CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer
Featured photograph: The dental office of Dr. V. K. Irion on the corner of Market and Vine streets in Opelousas during the late 1890s. Dr. Irion practiced in Opelousas for several years, but he also served the community in many other ways. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection)
Two of the earliest known dentists in Opelousas were Dr. Victoire Chauvelot and Dr. F. Burr, who both practiced during the 1840s decade. Other dentist practiced in town over the decades that followed including Dr. V. K. Irion. Besides working in his dental office, Dr Irion served the Opelousas community in many other ways.
The son of Judge Alfred Briggs Irion (known as A. B,) and his wife Caroline King Irion, Valentine King Irion (known as V. K.) was born on the Irion Plantation in Eola, LA, near Bunkie in Avoyelles Parish on July 31, 1862. He was considered a distinguished gentleman, a member of a well-known and respected Louisiana family. His father A. B. Irion attended Franklin College in Opelousas and went on to continue his education, becoming an attorney. Judge Irion was very involved in political affairs of the state and served as a member of the state House of Representatives from 1864-1865; a member of the state constitutional convention in 1879; Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana from 1880-1884; and served as a member of Congress from the 49th Congressional District in Louisiana from 1885-1887. Dr. Irion’s mother, Caroline King, was the daughter of Valentine and Nancy King of Opelousas, and the granddaughter of Judge George King.
V. K. Irion studied at private schools in Avoyelles parish and Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, where he graduated in 1885. Following his graduation, he journeyed to Switzerland to study under the renowned dental surgeon Edward P. Doremus. In 1886, he entered the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore for one year. In 1887 he opened his dental practice in Marksville, LA for one year and then moved to Opelousas where he continued his practice. He was considered not just a dentist, but a dental surgeon. In September of 1888, Dr. Irion married Helen Lastrapes, a member of a prominent St. Landry Parish family. Helen’s parents were L. F. Lastrapes and Mary King Lastrapes.
Dr., Irion practiced in Opelousas for some time. His office was located on the northwest corner of Market and Vine streets. (During the 1920s when the Ben Riseman home was constructed on that site, the Irion building was moved several yards back from the corner and faced Vine Street for years. In the late 1990s, that building was sold and moved to Eunice, LA.) Besides working in his dental practice, Dr. Irion was very much involved in the Opelousas community. He was secretary and eventually chairman of the local school board and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of a high school for Opelousas. He served for a short time as the first principal of the St. Landry High School when it opened on Market Street in January of 1894. In October of 1896, Dr. Irion announced he would be leaving Opelousas and moving to New Orleans. In 1899, he was the chairman of the Committee of Agriculture, Horticulture and Immigration for the Louisiana Industrial Exposition held in New Orleans from May 8-31 that year.
During the early 1900s, Dr. Irion served as president of the Louisiana State Dental Association. He also served as secretary treasurer of that state association for more than 20 years. Dr. Irion was known as a conservationist. He eventually became Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Conservation with an office in New Orleans, where he served until 1929. He was appointed by Louisiana Governor Henry L. Fuqua in 1925 to serve out the term of the deceased commissioner M. L. Alexander. This appointment led to a heated political fight that continued for years.
As the story goes, Commissioner Alexander had been appointed to that position by John M. Parker, Governor of Louisiana from 1920-1924. Alexander died during Parker’s term as governor. Following Alexander’s death Parker appointed W. J. Everett to fill that post. When Fuqua was elected governor in 1924, he removed Commissioner Everette from office and replaced him with Dr. Irion in August of 1925. It seems Everett was using his position to grant fur business owners from New Orleans and Shreveport access to trapping animals on the Rockefeller-Sage and state wildlife refuges. Irion canceled the privileges given by Everett claiming the agreements were contrary to a ruling by the state attorney general in November of 1924.
Fur dealers and Everett’s supporters were upset by the cancellation, and they soon began to call for Dr. Irion to be removed from office. Rumors were circulated accusing Irion of a number of different offenses, with the story covered by newspapers throughout the state. Following Governor Fuqua’s death in 1926, Lt. Governor Oramel H. Simpson took over as Governor and called for Dr. Irion to resign as commissioner, charging him with “reckless and wanton expenditures of state funds.” Irion denied the charge and demanded proof. He also refused to resign as the Conservation Department head.
In 1927 the courts got involved in the dispute. Every court decision was appealed by the opposing side, and the appeals went on and on. In 1928, Huey Long was elected as Louisiana’s Governor. He soon called for Dr. Irion to be removed from office. When Irion refused to do so, Long threatened to call in the state militia to remove him from the department. Finally, Dr. Irion gave up the fight, relinquishing his position to Robert S. Maestri in December of 1929.
Dr. Irion continued to live in New Orleans for the remaining years of his life. He frequently visited with friends in Opelousas over the years. His wife Helen Lastrapes Irion died in 1947. Dr. V. K. Irion died at his home in New Orleans on March 18, 1948. He was survived by two sisters and several nieces and nephews.