Garney Gautreau, a former longtime Ascension Parish School Board member and political insider with a zest for the rhythms and occasional combat of local campaigns, died early Thursday.

Gautreau, 78, served on the School Board for 26 years, from 1976 through the end of 2002, and later worked in the administrations of former parish presidents Harold Marchand and Tommy Martinez, retiring only last year.

As campaign seasons heated up, Gautreau’s home north of Gonzales was the spot for political hopefuls to be put through their paces in his backyard shed during evening “suppers,” usually of gumbo cooked by Gautreau and his wife.

“It was like the old days when politicians would stand on the stump and you’d give your spiel. He still did that old election stuff,” Martinez said.

Former Ascension Parish Councilman George Valentine, one of Gautreau’s longtime allies on the School Board before Valentine headed to the council, said Gautreau never put people down and even advised candidates he wasn’t supporting.

“I just can’t believe he died on me,” Valentine said. “He was close, very close. A good guy. The best politician I knew.”

Friends and family added Gautreau cared deeply for his family and about young people, in particular youth baseball.

“He was first and foremost family and community. That’s all he was, and work. God, that man could work. He treated people fairly. I think you’d find that from anybody you could talk to,” said Ricky Gautreau, 58, eldest of Garney Gautreau’s four sons.

Gautreau is survived by his wife, Eleanor, four sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.