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The Ghost of Jessel

By John Michael Lockhart
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their father becoming sheriff, Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso and his sister, Jessica Ourso, spoke candidly to the Riverside Reader about what their lives were like growing up with a father who was both larger than life and seldom at home.

“Our mother, God bless her soul, was both mother and father to us when we were growing up; our father, he belonged to the people,” Mitch Ourso notes.

“Our mama was the glue; she put up with a lot of stuff and loved him to the day she he died and all she wanted was her kids protected,” he adds.

In fact, the two siblings agree that during the ten years he was sheriff, the only two days he set aside for family were Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Known as the Black Stallion, Jessel M. Ourso Sr. was arguably the most powerful, colorful, controversial and charismatic sheriff in Iberville Parish history. First elected to office in 1964, Ourso’s notoriety far exceeded the boundaries of Iberville Parish. While on a trip to Europe in 1967 to promote economic development, the president of a Swiss chemical company famously asked La. Gov. John McKeithen, “What are you going to do about that sheriff in Iberville Parish?”
It wasn’t long before McKeithen had an answer for that question.

After the La. Legislative Auditor accused Ourso of failure to account for funds received from construction and engineering firms as payment of guard and security services that the sheriff’s department had provided to the companies, McKeithen removed Ourso from office late in his first term and then refused to issue Ourso his commission after the powerful sheriff’s landslide victory in 1967.

Removed from office by the governor, the Black Stallion didn’t go away. For the next three years he worked as a pipefitter to support his wife and six children and prepared for his political comeback.

In 1971, Ourso defeated yet another sitting sheriff, his former chief deputy, and, he took office for his second term in 1972. Ourso served out that term and died in office after he was elected again in 1975.

“You hear these ‘legendary’ stories and you never know which are true and which aren’t true but you would swear your daddy was sheriff for 40 years, but in reality he wasn’t sheriff but from ‘64 until ‘68 and from ’72 until ’78.
“But inside that ten years he did a lot,” Mitch Ourso says with pride.

One of only five sheriffs thus far inducted into the La. Political Hall of Fame, a portion of Ourso’s Hall of Fame biography reads as follows:

Despite swirling charges and accusations that continued throughout his reign as Iberville’s most feared and revered political figure, Sheriff Ourso also is credited with making great improvements in the Iberville Sheriff’s Department.
Ourso is credited with establishing the Iberville Parish Junior Deputy Program, at the time one of the largest programs of its kind in the state, and established a work release program to provide work experience for inmates of good behavior with the goal of making them employable after their time in jail.

He organized the sheriff’s flotilla to provide both law enforcement and rescue services in Iberville’s hundreds of acres of swamplands and waterways, and pioneered the use of sophisticated equipment, such as a psychological stress evaluator.
Ourso was the first Iberville sheriff to use a helicopter in cases, and established the parish’s first ambulance service and emergency unit. He built a firing range for deputies to use for shooting practice, and opened it to parish residents.
He established sheriff’s sub-stations in the northern and eastern parts of the parish, with deputies on duty 24 hours a day, and constructed a new $2 million jail, completed in 1977.

Mitch Ourso says his parents sent he and his brother Blane, the two eldest of Jessel and Eula May’s six children, to a boarding school in Mississippi to isolate them from the press reports and local gossip of their father’s legal troubles during his first term in office.

“I used to go to the library every morning before class. I’ll never forget picking up that Times-Picayune and seeing that picture of them padlocking Iberville Parish.

“I was 14 years old, Blane was 12.

“Does that have an effect on you to see your daddy being charged with all these things?

“Of course it does,” Mitch Ourso says.

Mitch Ourso recalls that his father’s 1971 campaign “was the race of his life.”

“There’s not much that I can remember about that first campaign (in late 1963 and January 1964); I was in the fifth grade.
“But that ’71 campaign, that race was everything to him; it was the race of his life.
“He was in court facing 33 state and five federal charges and was running for sheriff against the incumbent at the same time.
“I was a senior in high school when he started preparing for that campaign. I remember my daddy running around the track at Plaquemine High School to get ready for that campaign,” Mitch Ourso recalls.
From 1968 to 1971, Ourso successfully fought federal extortion charges and 33 state criminal charges against him.
He won re-election as sheriff in 1971 using the slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and served as a delegate to the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1973.

