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Fenton's role: campus Renaissance man

By James Robichaux
On November 15, 2001

Photographer. Pilot. Disc jockey. Diver. Submariner. Guitar player. Runner. In his 52 years, Cliff W. Fenton has worked many jobs and has diverse talents, and the list is growing. In January, he will assume a new responsibility: adjunct instructor of astronomy. Fenton is the campus photojournalist, a position he has held since March 2000. He brings to Nicholls 20 years of photography experience after operating his own business in Houma since 1979.

In 1967, Fenton graduated from high school in his native St. Louis, Mo. For about two years after high school, he worked in restaurants in the St. Louis area, but geopolitics would soon force Fenton into a career change in 1969.

"The Vietnam War was in progress, and a couple friends of mine had gone in the Army and came home on leave," Fenton said.

His friends told him he did not want to be drafted.

"I got a letter inviting me to come down and visit the draft board. So, I joined the Navy," he said with a grin.

Fenton served in the submarine service as a sonar technician from 1969 to 1972.

During his time in the Navy, Fenton dove recreationally.

"I did a fair amount of diving over in Hawaii," he said. It was in Hawaii that Fenton received his diving certificate.

He attended a three-month diving school in Los Angeles where he was trained in various facets of commercial diving.

"That's what brought me down here in search of work."

Fenton arrived in Louisiana on Halloween of 1972.

"I came down here with the intent of working in the diving industry in the oil fields," he said.

Fenton worked as a commercial diver for six months. The diving industry was seasonal, which made it tough for him to make a living doing it.

Before he quit diving, Fenton began working as a disc jockey for KJIN and KCIL radio stations in Houma in 1973.

"My radio name was Jerry Kay," Fenton said.

"I worked for them off-and-on for about a year."

1973 was an eventful year for Fenton, as he met his wife and started college.

"Around February of '73 I met my wife. She was a senior at Vandebilt.

"It was a funny thing," he said.

"The radio station was putting on a sock-hop for Vandebilt, and she was a student there. I was working for the radio station and went over there and met her. She was coming to Nicholls in the fall. I saw an opportune time to go to college."

Fenton and his wife Claire were married in July of 1974.

He came to Nicholls in the fall of 1973.

"I started working a few shifts for the Nicholls station, which at that time was KVFG, and the studio was in Peltier."

KVFG became KNSU when Dr. Donald J. Ayo became president.

Fenton chose marine biology as his major.

"I was a diver, and I was interested in the water, fish and biology in general," he said.

1975 also saw Fenton make two decisions that affected his life. He went to work for Houma photographer Don Boyne.

"My wife had done some baby-sitting for him," Fenton said, "and he knew I was a student working a part time job at Radio Shack. That wasn't really a wonderful place to work. He offered me some work."

Soon after, Fenton quit school.

"I was basically strapped for finances, and the photographer in Houma whom I had been working with for a short time offered me a full-time position," he said.

Fenton took the job, but a few years later his ambitiousness landed him on his own.

"We had discussed a little bit about opening a film processing lab for customers. That was a significant change from his business, which was wedding photography, Mardi Gras photography and commercial photography.

"We discussed it, but he never moved on it. And I'm an extremely action oriented person. I'm a starter. I didn't see much of a change in the way he was progressing," Fenton said.

He began researching equipment and ideas about running a business.

"Toward the end of the time I was working with him he was aware I was doing this. That was contrary to his personal interest. So, he let me go, and I took a job with L&N Camera Center in Houma."

Fenton worked for L&N Camera from January to July of 1979.

"In August of 1979 I opened Fenton Photo," he said. He began offering film processing, slide processing and other auxiliary needs.

"I started doing a little commercial photography as well."

In the mid-1980s, Fenton began a contract with Bollinger Shipyards to photograph a series of 47 Coast Guard vessels the company was building.

Aerial photography meant Fenton was spending a lot of time in airplanes.

Fenton decided it was "reasonable" that he learn to fly. He took flying lessons after passing the Federal Aviation Administration's written test.

