Gurvis O’Connor is pictured above as he stands alongside the front sign of his upholstery shop located on E. LaSalle Street in Ville Platte. (Gazette photo by Nancy Duplechain)
An upholstering we will go
Gurvis O’Connor’s upholstery business has been operating since 1975, but he has been in the business longer than that. He has worked at his trade for 57 years and has become a master craftsman.
O’Connor learned upholstery in 1962, when he was about 16 years old. “When I started school, I didn’t know how to speak English, hardly at all. So, I got behind and I really hated school. I didn’t even try. When I turned 16, I decided to quit and go to trade school. I had got interested in this when Sylvan Lavergne was just learning how to do it. I was neighbors with him. My uncle, Isam Vidrine, had an upholstery shop and a mattress factory on Jefferson Street here in Ville Platte. He also had Vidrine’s Grocery there.”
O’Connor said Larry Vidrine, who was assistant principal at the time at Ville Platte High, helped get him into trade school. “I went to trade school for four months. It was a six month course. And then I went to work for my uncle, Isam Vidrine. He really didn’t need me, but he gave me a job. Mr. Howard Dupre was working at Lafayette Upholstery Center and got me a job there, later. That’s where I really learned how to do upholstery. This guy named Roland showed me a lot of stuff. He’d see I was having trouble and he’d quit what he was doing and come show me. He’s the one who showed me how to do the diamond tufted.” These are sofas where the material is folded into geometric patterns and secured with buttons on the cushion. “That’s probably one of the hardest things to learn how to do in upholstery work.”
O’Connor also said when he worked in Lafayette, he worked with Dauterive’s, which was a big interior decorating firm. “People were buying brand new furniture and they’d bring it, still in the box, and have it recovered. Over here in Ville Platte, people recover stuff because it’s cheaper than buying new. Over there it was completely different.”
O’Connor worked at the upholstery center until 1966 and then was drafted into the Army at the age of 19, serving two years. “I was in communications. I did that for six months, and after that I drove a ration truck. By the time I got out of the Army, the upholstery shop in Lafayette had closed. There was an oil crash in the late ‘60s, and it went out of business. I came back to Ville Platte and went to work for Sylvan Lavergne.”
He worked at Lavergne’s until mid 1970s and then opened up his own upholstery place at his uncle Ferdie’s old store on Tate Cover Road. It was Gurvis’ wife, Shirlene, who encouraged him to open up his own shop. “When our son was about 10 months old, I asked him if he ever thought about opening up his own business,” she said. “I said we’d be better off than working for someone else.” When Ferdie retired, Gurvis rented the building from him, and his very own shop was born.
Some time in the mid 1980s, O’Connor moved to his 614 LaSalle Street location, where his home is. He said he needed to move because when the Tate Cover Road was being redone, customers could only access his location through the back road, and he said that hurt his business. The house he purchased had an outdoor building next door, so he turned that into the next location of his upholstery store.
Aside from being an upholsterer, O’Connor also worked for the Ville Platte Police Department. He worked there for seven years, starting in the early 1980s. He was a patrolman and then shift supervisor. Even though he worked as an officer, he still maintained his upholstery business.
Shirlene and their son, Jim, helped Gurvis with his work. According to Shirlene, Jim learned how to upholster before he was 11 years old. “He’d watch his daddy work and he’d go play in the shop. He covered antique chairs and automotive and head linings. He’d also help deliver and pick up furniture. The old people loved Jim because he’d speak French with them.”
Shirlene was a nurse for over 30 years. She originally worked for Dr. Charles Fontenot at the old Ville Platte hospital, starting when she was 24. She also subbed as a nurse for Dr. Charles Aswell, Sr. on her half day off. Nurses Ethel Fuselier and Oline Doucet took her under their wings. Mr. Norwood Deville, the lab tech, also helped her. “He would come help me hold the kids down so I could give them shots and x-ray them,” she said.
When their son, Jim, was 15, Shirlene went to work for Dr. Tommy Fontenot. Rudy Lavergne and Jim McCauley, a nurse anesthetist, recommended her to Dr. Tommy when he was looking for a nurse. “He’s a great diagnostic physician,” said Shirlene. “He needed a nurse because his nurse had quit.” She worked for him for almost four years until family circumstances called her home. “I loved working for Dr. Tommy. I loved everybody. He was a very kind and generous man. He and his whole family. He’s still our doctor today. I remain friends with Dr. Charles today, also. He was a very generous man. When it came to surgery and suturing, he was one of the best. You could hardly see where the incision was made.”
Shirlene is now retired from nursing, but she still helps Gurvis with the upholstery business. “I answer the phone and take calls for him,” she said. “Customers text me pictures. And I help get estimates for out-of-town customers from Lafayette, New Orleans, Washington, Opelousas , and even Texas, and so on. I also help him keep up with the billing. I help match fabric when they want my opinion.” With a laugh she added, “Gurvis is Santa Claus and I’m the elf.”
When asked what he likes doing the most about upholstery, Gurvis said, “I just liked it. I’ve been doing it all my life.” When asked if he has any challenging pieces, he laughed and said, “I used to love to do that, but not so much since I got older.” When asked if he plans on retiring, he said, “I’ll retire when I die.”
Shirlene praised her husband’s craftsmanship, saying, “He’s a perfectionist. His work speaks for himself. He’s the master.”