Mitch and Jessica Ourso each agree that their father possessed many gifts that made him popular among voters in Iberville Parish.

Jessica Ourso recalls her father’s gift of oratory and his ability to mesmerize a crowd. In one particular speech, Jessica recalls how her father went on and on about losing his best friend, a guy he had grown up with and gone to school with.
Listening to every word, Jessica says she was so saddened to hear her father go on and on about this man he had known all his life and who had died.

And then came the punch line.

“That man was the old Jessel Ourso; the man you see before you right now is the new Jessel Ourso.

After his death from liver and kidney failure following a long bout with viral hepatitis, The Advocate’s westside bureau chief Milford Fryer remembered Ourso as a man who “lived hard and fast, and he left behind a legacy of political astuteness not likely to be repeated in Iberville Parish for years to come.” In that same column, Fryer added, “No other current politician could build and maintain a political machine to rival the one held together by Ourso. Perhaps no one will try. However else anyone tries to classify Ourso, he was a political phenomenon.”

That same week, in another column reflecting on Ourso’s tenure as sheriff, Plaquemine POST editor Gary Herbert also referred to Ourso as a “phenomenon.”

“He leaves a mark on this parish which is a phenomenon. As I understand the word, it can be used to describe a person with a remarkable talent, power and ability. That’s Jessel Ourso— a phenomenon— remarkable, talented, powerful, gifted.”

Ourso was the youngest of 11 children born to Rudolph and Ida Ourso.

After graduating from Plaquemine High School Ourso enlisted in the U. S. Army and served from 1952-54, including 15 months in combat in the Korean Conflict. He highlighted the service later in his political campaigns, and took pride that all seven of the Ourso brothers served in the U. S. Military.

Following Ourso’s death in 1978, The Advocate’s westside bureau chief Milford Fryer remembered Ourso as a man who “lived hard and fast, and he left behind a legacy of political astuteness not likely to be repeated in Iberville Parish for years to come.” In that same column, Fryer added, “No other current politician could build and maintain a political machine to rival the one held together by Ourso. Perhaps no one will try. However else anyone tries to classify Ourso, he was a political phenomenon.”

That same week, in another column reflecting on Ourso’s tenure as sheriff, Plaquemine POST editor Gary Herbert also referred to Ourso as a “phenomenon.”
“He leaves a mark on this parish which is a phenomenon. As I understand the word, it can be used to describe a person with a remarkable talent, power and ability. That’s Jessel Ourso— a phenomenon— remarkable, talented, powerful, gifted.”

“We had a lot of hurt going on when our daddy died. And dying in office… that’s a bad thing, dying in office,” Mitch Ourso explains.

Though their father beat every state and federal charge he faced, Mitch Ourso concedes their family were the ones who paid the price.

“Our family felt a lot of shame and pain; there was a reason they sent me and my brother out of town,” he says candidly.
Following their mother’s death in 1996, Mitch announced for parish president the following year after Iberville Parish adopted a home rule charter.

In the course of that campaign, Mitch says the shame and pain he had once felt when his father was under indictment was replaced with feelings of pride.

“The stories people would tell me as I was walking door to door, the articles they had saved for 17 years.
“That meant something to them.
“I would hear stories like, ‘I wouldn’t have this house if not for your father.’
“I had no idea that our father had touched so many people; I was so proud that he had touch so many people.
“Even if I had lost (that first election for parish president), I still would have come away a winner because that campaign, walking door to door and meeting so many people that my daddy had helped, made me a winner. It gave me vindication.
“Legendary, legendary… you know, I used to let that bother me.
“Now, I wouldn’t care if this parish remembers one thing that J. Mitchell Ourso has done for it; I get well paid for what I do.
“What means more to me is what I learned during that first campaign and what others have told me about my daddy since I was sworn into this office.
“I didn’t know how people felt about my father at the time of his death; I didn’t get that vindication until 19 years later.
“I never knew how much my daddy was adored; I finally had some vindication.
“It was proved to me when I ended up winning in the first primary.

“That was the ghost of Jessel,” Mitch Ourso explains, bellowing with pride.

“He shoved a lot in 46 years.

“He always said that when he died this world owed him nothing,” Jessica Ourso adds.

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