Tyler County Judge Travels Unique Path to the Bench
At the time, he didn’t know if it was a fleeting thought or an actual epiphany. Regardless, Jacques Blanchette clearly remembers the day he glimpsed his future and pictured the possibility of a judgeship.
The Tyler County judge had been back home for a few years and was driving past the 120-year-old courthouse in Woodville. As he glanced at the county capitol, the word “candidate” sprang to mind. But some 14 years would pass before he put that thought into action.
Now in his second term as Tyler County judge, Blanchette has glimpsed his past, and one thing is certain: Those 14 years between thought and action, coupled with other key life experiences, provided a solid springboard for public service, perhaps lending credence to the suggestion that “a man is the sum of his experiences.”
The chronology of Blanchette’s journey toward the bench must be prefaced by a unique component of his genealogy, which earns its significance as the timeline unfolds: Blanchette’s great uncle, W.O. Stringer, served as both a local undertaker and a county judge in Jasper County.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, and raised in the small town of Colmesneil in Tyler County, Blanchette’s first career connection to his eventual judgeship was launched in the city of Tyler in Smith County. As a representative for National Write Your Congressman (NWYC), a counterpart of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Blanchette disseminated research support materials to constituents to encourage a grassroots movement of writing to lawmakers. Of course, the relationship to this occupation and county government is easy to anticipate.
“Walking in the door and hearing the frustrations and concerns that people would express regarding pieces of legislation helped me understand how legislation that becomes law has the potential to alter how communities function,” Blanchette explained. “That time was very beneficial to me, as I was exposed to the taxpaying members of the business community.”
Prior to working as a representative for NWYC, Blanchette had sought a communications degree from Texas Tech, having previously earned an associate’s degree from Kilgore College. During his second summer session at Tech, Blanchette took an occupational preference test. The results indicated a natural leaning toward funeral director, with a secondary career choice of beautician!
“I told them, ‘This is not my paper. See my boots and jeans? I’m not about to fix little old ladies’ blue hair!’ ’’
The funeral director angle was equally surprising to Blanchette, but not completely inconceivable, considering his mother’s family’s connection to funeral homes (the great uncle who was both a funeral director and a county judge). And, consider this second twist: About a year into their marriage, Jacques and Leeza Blanchette moved from Lufkin, where he had worked for GMAC Finance, to Jasper, where Leeza’s brother had been hired as manager of the then J. O. Stringer Funeral Home. Blanchette worked with his brother-in-law for about three years before eventually moving to Tyler and taking the position with NWYC. He had absolutely no thought of returning to the funeral industry.
Fast forward about a decade to 1991, when Leeza’s brother called once again. This time around, he was opening a branch funeral home of the Jasper facility in Woodville, county seat of Tyler County, Blanchette’s wife’s hometown.
“I agreed to work with him for a while,” Blanchette recalled, “but I was not considering anything permanent. However, as I started performing ‘director-type’ activities – something I had not done in my earlier three years with the funeral home – I realized that the occupational test I took years earlier was exactly true.” In fact, Blanchette experienced such fulfillment in his new role that he commuted to and from Houston’s Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service to become a licensed funeral director for Stringer & Griffin Funeral Home.
After several years as funeral director, Blanchette was approached by two individuals within a two-week span asking if he would consider running for the office of county judge. Blanchette immediately recalled the prompting he had experienced years earlier.
“It was 14 years between my initial thought of offering myself as county judge until taking office in 2007,” Blanchette recounted. “I’m very grateful for those years in the funeral industry because I feel they have assisted me in the role of county judge.”
As a funeral director, “you are dealing with people who are vulnerable and sensitive,” he described. “It is a difficult time in their lives. Developing compassion and sympathy are some of the components I gleaned from my time as a funeral director, both of which I use as I perform my judicial and administrative tasks,” he stated.
While his wife still works at the funeral home, Blanchette resigned his post to become a full-time county judge, where he spends about 60 percent of his time on administrative issues and 40 percent on judicial duties.
In addition, a funeral director becomes adept at coordinating duties while working with varied personalities who may have a common objective, but sometimes approach the objective from different vantage points. At the same time, the director must continually communicate to family members the legal ramifications of a burial, all the while working within the family’s budgetary parameters. Consider the similarities to county government, Blanchette suggested.
Of course, a funeral director becomes involved in the emotional element of a death, “gently leading people through a process that they are not always emotionally well enough to walk through,” he explained.
When it comes to the bench, judges are often exposed to the emotions of the case, especially when considering the hardships of those before the judge and the imposition of sentence. Blanchette remembered challenging a father, who had come to court with his child, asking him to consider becoming the man his child needed.
“I told him that he owed it to his child to make better decisions for the future of that baby, and the man started weeping,” the judge recalled.
When it comes to family, Blanchette’s own experiences as a husband and father have influenced his career as judge in a multitude of ways. Jacques and Leeza have been married for 32 years and have three children: Blake, 27, and his wife, Helen; Brent, 25; and Blaire, 23, and her husband, Dwight.
The Blanchette’s middle child, Brent, was born with Down’s Syndrome and had open heart surgery at age three months to correct a congenital heart defect.
“Through the years, Brent’s discipline, focus and direction have served as an inspiration in our family and in our community,” Blanchette shared. “Actually, he’s pretty popular, and I tell him I sure wouldn’t want to run against him!”
Brent is a contributing member of society, holding down a job in the cafeteria of the Woodville High School where he ensures the milk served to the children is date-sensitive; he also disposes of trash and assists the other cafeteria employees.
“He takes his job very seriously,” Brent’s dad maintained.
When it comes to hearing, ruling and granting guardianships, “the value that Brent has brought to me and to our life gives me a sympathetic position, because I can understand families who find themselves faced with another family member who needs guardianship,” he imparted. “I understand how they feel. I share those same feelings.”
Brent has also taught the judge to “recognize the value of every life as being a contribution to a community, not just being a receiver of benefits, only.”
Jacques, Leeza and Brent, who lives at home with his parents, acknowledge that a county judge’s job is not a “9-to-5” position.
“You’re always on the job, whether you are at the grocery story, ballpark or at church,” he explained. “Public service is demanding on not only the public official but also their family. You are always subject to someone else’s needs and concerns.”
This is a somewhat familiar circumstance, as a funeral director is continually subject to others’ needs, he added. However, in the funeral industry, “most everyone appreciates what you do. In public office, about half are appreciative, and the other half want it the other way.”
As he has settled into his second term, Blanchette has accepted this premise – that a public official can rarely please everyone. However, the judge continues to operate from a deep-seated principle: It all comes down to doing the right thing.
“It may not be popular,” he elaborated. “It may not be personally profitable, and in some cases it may not be the most politically expedient. But in the end, if you’ve done it, if you’ve made that decision, and you’ve voted for the benefit of the whole rather than a select few, then you can live with that.” H – By Julie Anderson