A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator
As a boy, a work ethic was planted in Don Briggs’s being, and, nourished by his own ambition, it blossomed under the broiling Miami sun.
It brought him fleeting success as a football player — a lauded high school lineman, he attended Florida State for more than a year on scholarship — then into the unfamiliar world of Louisiana, where he started as a roughneck in the rough-and-tumble energy industry but rose to create his own, prosperous company in Acadiana.
Briggs generated and lost a fortune; lived a large and ostentatious oilman’s life, stumbled in two marriages and, well into middle age, looked for a light that might guide him to a more meaningful life. He found it in a third, lasting marriage and in a faith that was finally, fully formed in his wife Nan’s Catholicism. Briggs’ most ambitious challenge was to be the man he yearned to be, which required all the work ethic he could muster.
“The story of my life is the story of my faith and what happened to me,” he said in the quiet of his home office space this week. His life story, told to Olivia Spallino Savoie of Raconteur Books, is now found in a slender volume prepared for distribution only to Briggs’ friends and family.
That story is timeless: Born to loving, prosperous parents in Miami, he straddled the large life. His Miami Edison High football team played its home games in the Orange Bowl; his father’s close friend was Charles Gregory “Bebe” Rebozo, later famously a close adviser to President Richard Nixon.
Even as a roughneck in the ‘60s, he was touched by greatness: The cover photo of his book, “Isn’t It Beautiful,” captured him as a young man on an oil rig. It was shot by photographer Joe Rosenthal, who had taken a much more famous photo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” in 1945 on Mount Suribachi. Rosenthal shot the photo of Briggs while the younger man was shuttling him around on a photo assignment about the oil business.
But this story is less about where Briggs succeeded — as a founding owner of Aztec Corp. in Lafayette Parish, as the founder of the hugely influential Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, which waged war at the State Capitol on behalf of the energy industry — and more about what Briggs has learned in 81 years. Always a man of faith — he preached a few times from a Baptist pulpit — he says he had too often forgotten that faith while pursuing the trappings of the world.
He loved his children but struggled to keep his family together, Briggs said. He relished what he thought was the good life and wound up in treatment for alcohol abuse. He coveted worldly goods, then lost everything, including his home. He started his recovery from a two-bedroom apartment after he had lost so much, including his place in the energy industry after oil and gas crashed in the late 1980s.
At a low point, he lost his second marriage to divorce, his father to suicide. He recounts the pain of those losses in the book.
But he didn’t lose his friends, some of whom have been lifelong, and two of whom funded this personal book about his life.
“When I look back on that tumultuous, terrible time, I recognize some blessings that came through losing everything. In my two-bedroom apartment, I was able to come back down to earth, humble myself and see what truly mattered most in life — my family,” he said.
“As a result, I became a better father who was closer to my family than ever before. I also decided to stop drinking, underwent rehabilitation treatment, and joined a support group. I remained sober for 12 years and never struggled with abusing alcohol again.”
And his found his precious Nan, whom he met at a social event in the 1990s and married in 1996. It was Nan who brought his spiritual life into focus, transformed him into a daily communicant and helped him determine where his life should lead.
Bryan Hanks and Bill Fenstermaker, both longtime friends, commissioned the book, which Olivia Spallino Savoie started with a series of interviews in February while Briggs was recovering from a wreck that claimed Nan’s life.
“It was a good way for him to focus on something other than what he was focusing on,” said Hanks, for whom Briggs served as a mentor when the younger man entered the oil and gas industry. “It was a good way to remind him of all the good he has done.”
At one time Briggs might have measured that good in created jobs and accumulated riches or those other treasures that mark the lives of the wealthy. But clarity of faith has reordered what he finds precious, which oftentimes includes visiting the sick in hospitals, distribution of Holy Communion as a Eucharistic minister, participation in Bible study and work for non-profits. That’s where his focus turned as he grew in his faith.
One major test came on Sept. 30, 2016, when, preparing for guests at a North Carolina vacation home, he took a fall and sustained head injuries that imperiled his life. For months his health remained on the line through surgeries and setbacks, between moves to hospitals. Awaiting a critical surgery, he felt his faith tested to the limit and looked for a sign that he would be well. The wife of a friend texted him to tell him to have faith.
“Did I have the faith? The answer was no, he wrote in “Isn’t It Beautiful.”
“Out of faith,” he responded to the text.
But he remembered a lifetime of Bible study. He remembered that even the Apostles lost their faith from time to time.
He prayed, “Father, forgive me for not believing that You can help me. Help me now. I need You now.”
The phone buzzed again. A text came from his friend, State Sen. Ronnie Johns of Sulphur. “Don, this is Ronnie. I’m in Italy at St. Peter’s. In a few minutes I’m going to hear Pope Francis give a Mass for and in the name of Don Briggs.”
Fear turned to peace, despair to hope.
“I was suddenly fearless,” he said.
A year later, a much recovered Briggs and Nan attended an event where Cardinal Timothy Dolan was present. Briggs felt drawn to the prelate, told him he had experienced miracles that drew him closer to Jesus.
Dolan said he, too, experienced that closeness and added slowly, “Isn’t. It. Beautiful.”