South Louisiana man goes from janitor to principal, enchanting nation with remarkable story

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POSTED: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 6:30pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 9:47am

It’s an inspiring story about a man who worked his way up from school janitor to principal. He's come so far that he's surpassed even his own imagination.

Joseph Gabriel "Gabe" Sonnier is the principal of Port Barre Elementary. But Mr. Sonnier is more than just a principal; his story is unlike many others.

In August of 1981 he started his job at Port Barre Elementary as a custodian, a job he was thrilled to have. He was forced to drop out of school at Southern University to help take care of his family and help his mother.

“For so many years I knew about custodial work because my father did it for all of his life," said Sonnier.

After being a custodian at Port Barre for only four years, Sonnier was told by the principal at the time that instead of picking up papers off the ground, he should be grading them. “At that time, I did take it to heart.”

He started to teach at his religious school. After teaching at his religious school for a few years, he quickly knew education was where he wanted to be. “In 2000, I enrolled at LSU and the irony of it was that the first person who enrolled me was my first principal’s son."

He started with the degree part time then eventually started taking morning and evening classes. While studying full time he still worked at Port Barre Elementary before class early in the mornings and late at night, after he would finish for the day. He told us his main priority was his children which is why he waited to pursue his secondary education.

So with a wife, two kids, and a full-time job, he graduated sixth in his class with a teaching certificate and a bachelor’s degree. He then worked as a third grade teacher and eventually a fourth grade teacher. Then a few years later he graduated with a 4.0 and his masters degree. Now, he’s sitting where he never imaged he would be 33 years ago.

“By no means did I think any of this could happen," recalled Sonnier. And one teacher who’s seen him pick up trash those decades ago says he’s is now picking up where he left off, but making a huge statement along the way.

Martha was teaching at Port Barre when Sonnier started as a janitor and is still there to this day. "It shows them we’ve you come from you can reach that goal but you have to keep trying and trying and don’t let anything get in your way," said Martha Boyance. "It's not where you start, its how you finish and that's what I always tell the kids."

Sonnier accumulated a lot of vacation and that's one of the main reasons he was able to get his degree, while working and being a dad. He tells us he is thrilled to be at Port Barre Elementary and he can't imagine being anywhere else.

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This is a wonderful story!!! I am so proud of this man! It is sad, however, that who ever wrote this story did not perform spell check and it is poorly written! That is so sad on so many levels that this story highlights a man that came from nothing and made something of himself in the field of education and the person that wrote this article made as many mistakes writing it as most 7th graders! Shame on you!

Someone needs to make this into a movie!! Imagine the influence he has on youngsters!! He is what a teacher an educator should be; to inspire and lead. He has done so much. Great story.

That's why a hand up is better than a hand out. Mister Presdent!

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