Blessed to Have Known Her – From the Bird’s Nest
The first thing you noticed about Kathleen Blanco was her smile.
And she smiled a lot.
I saw that smile while doing the morning show on NewsRadio KPEL back in the 90's. Our news director, the late Bill Branton, would set up my guests for each show. We had a ten minute interview segment three times between six and nine am. And, once a month Bill would announce "and today you have the Cajun mother of six."
That meant I'd been getting a visit from Kathleen Blanco, who was on the Public Service Commission at the time. She came by about once a month. Always smiling.
Bill passed away a couple of years later. Kathleen asked to speak at his memorial service. She smiled that day and said some things about Bill that made us smile in return.
She then ran for Lieutenant Governor...and won. There were no more monthly visits and I missed the smiling face. But she was married to "Coach" and I saw her from time to time at UL sporting events they went to together.
In 1999 the Cajuns played in the Great Alaskan Shootout. It was Thanksgiving week. Sunrise in Anchorage was just after 10am and sunset around 3:30 in the afternoon. Don Allen and I were there all week and we heard about a place where we could go dog sledding. That morning at breakfast, we ran into Coach and Kathleen and told them of our plans. They looked at each other, looked at us and said they'd like to go, too.
So we got on a city bus and rode about a half hour into the country to a lodge where we would embark on our adventure. After paying, we were led outside where two packs of a dozen dogs each started barking like crazy. It was explained they knew they were about to go to work and they loved their work. Don and I got on one of the sleds, Raymond and Kathleen on the other. And, we were off. About halfway through the ride, we all stopped in a clearing in the woods. There was a display about the history of the Iditarod, the dog race held annually. We got a chance to visit. Kathleen's smile was bigger than ever. She gave Coach a hard time about his ride (and probably exaggerated a little.) Coach laughed. He was fine with Kathleen making him the butt of the joke. Then we finished our trek and went back to the lodge to warm up a little before catching the bus back to town.
Coach and I were chatting on the bus when he said "Look." In the seat behind me was Louisiana's Lieutenant Governor. She was sitting up...sound asleep. "She works so hard," Coach said. "No one has an idea of how hard she works."
I saw her a few more times during the next few years. But I saw her several times during her campaign for Governor. I got to the office one morning the week of the election. She was, I assume, waiting to go on the air. She saw me and flashed that smile. "Please vote for me," she said. I told her I had voted absentee since I would be out of town with the football team..and I had already voted for her. She smiled (again) and gave me a hug. "Thank you," she said. I told her if she was going to hug everyone who voted for her she'd be doing a lot of hugging. She laughed and said she'd hug every last one of them.
I saw her many times during her term as Governor. Each time there was a smile and a hug. Sometimes she'd look tired, especially in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita...but the smile never left. Governor Blanco worked very hard to get the Superdome re-done in time for the 2006 season. And, what a season it was.
The Saints got a first round bye and were playing Philadelphia. My phone rang. "Hello, is this Jay Walker? Please hold for Coach Blanco." Coach got on the line and said the Governor wanted to invite me to be her guest in her suite for the game.
I'm not gonna lie...I got choked up over her thoughtfulness. She knew I had not been in the 'Dome since it reopened and she wanted me to see it. Unfortunately, I had to decline. The UL basketball team was on the road that weekend and was playing Western Kentucky. Coach said if by some chance the Saints got to play at home for the NFC title, could I make it. I said yes. But the Bears won their game and the Saints had to travel. But i was so touched the Governor thought of me.
After she left office I saw her sporadically. Then in 2011, the football team was going on a road trip. As I got out of my car, I saw the Governor and Coach. They had just landed from New York and were going to the football game. They were taking clothes out of a suitcase and putting new clothes in. When they were finished we visited for a bit. Coach had a habit of poking people while he talked with them if they were close enough to poke. Well, he poked the Governor. Several times. Finally she had enough, balled up her fist and slugged him on the shoulder. She gave him a pretty good belt. He laughed like crazy. I just shook my head. "Must be true love," I said. The Governor looked at me and smiled.
Later that night, while in Nashville, I got word that my dad had passed away. I was with a dozen friends at the time and they were great to me. The next day we thrashed Middle Tennessee but we were unable to leave that night because of mechanical issues with the plane. We found a place that had enough rooms to handle the entire party. Sunday afternoon after lunch we piled onto buses to go to the airport. I walked up the aisle and Governor Blanco had heard about my father's passing. She reached out and took my hand, squeezed it and kissed it. She didn't have to say a word.
Over the next few years I'd see her and Coach maybe once or twice a year. She never changed. She always had a smile and a hug for me. But then, she went public with her illness and we were all saddened by the news. It wasn't long after that I was at the Cajundome for a basketball game. Matt Sullivan, the men's basketball Sports Information Director came over and said, "Governor Blanco said to tell you hello." "Where is she," I asked. He pointed to the end zone where she and Coach were seated together. My recorded interview with Bob Marlin was playing and I had a couple of minutes. I rushed over to see her. I told her I was praying for her and the family. "That's about all we have now," she said. We visited for another minute and then I had to get back on the air. We hugged and I said "I love you, Governor."
And, one last time, I saw that smile.