Emilo “Monk” Dupre, a founding member of the influential 7th Ward political organization COUP and a longtime New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation leader, died of kidney failure April 26, his 70th birthday, at a local hospice.
“If you wanted to run for office, one of the first names you would be given was Monk Dupre,” said Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who said Dupre wasn’t politically ambitious himself, preferring to stay in the background, using his networks and knowledge of politics to guide hundreds of candidates.
“He was a behind-the-scenes guy,” said musician Deacon John Moore, a close friend, who compared Dupre’s backstage political influence to musician Allen Toussaint, who has composed and produced hits for many other artists.
A lifelong New Orleanian, Dupre graduated from St. Augustine High School and Xavier University.
In the late 1960s, he and a group of other St. Augustine graduates founded the Community Organization for Urban Politics, commonly called COUP. Its young African-American members first worked to elect Mayor Moon Landrieu, who for the first time integrated City Hall’s top jobs. They then gave their backing to Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, and to Morial’s successor, COUP member Sidney Barthelemy.
Dupre’s family ran the Pecan Grove Dairy, which delivered milk to everyone’s home in the 7th Ward, said fellow COUP member Lambert Boissiere. “So everybody knew Monk,” he said. “All the politicians, everybody on the street knew Monk.”
On the campaign trail, Dupre stayed cool even when pressure was high, Boissiere said: “He’d explain, ‘Here’s what we have to do,’ and people would follow his lead.”
Most recently, Dupre headed up the Mid-City Community Development Corp., working to create quality low-income housing. Among other things, he oversaw the rebuilding of an entire blighted block between Conti Street and the railroad tracks.
Dupre also was well known for his joie de vivre. “Monk was inimitable; he was unique; he was joyful. He had a zest for life like few other people I’ve known,” Reese said, recalling how Dupre looked forward to this time of year. “He loved New Orleans music. He lived for the Jazz Fest,” Reese said.
That love of music was cultivated early, said Boissiere, who recalled how Dupre would arrive home and put on a jazz record or turn on community radio station WWOZ. “He’d smoke his pipe, stroke his beard and listen to good music,” he said.
In addition to his position as a former president and board member of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which runs Jazz Fest, Dupre also was a board member of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp.
But he was more than just a jazz aficionado, said Moore, noting that his friend used his position at the Jazz & Heritage Foundation to argue for better pay for local musicians. “Monk was the guy who would stand up and say, ‘We need to narrow the disparity between the so-called stars and our indigenous local musicians,’ ” Moore said.
Noting that many foreign festivals offer passes to all performers, Dupre also argued, unsuccessfully, that New Orleans musicians deserved that perk. “He thought you shouldn’t have to pay to see the festival the day after you’d played there,” Moore said.
Dupre’s nickname was coined because he spent time in a Benedictine monastery as a young man. And Renard Boissiere, Lambert’s brother, found Dupre contemplative in a way that reflected that chapter of his life. “A lot of us just do things without knowing why. Monk was more thoughtful; he would ask questions so that he knew the background,” he said.
Yet several friends noted the irony of Dupre’s nickname and his unmonastic approach to life. “He never met a good wine he didn’t like or fine dining he didn’t enjoy,” Reese said. “Though he worked hard, he knew how to enjoy himself. He reveled in life. His enjoyment was just boundless.”
Dupre is survived by his wife of 48 years, Bernardine Dupre; a daughter, Monica Witherspoon, of St. Louis; his father, Emilo N. Dupre; a brother, Wayne Dupre; and two grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1802 Tulane Ave., with visitation starting at 8:30 a.m. Interment will be in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. Charbonnet-Glapion-Labat Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.