Former governor Kathleen Blanco and her husband, Raymond, visited the old Green Olive Lebanese Restaurant on West Congress Street so often it wasn’t necessary for them to order.
Staff would see the pair and immediately set about preparing a plate of kibbe, meat pie, grape leaf, hummus, tabouli and pita bread, recalled George Merhej, who owned the now-shuttered restaurant with his sister, Renee.
The dish acquired a name over the years.
“The waitresses, the employees, when Raymond and Kathleen come, they say ‘Blanco Special! We know what they want!,’” said Merhej, who said the Blancos visited hundreds of times in the two decades that his family owned the restaurant.
George Merhej spoke on Friday while he and Renee waited in line at St. John’s Cathedral Hall to pay their final respects to Kathleen Blanco, who died from complications of cancer on Aug. 18 at the age of 76.
Blanco’s death spurred an outpouring of memories in news reports and social media from those who knew and worked with her. They paint a consistent portrait of the governor who served during one of Louisiana’s darkest hours, in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Blanco, by all accounts, was manifestly genuine, honest and deeply concerned about her fellow Louisianans.
That’s how two of Blanco’s classmates from the Mt. Carmel Academy remembered her as they lingered in the back of the hall Friday. Blanco in June attended the 59th class reunion of the former Catholic school for girls in New Iberia, said Dot Broussard and Robbie Dale David, although it was clear she was in pain.
The class of 1960, of which there are about 30 members, gathers every year in the Marsh House at Avery Island. Blanco, the sixth member of the class to die, came to the reunion even while she was in office. David recalled getting a call one year from a state trooper to arrange for the governor’s overnight visit, including security. He asked if there would be space for him. David told him, sure, but he needed to know what he was getting himself into.
“There’s no men. No husbands, no spouses, nothing,” David recalled telling the man. “He called back and said I’m sending a female state trooper with her.”
Blanco enjoyed the reunion because she could unwind and be herself, David and Broussard recalled, but at the same time she never really stopped being herself, at least with them.
“She was elected governor, and she made sure we were invited to everything,” David said. “We did not expect anything like that, but she always, always …”
“…included us,” Broussard said, completing David’s thought.
A continuous stream of people lined up in the cathedral hall Friday to view Blanco in her casket, which was flanked by members of the Louisiana National Guard on one side and the State Police on the other. The line then snaked to the side of the room, where mourners greeted husband Raymond Blanco, her 99-year-old mother, Lucille Babineaux, and other family members.
They included Rev. Jacob Aranza of Our Savior’s Church, who leaned in to the seated Babineaux wrapped both of her hands in his. Aranza, who said he had worshipped with Blanco for perhaps 20 years, said he, like her, had lost a son too soon.
Blanco’s 19-year-old son died in 1997 when a crane fell on him. Aranza’s 20-year-old son died just four years ago, he said. While holding Babineaux’s hands, Aranza said he told her that Blanco’s death was a “great reunion.”
“She got to meet her son, and mine too,” Aranza said.