Valerie Gotch Garrett: Serving Acadiana for 24 years
Mar 19, 2018 12:29PM
● By Erin Holden
Valerie Gotch Garrett knew that she wanted to be a lawyer as early as age seven.
“It was probably when I was sitting at home as a little girl watching Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall,” she recalls. She remembers seeing her mother and grandmother cry while watching the news after Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. “I was very aware of the sadness and how it affected my family. My family knew that a race problem existed, but it wasn’t the focal point. My mother and grandmother put more emphasis on who I was as a person, not the color of my skin.” They always told her that she could be whoever she wanted to be in life.
Unfortunately, Valerie did have people in her life who did not give her this level of support. In the fourth grade, she came home crying because of an experience that many African American children during segregation undoubtedly had. The teacher was asking all of the students what they wanted to be when they grew up, and Valerie said that she wanted to be a lawyer. “They told me that it wasn’t possible,” she says, “one: because I am a woman and two: because I am African American.” She always wanted to be a lawyer, but having heard these kinds of discouraging comments more than once “planted a seed of doubt” in her mind about her abilities.
This all changed when her mother made the decision to send her to private school. She went to Immaculate Heart of Mary, where she found encouragement from the priests and nuns who taught her. She later went to high school at the Holy Rosary Institute, an educational institution that began teaching young African American women in 1913 and opened its doors to young African American men in 1947. Her experience here reinforced her need to serve her community and help others.
“I won the 8th grade humanitarian award because I was always helping other kids,” she says. “I always knew that I wanted to serve.”
Valerie went to law school later in life after trying different areas of study and career paths. She studied marketing and public relations at UL Lafayette (then the University of Southwestern Louisiana). She also studied upper elementary education and taught at Holy Rosary. During her college years, she worked several jobs – she worked on the yearbook, The Vermilion (UL’s newspaper) The Daily Advertiser, the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum, and Travel Host of South Louisiana. It was at the latter that she met Frances Love, a local businesswoman who inspired her.
“Frances was bold enough to take me, and I didn’t see people who looked like me,” Valerie says, “but I could be who I wanted to be. Frances was strong, meaningful, and she got things done.”
When she first began law school, Valerie had pneumonia, two children to care for, and financial difficulties that could have prevented her from fulfilling her goals. It was difficult, but she always remembered the work ethic and fortitude of her mother and grandmother, who were both important influences in her life. Her mother often did without so that she could have the things she needed; seeing her work hard instilled in Valerie that she should always push herself to succeed. She also had help from Mr. Ernest Nabors and a local business owner. The condition of this aid with her educational and personal financial obligations was that she commit to helping others upon completion of her degree.
After 24 years of practicing law, Valerie can look back on her journey with a new perspective. She realizes that when she was a child, she allowed someone to make her think that she could not achieve her dream of being a lawyer; she has not let anyone’s doubts affect her in that way since. She says that practicing law “was actually something I was destined to do. I wanted to be like Thurgood Marshall and save the world.”
She says that her vision of what she wanted to do with her law degree changed over time. “When I decided to do juvenile work, I originally wanted to be a prosecutor,” she explains. “My first trial was in federal court. The case involved a woman who was fired, and it was believed that she was fired because she was African American and a woman.” Judge Rebecca Doherty, who presided over this case, said that Valerie would make a great litigator. “I worked my way up through the system to felony, got a pay bump for capital work, and had a case right out of law school.”
Another memorable case for Valerie was a murder trial, State of Louisiana versus Gross, a case for which Thornton Gross was charged with the murder of a young girl. As a defense attorney, Valerie had to look at graphic images of the crime scene and read disturbing accounts of what happened.
“They said, ‘You’re not going to be able to take it,’ but I did,” she remembers. “They told me I couldn’t, so I did! I wasn’t raised to think like that. The one time I did, it diverted my path, and I’ve never let that happen again. ‘No’ is an incentive to ‘yes.’”
Valerie thinks back on the case and how it unfolded, saying that “they initially charged him with second-degree murder. The more I talked to him, the more I realized he didn’t do it.” When she presented her case to the jury, she says that “they believed he was innocent because I believed he was innocent. He was acquitted.”
She has found defense work to be gratifying because she is making a difference in people’s lives who often get lost in the system. “We are defenders of the constitution and, if you believe in it, you can do it,” Valerie says.
Along with her law career, Valerie stays very active on many boards and committees, all of which are dear to her heart because they champion causes that have touched her life personally. Among these 17 boards and committees are the Lafayette Autism Society, Susan Komen Big Wig, and she has just recently gotten involved in the Junior League of Acadiana. She even ran for Division E Judge in Carencro in 2014.
“I enjoyed knocking on doors and seeing people I’ve met before…I had even taught some of them in catechism! I hope to run again in 2020.”
Valerie also serves as the Lafayette Airport Commission Chairperson, a position that she is honored to hold. This position entails working with state, local, and federal officials to “educate and prepare local minority business owners within the community on how to become DBE Certified, which will have an economic impact on this community,” she says.
With her own law practice (Valerie Gotch Garrett, APLC), community involvement, and vibrant family life, it is hard to imagine being able to balance it all with a smile, but Valerie does. She has five children, two of which have autism and have surpassed medical odds. She has six grandchildren, and she makes sure to be an active presence in their lives. She was there for all of their births.
When asked how she does it, Valerie answers, “I get up early in the morning. I recognize that there’s more than being a lawyer. I want to inspire young women; it is important for me to give back.” She often does pro bono work because, she says, “we can’t just go home and do our jobs and not make the world better. I was raised Catholic, and we were taught to serve. If you love something, you’ll find the time.”
Valerie values her work environment and what she is able to do for her community through it. She primarily focuses on family law, and the joy she gets from this comes from helping children.
“I have a great team of women that believe in service,” she says. “I understand the needs of people and that it is hard sometimes. I find myself focusing on the children. I ask, ‘What would you like to see for your child?’”
Her advice for women who are looking to do what she does is this: “You have to be who you are. You don’t have to be hard and overdo it.” A female defense attorney can feel as if she has to be very stern in order to do the job, as she explains. “At first you will want to disappear…I remember I always put on a pantsuit to blend in with the men, but then I realized that it is how I carry myself that brings a response. I remembered that I had four sons and any one of them (the defendants) could be like a family member. Be comfortable. Be hardworking. Be able to voice your position, and don’t be afraid to be a woman. Just be who you are.”
Originally from Lafayette, Valerie thinks of how the area has changed over the years, and how her career has reflected this progress over time. Even so, there are still changes she would like to see in our community.
“I would like to see the northside not be the northside and the southside not be the southside,” says Valerie. “We need to be considerate of everyone’s needs and merge together as one. Churches have to be more involved in this change, as they were when I was growing up. We have to get back to that. We have to get back to being one Acadiana.”
By: Erin Holden
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