"After I got my license, I flew for about two years off-and-on," Fenton said. He said he still flies occasionally.

Fenton became a college student again in 1987, and changed his major to general business.

He took one or two classes almost every semester until he graduated in 1994 with a bachelor's in marketing.

Simultaneously, Fenton's business was falling on hard times.

"We were a free-standing business," he said.

"Photo-finishing, the industry itself, changed from people being interested in quality and service and willing to go somewhere and have that done to a one-hour, loss leader by big businesses. Every type of store that wanted to get people in the door and keep them there for awhile would offer one-hour processing," Fenton said.

"We were offering one-hour processing and had equipment very capable of doing it, but we charged a premium price because we put a lot of quality into our product.

"We couldn't compete head-to-head with what these other companies were charging just to get people in the door, and they would take a break-even or even a little bit of a loss on the service."

Fenton said this trend started in the early 1990s.

"The number of customers that I had gradually dwindled to the point where it was just futile to continue the business."

Fenton Photo closed its doors on New Year's Eve of 1998.

In 1999 and early in 2000, Fenton worked out his home as a freelance photographer. Last March, the University hired him to replace the retiring Adrian Gauthier.

"Mike Delaune had gotten my name from the Bollinger family because I had done a lot of work for Bollinger Shipyards. I think that was the association. Either that or Adrian suggested me," Fenton said.

Gauthier became ill for the 1999 Homecoming and could not photograph the events.

"They contracted me to come and do all the photography," Fenton said. "They contracted me again when the Saints and the University signed the initial agreement to have their training camp here. Adrian retired in February 2000, and they hired me in March."

Fenton said the job of campus photojournalism brings him much satisfaction.

"Well, I've met a lot people. I certainly enjoy being here at the University in a little different capacity from being a student and coming up for so many years," he said.

"I've always enjoyed photography because it's really a very diverse profession. There are so many different facets of photography. The list is limitless."

Fenton recounted some of his experiences with photography.

"I've done everything from riding on the back of a manta ray and taking his pictures underwater to hanging out of helicopters photographing oil rigs to weddings to portraits to microphotography."

But Fenton plans to experience a different kind of satisfaction in the spring when he will teach for the first time. He is excited about the prospects of teaching astronomy.

"I always had an interest in science and space and everything related with astronomy," Fenton said.

He said he accumulated a wealth of information about NASA's activities, many of the different scientific areas.

Fenton then researched NASA's course offerings. He attended a conference at the Lunar Planetary Institute in Houston for institute resource utilization on the moon.

"I went to the conference, met a lot of people and it was just fascinating. I loved it," he said.

"It was something I was excited about. I was so excited I came back, filled out an application, got letters of recommendation and submitted an application to NASA to become an astronaut. They sent the application back because I had no degree in math, engineering or biological sciences."

NASA has always sought individuals who have specialties in those areas or are in the military.

"So, I came back to Nicholls in '97 and changed my major to microbiology and." he said, laughing.

"To date I'm a microbiology undergraduate because I was going to pursue a degree in microbiology so that I could reapply to NASA.

"During that period of time and shortly after, I've gone to a couple more conferences."

Dr. James Beck, head of the department of physical sciences, has been teaching the section of Astronomy 101 Fenton will teach.

Fenton has been preparing for his new position. He said Beck has been instrumental in the preparations.

"I have worked on this for the last six months. This has been my focus since we began to entertain the idea of my doing this. I've been over to NASA."

Fenton said he is thrilled about the idea of teaching.

"Yeah, it's going to be fantastic. I look forward to trying to share my excitement about it with students. It's phenomenal."

Fenton is also a runner. In 1998, he participated in the Nokia Sugar Bowl Mardi Gras Marathon. Out of 87 runners in his age group, Fenton placed 19th.

Fenton lives in Houma with his wife and their two children. Daniel is 16 years old, and Molly, who participated in a modeling showcase this weekend, is 14.

Daniel has inherited one of his father's talents.

"My son is a drummer and guitar player. He loves music," Fenton, who played guitar in his high school band, said.

"I cook real well, too."

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