalls. “After a couple of months, I thought, I guess I got the job.”

IMG_0393For Jambon and most others lucky enough to land a spot on the coveted piano bar staff, the job is one they plan to keep until retirement. There’s no mistaking that the work can be tough. Musicians work in teams of four with each pair playing every other hour from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays. And, of course, there are the intoxicated customers who occasionally cause trouble. But the job pays well and is revered. In the 18th century building on St. Peter that houses Pat O’Brien’s, live music has been a staple since 1942, and some of the piano players have been on the staff for more than 30 years — continuing to perform well into their 80s.

“To be a part of that long tradition is amazing for a musician because, as I learned, clubs come and go,” Jambon says. “But this place and its reputation have endured. We can take more chances than other dueling-piano bars because we have a legacy of players who have been here for decades. They remember older songs when they were new hits.”

Using the bar’s WiFi and a laptop set atop the piano, Jambon can look up the lyrics and play by ear any song he’s heard at least five times. Requests range from the overplayed favorites to the obscure stumpers. Although Jambon lights up when he receives requests for old standards by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, he doesn’t shy away from the more modern picks. He even does piano renditions of hip-hop favorites such as “Gin and Juice,” “Baby Got Back” and “Ice Ice Baby.” As requests for new songs he doesn’t know pile up, he adds them to his “to-learn” list, expanding his repertoire to meet the crowd’s demands.

When he isn’t presiding over a piano at Pat O’s, Jambon enjoys quiet time at home reading, surfing the Internet and playing more music. Recently, he purchased an organ, which takes him back to those pre-teen performances at the Golden Meadow church. Of course, his musical venue has changed quite a bit since then, but he says the gigs aren’t entirely different.

“In both cases, we wanted the crowd to sing along.”

— Written by Stephanie Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

5 questions with Joshua Hollenbeck

Nocturne 2013From playing across the seven seas to teaching at Nicholls, Joshua Hollenbeck has had a globe-trotting musical career that’s taken him from Tobago to Thibodaux. Now in his third year as an instructor of music and assistant director of bands at Nicholls, Hollenbeck directs the Pride of Nicholls Marching Band, the 6th Man Basketball Band and the Jazz Ensemble. Before his career in education, he cruised the world with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival cruise lines — sometimes spending as much as seven months at sea while performing in the premier show band and visiting countless locations in North and South America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India.

FAST FACTS:

»»Hometown: Tampa, Fla.

»»Instruments: Saxophone, flute and clarinet

»»Education: Bachelor of Music Education from Florida State University, Master of Music from University of South Florida

»»Favorite bands: Earth, Wind and Fire; Tower of Power; and Chicago

»»Travel log: Visited 28 countries on six continents

»»Life on land: Lives in Raceland with his wife, Ali Hagan, and their two dogs

1. What was it like working on a cruise ship?

I played in the show band, which is usually made up of college-educated and trained musicians. These are guys at the peak of professionalism because we have to be well-versed in different musical styles and do a lot of sight reading. Living on the ship is very much like living in a freshman dorm. You’re usually paired up with someone else who does the same job as you, and it is very close quarters. The best thing is the travel. In the same week, I saw the Roman Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and the Parthenon.

2. What’s the worst part of the job?

Things happen at the same time every day on a cruise ship, so your day is very planned. You don’t get the kind of freedom and uncertainty most musicians are used to on land. That and the food in the crew mess hall.

3. How do you select the music the Nicholls band plays at games and halftime?

I write all the arrangements myself. I play in a few cover bands in the area, and that gives me inspiration. I adapt popular music and stick to things that are fun to keep the crowd engaged.

4. Who are your musical inspirations?

Dean Donataccio, my high school band director — he taught us first and foremost you have to be musical — and my collegiate saxophone instructor at Florida State University, Patrick Meighan. But most of all, my parents. When I played in high school, they weren’t pushy, but they knew this could be something for me and they supported me.

5. Who is your dream band to work with?

I would love to work with the Marsalis family, Harry Connick Jr. or Rebirth Brass Band.

— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.