Posted: Sep 22, 2011 5:35 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Leon Godchaux II, a chemical engineer who ran the New Orleans sugar company and department store chain founded by his great-grandfather, is dead at the age of 94.
Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp Funeral Home confirms that Godchaux died Tuesday at his home in New Orleans.
His son, Leon "Lee" Godchaux III, told The Times-Picayune that his father designed explosives for the Navy during World War II. He says they included a detonator that was considered but not used for the first atomic bomb.
At one time or another Godchaux was president of four family companies: Godchaux Sugars Inc., Leon Godchaux Clothing Co., Gulf States Land & Industries, a company formed to develop the Godchaux land, and Franklin Realty.
Godchaux, a lifelong New Orleans resident, earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Yale University and a master's degree at Iowa State University.
"His entire education was geared to being in the sugar business," his son said. "He thought like an engineer - very logical, unemotional and methodical. He approached everything as a problem that could be solved."
In early 1941, Godchaux joined the Navy and received orders to report for duty in Washington, D.C. Commissioned as a captain, he was put to work in a top-secret lab designing explosives that were waterproof and lightweight so frogmen could use them to clear beaches for troop landings. Later, he was told to design a detonator to precise specifications.
"He was dubious," his son said, "but he did the best he could."
Only after atomic bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did Godchaux realize that he had been part of the project that designed those weapons. He later learned that his device was not used, his son said.
After the war, Godchaux went back to the sugar lab at his family's company, where, working with the U.S. Agriculture Department's research facility, he developed a process to recover a valuable industrial chemical from sugar-cane molasses. He also designed a plant to produce it commercially, and he patented the process, said Christopher Roos, a grandson.
Godchaux became president of the sugar company in the early 1950s, said Joseph Polack, his brother-in-law. After the company was sold in 1958, Godchaux was made president of Gulf States Land & Industries. At the time, he also was vice president of Leon Godchaux Clothing Co., which his ancestor had founded. Godchaux left Gulf States Land to become the department store's president in 1968. He held that post until 1982, when he ceded the top spot to a cousin, Thomas Godchaux, and became chairman of the board. By this time, there was a chain of Godchaux's stores. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1986, and all the stores were closed.
In his last years, Godchaux became president of Franklin Realty, a family-owned company, and he held that post until failing health forced him to resign, Polack said.
In addition to his son, Godchaux's survivors include a sister, Anne Godchaux Polack of Baton Rouge; a daughter, Bess Holton; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Friday at Temple Sinai in New Orleans.