Feb 23, 2014 11:23 AM by katc
Port Barre Elementary Principal Joseph Sonnier is becoming a national figure as the story of his journey from janitor to principal continues to spread.
"Based on all of the emails I've been getting from all over the U.S., I feel like I get a glimpse of how a celebrity feels," he said. Although school was out for the day, Sonnier was sitting alertly at his desk with work still to be done.
"It's overwhelming, to say the least," he continued. "I'm trying to take it all in, but I'm not letting it take away from what I was hired to do."
Since CBS' "On the Road" series, produced by journalist Steve Hartman, showcased Sonnier on national television Feb. 7. CNN has been in contact with him. Popular search engine websites AOL and Yahoo! prominently feature his story in their news tabs. Local media have told his story numerous times.
The Leonville native began his career at Port Barre Elementary in 1981, as a janitor. Nineteen years later, when his two sons were entering college, Sonnier joined them. Still cleaning floors and taking out the trash in Port Barre, Sonnier studied education part time at LSU-Eunice until he earned his associate degree in 2006.
Two years later, he earned his bachelor's in elementary education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He still worked as a custodian.
"For two and a half years, I was doing full-time classes and working here," he said, beaming.
Once he had his degree, he hung up the mop and broom and entered the classroom as "Mr. Sonnier." He taught math, science and social studies to third-grade students at the school until 2011, when he became an all-around fourth-grade teacher. While doing that, he was still a student - he earned his master's in educational leadership from Arkansas State University in 2012.
Sonnier was tabbed as his longtime school's principal in November.
"I don't think my staff would let me get away from here," he said. "I felt when I came here, it would be an easy transition. I didn't have to start all over again."
Sonnier admitted he doesn't shy away from media attention, but he emphasized it wasn't for his own ego. He said he believes people need to hear inspiring stories like his own, and he's not alone. In particular, LSUE professor Mary Leslie and UL professor Alice Voorhies told him to tell his tale.
"They said, 'Joseph, you've been inspired to get into education by other people and now, as you go through your journey, it's your responsibility to inspire others,'" he related. "It's not so much about me. There's someone out there who needs to be inspired, who's given up. They need to hear my story."
Sonnier summed up his story with the phrase "Where you start is not necessarily where you end up."
"Since I graduated from UL, that has been my motto," he said.
Other work he's found over the years includes directing baseball and softball for Opelousas Parks and Recreation for 14 years, officiating high school and college basketball for 22 years and coaching high school baseball and softball for 16 years. Sonnier's immaculate office indicated which prior job he still carries with him.
"I'm not above doing that (cleaning), no," he said. "When I was in the classroom, I told custodians, 'Don't worry about it. I've got it.'"
The years of knowing the ins-and-outs of the school create an advantage, Sonnier said.
"Custodians know I can't be fooled," he joked.
Upon his appointment, Sonnier fought tears at the St. Landry Parish School Board meeting as he thanked the board and recited a key Bible verse by which he lives.
"Man makes up in his mind what he wants to do, but it is God who tells you what you're going to do," he repeated in his office Wednesday.
Sonnier couldn't end the interview without mentioning the strongest pillar in his life - his wife, Felicia Sonnier.
"She never was embarrassed of (my job)," he said. "My wife never looked down on me. She held her head high when people asked what I did for a living. That's a great quality for a spouse."