Renaissance man – Charlie Cole, world traveler and savvy businessman: the most interesting man in Baton Rouge
He has climbed a mountain in Switzerland. He has run with the bulls in Spain. A saltwater crocodile hooked his fly-fishing line in Mexico, and a member of the Maasai Mara tribe in Kenya escorted him to a tribal village. He has traveled around the globe. Twice. He’s a beekeeper, an old-house enthusiast, a considerable land developer and a consummate lover of life. Charlie Cole really is the most interesting man in Baton Rouge.
The weathered boards creak as Charlie Cole ascends the steps of the turn-of-the-century cabin he had moved to his property, now serving as his office. “Corporate headquarters for Cole Development,” he explains with a chuckle, his bright blue eyes twinkling. Charlie’s voice reverberates against the rough-hewn walls as he points out a few of his favorite finds: treasured local folk art, currency from Zimbabwe, a milk stool from a Kenyan tribe, and a mounted alligator that he shot in south Louisiana. His desk holds the papers and binders of numerous projects that he has in the works. Charlie’s daily planner is full, as is his steaming cup of coffee. “I am so excited about life right now that I can hardly wait to get up each morning.”
Charlie’s exuberant demeanor reflects a life of full-throttle adventure, successful business ventures and significant relationships. He’s a storyteller by nature, and he’s got plenty of stories to share. From the recounting of riding the unairconditioned “goat-and-chicken train” between Rabat and Marrakesh (“I had to see what the ‘Marrakesh Express’ song was all about”) to the description of the hypothermia that came upon his friend while attempting to swim the English Channel (“We followed him by boat as part of his support team”), Charlie’s stories reveal the thrill-seeker spirit that infuses his day-to-day activities.
“I really believe that fear keeps many people from doing the things that they want to do and meeting the people that they want to meet,” says Charlie. “Fear is the one thing to cause man not to achieve his full God-given potential.”
Charlie surmounts his own inclination to fear with knowledge. He seeks knowledge of different countries, different cultures and different people to help him live an expansive life. Charlie is fully engaged in the moment. Every moment. After viewing a music video he found meaningful, he sought out the producer in California to be included in the worldwide project. (Read more about it here.) After befriending new authors with books in the works, he requests to buy their first case. (“My only stipulation? They must sign each one.”) He wants to get to know people. He asks questions. He pursues.
“I’m always looking for an adventure. I’d like to do everything at least once—it’s the anticipation of doing something that I’ve never done before,” says Charlie. “If I like it, I might do it more than once, but once is usually enough. Then it’s on to the next adventure.”
Charlie’s globe-trotting days started early. After graduating from college in 1972, he spent six months abroad traveling by Volks-wagen bus through 16 countries. He began vacationing in Belize when it was still British Honduras. “I’m still trying to find the ‘next Belize.’ It’s too commercialized now,” he says. With his wife, Kathy, he has traveled throughout the world and met fellow travelers along the way whom he considers friends. He seeks the quaint bistro on a hidden street, the courtyard party thrown by a local playwright, the all-night cabaret that only the locals know about. The Coles have celebrated New Year’s Eve in Sydney, they’ve previewed movies at the Cannes Film Festival, and they’ve watched the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix from a high-rise condo across the street from the Monte Carlo harbor.
“There is a difference between a traveler and a tourist. A traveler observes the small things: what the locals do and where the locals eat,” says Charlie. “I like to quote my friend BeBe Facundus, who says, ‘You only get to know the soul of a city through the eyes of a local.’?”
Because of this desire for discovery, the Coles keep their traveling schedules flexible. When planning a months-long trip around the world a few years ago, they only booked accommodations for their first night’s stay abroad and only secured transportation for their flights between continents. All other details were left to be determined and planned en route. If the duo found a fantastic hotel with breathtaking views, they simply stayed an extra night or two, without worry of derailing an itinerary. Leisurely mornings sipping coffee by the sea might reveal a new connection or a fresh experience that they didn’t want to miss.
“It is interesting, the people that you meet if you are open to it,” he says.
Charlie has made a life of being open to new possibilities and new friendships. He grew up in a timber family in Greensburg. He became a real estate broker in the land division at C.J. Brown in the 1970s and ultimately put together a consulting team that consisted of Tommy Spinosa, Mike Wampold, Harry Johnson and Harry Leoni, among others. He played a major role in developing the Country Club of Louisiana, and he purchased the 250 acres surrounding the Santa Maria Golf Course and developed the Santa Maria Subdivision. He owned land in Port Hudson on which oil and gas were discovered, and the income he received from that helped sustain him during leaner years of developing. He owns Como Plantation near Tunica Hills, Willow Springs Plantation off Highway 61, and a turn-of-the-century stone cottage in Brittany, France. He resides with Kathy at Santa Maria Plantation on Old Perkins Road.
“I’ve never lived in a new house,” says Charlie, noting the irony that he has developed new neighborhoods. “I was born and reared in old houses. My mother was a collector of antiques. She also refinished them, and my siblings and I helped.”
As Charlie walks the grounds of Santa Maria Plantation, he reveals his present-day reinterpretation of the past. There’s the overseer’s house that he converted to a garden cottage, the pump house that he transformed into a working smokehouse, and the dairy barn that he converted to a workshop. In addition, he has plans to create a dumbwaiter to easily transport his barbecue supplies and dishes from a small kitchen in the basement to the home’s kitchen on the main level. The interiors of the mid-19th-century Louisiana Raised Cottage are furnished with auction pieces acquired in Europe and New Orleans.
“Charlie is really good at finding something special, something significant, to take home from an auction or market,” says Kathy, remarking on a favorite pastime of the duo. “He’s got a good eye at discovering a treasure amidst all the junk.”
It is Charlie’s inherent desire to discover—something significant, something new—that has fueled his passion for travel and his pursuit of the next great experience. When not in south Louisiana, the Coles might be found attending an international ball in Paris or fly-fishing the waters of the Riviera Maya. Charlie counts the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain—a trip he has made five times—among his most memorable experiences.
“The thrill is much more than just the run, which lasts only about 20 minutes,” says Charlie. “It’s about meeting the cast of characters: the war correspondents who cover the runs for the media, the people who go every year from all over the world.”
Charlie befriended Ray Mouton, an author originally from Lafayette, who had immersed himself in the Pamplona scene and was writing about it. Mouton walked Charlie through the experience: how to run, how to fall, where to stay, who to meet, what parties to attend. Charlie observed the festival the first year without running—a practice he has duplicated in other adventures. He finds out the very best way to do what he wants by observing first, then proceeding.
“When it came time to run, I knew I wanted to be in the race with the Miura bulls,” says Charlie. “If you are going to do it, why not be in the race with the biggest, meanest and baddest bulls there are? If you are going to do it, do it.”
Charlie seems to do it all. And do it well. Whether it is fishing for tarpon where the Caribbean and Gulf waters meet or revitalizing the Como Plantation house and grounds (one of his latest projects), Charlie proceeds with calculated fervor.
“My adventures and ventures stem from a deliberate practice of overcoming fear—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment. I gather knowledge first, and I move forward. It’s why I walked through the bull run before ever attempting the actual run,” Charlie says.
And while he doesn’t have another running with the bulls scheduled yet, Charlie has plans for other grand adventures. He looks forward to traveling around the world promoting an upcoming music project as well as cruising European rivers and waterways with Kathy.
“I’d like to see Europe at seven miles an hour,” he says. For a renaissance man, the quiet, meditative moments are just as necessary as the adrenaline-rushing ones. He plans on penciling in both. “We’ve done a lot. But I think the most exciting things in life are still left to do.”