'It's just such an honor': Michael Kearney to reign as Rex, King of Carnival _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Michael Kearney

In October, Michael Kearney got a call from a business associate asking to meet downtown about an account.

“I thought, ‘I’m out here on France Road, and I’m your customer! Why can’t you come to me?’ ” Kearney said. “But I agreed to go downtown, and I’m glad I did. When I got there, I walked into a room full of people who surprised me with the news that I had been chosen to be Rex.”

The chairman and CEO of The Kearney Companies Inc. was not only taken by surprise but deeply moved by the revelation.

“I’ll admit: My voice cracked and a tear or two came down,” he said. “It’s just such an honor to be chosen by an organization like Rex.”

Kearney’s involvement with the group goes beyond simply being a member. He’s served as a lieutenant for the past 45 years. His wife, Susu, has designed costumers for Rex float riders for four decades. Their daughter, Niquette, was Rex’s queen in 2001. Son Mike Jr. was a page in 1979; another son, David, was a duke in 1996; and a third son, Wilkins, a duke in 1998.

Rex’s motto, “Pro Bono Publico,” has never meant as much as it does today, Kearney believes. The foundation by that name, which was begun by the krewe in 2006 to support public education in New Orleans, distributed more than $1 million in grants this year.

“I am tremendously proud of the fundraising and grant-making we have done,” he said, “Now Hermes has started a foundation to support police, and I think you’re going to see a lot more Carnival clubs following suit.”

For a sense of Kearney’s commitment to the city and its future, one need only get him talking about the Port of New Orleans. As a member of the Dock Board, he serves as vice chairman of the Board of Governors.

“Our port is immensely successful, but many residents have no idea what goes on beyond the floodwalls that line the river,” Kearney said. “The importance of the port to the city’s economy can’t be overstated.”

For Kearney’s outstanding contributions to the advancement of Louisiana’s ports, the World Trade Center of New Orleans presented him with the C. Alvin Bertel Award in 2015.

But the port isn’t the only economic engine for the city to attract Kearney’s fervent interest. He is also passionate about the New Orleans Business Alliance, a public-private partnership established in 2010.

“There was a need for a local entity that could develop leads to attract new investment to the city,” Kearney said. “It’s working and has already provided economic development opportunities to the city.” He serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

As seriously as Kearney works to promote the economic health of the city, he nonetheless takes time out to play — tennis, that is.

“I play six days a week, and it’s getting harder and harder to find opponents who are even worse at it than I am,” he said.

No doubt the tennis ritual helps Kearney stay fit, but that’s not the only workout he pursues.

“Every Monday, we move everything out of the dining room, and Tom Winingder and I take yoga from Claiborne Davis,” Kearney said. “We kept talking about it at cocktail parties for years and finally did it.”

Kearney will need all the energy he can muster starting Monday, when he meets Zulu at the foot of Canal Street for Lundi Gras celebrations.

He expects to go home and rest after the festivities on Monday night, then appear promptly at 7:15 a.m. in the back of Audubon Park for the annual Rex Royal Run.

“Boatner Reily started it when he was Rex in 1982, and it has happened ever since,” Kearney said. “A lot of track clubs come out and they follow Rex and the queen, though I expect our part of the run will be very brief.”

He’ll be taken by limousine from Audubon Park to the Rex den on South Claiborne Avenue, where he and the captain will be ushered into a private room to be dressed.

Kearney will mount the king’s float, where the parade mantle awaits him, then roll out into the street to the sound of a cannon shot.

For the next six hours or more, he’ll parade, then appear at the Rex ball at 8 p.m., before leaving at 10 p.m. with his queen to attend the Comus ball.

By midnight, Kearney’s day of performing royal duties will come to a close.

As for his post-Tuesday plans, Kearney said he has a doubles tennis game on the books for 6:30 a.m. on Ash Wednesday.

“We play every Wednesday, but we do make exceptions on occasion,” he said. “This may be one of those occasions.”