Robert Alost, 1935-2020
Last week, an old man in north Louisiana passed away halfway through his ninth decade. I barely knew him, but like a number of kids who attended the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, I owed him so much. It’s hard to think about what my life would have been like had Robert Alost never lived. But he did, and this is what he did for me.
Before I tell you, I’m going to quote from the Facebook post of my friend Sharon Williams, who explains a lot:
I have been encouraged by a dear friend from class of 1985 to share some thoughts about Dr. Alost so here goes…
Bobby Alost, THE founding Director of LSMSA, was an idealist, a visionary, and a man of tremendous drive and physical energy. He conceived of the Louisiana School after hearing a presentation by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics at a meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina, but he wanted to do something even better for the state of Louisiana. On the way, he had to gain support of the legislature, the BESE, and two hundred students and their parents with little more than a dream to share.
What follows are excerpts from an introduction I was asked to make when parts of the hsb were dedicated in 2005.
This is an excerpt from a guest editorial Bobby wrote in the school’s first official newspaper, “The Renaissance “, in 1984: “To dream is a simple thing. It takes neither effort nor sacrifice nor dedication. It requires no compromise, no sharing, and no assistance. But to make a dream come true, that is a much greater thing to do.”
In 1982 I received a call from Dr. Alost asking me to come to Natchitoches to talk with him about the school. We talked, walked through the hsb which was a shell and he made the school come alive to me. As an ABD grad student, I eagerly accepted his job offer right there on the spot. I wanted to be a part of helping to start a school. I was a believer from the start. All six of us Bobby hired in 1982 were believers.
We sat about traveling the state and telling a story-a story about a school that didn’t exist (yet); a curriculum that really wasn’t yet formulated; buildings that weren’t ready except in our minds and there it all existed because Bobby had spent so much time telling us of his ideas…how could his dream and now our dream not come true??
I didn’t know enough to be scared or even doubt what we were doing. The school would be a success. Nothing was going to get in our way.
The day came when we finally opened our doors and 200 students from across the state came to share our dream of an ideal high school for high achieving and highly motivated students. We had spread our dream to 200 more people who believed, too.
These 200 students brought Bobby’s dream to reality. Then we had a second year roll around before we knew it and now had 400 students! Bobby inspired in all of us the determination, the heart, the skills, and the dedication to make our school a reality. And we have been sharing his dream since. Bobby’s dream is alive and still growing-his school — it will always be Dr. Alost’s school in my heart — is thriving.
Dr. Alost (Bobby he wanted me to call him which sometimes I could manage) touched so many, many people-students, families, extended families- and has opened an untold number of doors for for alumni. I don’t know if he realized how much it means to me to be a part of his dream…to look back on so many memories-and they’re only good.
He dreamed and believed and we did, too.
That’s really true. I was in that first junior class, which arrived on campus in Natchitoches in the fall of 1983. I have a sixteen year old son now, and can easily imagine how hard it was for my mom and dad to say goodbye to me at that age, and send me off to a residential school 160 miles from home. As my mom has told me over the years, they felt they had no choice. I was so unhappy. The bullying had worn me down. “We thought we might lose you if we didn’t let you go,” she says.
Bobby Alost’s school was not the kind of thing you expect in a poor Southern state: a public boarding school for gifted and talented kids. But there it was, and there a couple hundred of us were, excited, maybe even a little frightened, out at his house in the pine woods, on a lake, on a warm autumn weekend, trying to get used to our new family.
Looking back almost four decades later, one thing that jumps out to me is the difference between us kids who came from big-city schools in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere, and kids like me, who came from small towns and rural schools. The city kids took it in stride, but us country kids — man, it was like having emigrated to a land where the streets were paved with gold. I’m serious. To be able to walk down the hallway and not have to worry about some stupid jock or some preppy bitch picking on you, or to have your nose rubbed into the fact that you were a freak and a nerd and you didn’t belong here — my God, what kind of paradise is this? Who knew that high school could be a place where you could let your guard down? That’s what LSMSA was for me, and more than a few of my classmates.
The academics were superlative. This was a high school that taught college-style, and featured classes on Faulkner, Walker Percy, Russian history, and so on. They figured students could handle it, and mostly they were right (don’t ask me about math and science; no kidding, I still have the occasional anxiety dream about those classes). Imagine a school where the teachers didn’t have to spend half their time trying to get students to settle down and listen. Where you were encouraged to ask questions, because nobody was going to make fun of you for being smart. And imagine being in a high school with a pretty diverse set of kids from all around the state, not all of whom would be your friends, but none of whom would be your enemy.
The autumn that I arrived at Bobby Alost’s school was the first time in my life that I felt that I truly belonged somewhere. That I had found my tribe. Dr. Alost, as we all called him, was a big, husky, papa bear figure who was the embodiment of our new home. He was our Big Chief. It’s funny, because he didn’t make a habit of getting too involved in the lives of his students, but then, he didn’t really have to in order to make an impression on us. We all knew that LSMSA existed because he had a dream, and he fought for it, and inspired good people like Sharon to fight alongside him, and to nurture alongside him.
He showed me mercy once. There was quite a drinking culture among high school students in Louisiana back then. Liquor was strictly forbidden at LSMSA, but some of us, being idiots, got our hands on it anyway. One night, at lights-out, the head RA of my dorm found a bottle of beer in my closet. I was sent home for a week in suspension, and deserved it. Well, at some point in my senior year, I was tending a badly broken heart, shattered by the hammer blows of unrequited love, and tending it badly. Depressed and not giving a damn, I went out and bought some booze. The head RA of my dorm caught me with it before I could drink a drop. That was my second offense. I could have been expelled for good, with only a few months till graduation. Had that happened, I would have done it to myself. But Dr. Alost decided to let me stay, when he did not have to. Like I said, I owed him a lot.
It says something about the family that man gathered around him that here we are, almost forty years on, and many of us have lost touch with our college friends, but we still stay in touch with each other, and our teachers and the staff who first welcomed us to Natchitoches. I could be wrong, but I don’t think many of us, if any of us, stayed in touch with Dr. Alost. He left LSMSA in 1986 to become president of the university on whose campus our school sat. Only the first few classes of LSMSA ever knew him, and as kindly as he was, he was also a bit formal, even stately. As we aged, our former teachers and staffers urged us to call them by their first names. We would have died a thousand deaths before calling Dr. Alost “Bobby,” and it wouldn’t have been from a lack of affection.
When I heard last week that he had died, my first thought was to plan on driving up to Natchitoches to pay my respects, as if my own father had died. But then I remembered that this is coronatide, and there would not be a funeral. This is painful. Bobby Alost really was a father to me, in an important way. He set me right, and made it possible for me to believe that life was good, and that I had a future. The last time I saw him was five or six years ago, at a class reunion. He never came to those, but this year he did, and boy, did my classmates all make a point of having a word with him. I tried to thank him for what he gave me, but I had been warned that he might not understand me, because his mind was starting to slip. It was true, alas. But I said what I needed to say, and managed, somehow, to do it without tears.
The tears are coming now, as I write this. I sure did love that old man, and I didn’t realize how much until I thought about the world he leaves behind, and the lives he changed for the better because he had a mind that dreamed and a heart that made that dream a reality. Here’s the thing: he taught kids like me that we could have dreams for ourselves — dreams of going as far as our own hearts and minds could take us. Very few men can make that boast at the end of their lives. Robert Alost could. RIP.
UPDATE: From 1983: