There are so many things to recall about Kathleen Blanco that encompass her lifetime of service in state government. But many of her lifelong friends and neighbors knew her and her family on a different level.
Because of her warm and welcoming nature, many of Blanco’s friends call her their best friend. In fact, in Lafayette, it’s hard not to know a friend of the large and close-knit Blanco family.
One of her daughters is a close friend of mine and one I was friends with through our daughters’ school. I know the other Blanco women through professional associations. As a society reporter, I attended many events with the Blancos, some honoring the former governor, some honoring her husband Raymond "Coach" Blanco and some where she and her family members were invited to participate. What I always admired about Ms. Kathleen was that her faith and family came before everything. She was, above all, a dedicated mother who was extremely faithful and lived the way God intended her to — with kindness and grace.
Kathleen Blanco’s many friends include Cece Neustrom, wife of former Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom.
The two have been friends since the early years of their married lives. Neustrom said Blanco was the quintessential mother and homemaker. Between the Blanco and Neustrom families, there were 12 children and the families lived a block apart.
“We were always carpooling and borrowing, sharing and comparing recipes, sewing projects for school or church activities, and having many, many birthday parties,” Neustrom recalled. “The coulee ran through our neighborhood and the kids loved playing in it. We laughingly referred to them as our 'coulee rats.'
“Kathleen's door was always open, both literally and figuratively. She is one of the most gracious and welcoming friends a person could ask for. She always had a place for you at the table. She was a fabulous cook and we shared many a meal at their home. I've used her recipes for crawfish etoufee, Mexican cornbread and stuffed artichokes for years.”
Neustrom remembered the former governor as much more than a politician. She said Mardi Gras parties at the Blanco home were epic; with football coaches, former players, neighbors, friends and family all gathered for a daylong potluck party.
“There had to be 100 kids frolicking around,” she said. “Kathleen didn't even send invitations. You just knew to show up. She was always her smiling, welcoming, easygoing self.”
The Blanco and Neustrom families had a long-standing tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve together. They took turns hosting the event. The evening started with Christmas Mass, followed by a family gumbo. Then the entire group would pile into cars and drive around town singing Christmas carols to friends and neighbors.
“We would sneak up to their homes with our lighted candles, usually singing 'Joy to the World,' " Neustrom said. “A lot of times, we'd get invited into family parties where they'd load us up with treats. It was always such a blast. I remember one year, instead of driving our cars, we rented the trolley and we made the driver ride us around in the Albertson parking lot as we cheered and chanted, 'Albertsons! Albertsons!' That was because we both lived right across from the Johnston Street location and we considered Albertsons our second home.”
I also saw Kathleen Blanco in Alberstons many times. Years ago, when I was a television reporter, I ran into then Lt. Governor Blanco shopping there. It was the day before Thanksgiving. We chatted about the holidays and I asked her why she was in the store on this very hectic day. She told me she was doing the shopping for the items she needed since she was cooking dinner.
“But you’re the Lt. Governor,” I said. “Don’t people do that for you?” She laughed and said, of course not. She did the cooking herself. She also did most of the other duties that came with running a household full of six children.
How she juggled being one of the most influential female leaders in our state, along with a full and busy family life always left me in awe. I attended her and Raymond’s 50th wedding anniversary at their home in Bendel Gardens. I covered it as both a society reporter and a friend, and I was overwhelmed by the love the children, their spouses, the grandchildren and extended family had for her. The family warmth was undeniable and the hospitality Blanco showed to all of her guests was amazing.
Susie Arsement has called Blanco a close friend for more than 40 years.
“I think she was at the birth of every one of her grandchildren, whether they were in Lafayette, Shreveport, Minnesota or Baton Rouge, she was there,” Arsement recalled. “This was amazing to me because it didn’t matter if she was lieutenant governor or governor of our state, she carved out the time to be with her children during these exciting times, even with the schedule and workload she was keeping. I watched her faith carry her through the tragic loss of her youngest child and through her spiritual strength she comforted many mothers who had also lost a child. I do not know a more caring and compassionate person.”
Many who knew her believe that’s how she lived her life. If you measure a person by looking at the way they live, how they treat others, raise their children and show their heart, then by any standard, Kathleen Blanco was a beautiful person both inside and out.
Blanco’s eldest daughter Karmen summed up her mother’s battle with cancer in much the same way.
“Mary’s yes to God inspired and taught Kathleen to humbly conform her will to God's Will. She didn’t have a plan for her life, she lived one day at a time, loving all those that God sent her way. She even faced her greatest challenge, cancer, with courage and grace.”
Daughter Pilar Blanco Eble posted an emotional tribute to her mom on Facebook saying, in part; “Our hearts are broken, but we are joyful in knowing that she is rejoicing in her heavenly reunion with Christ. Please pray for God’s peace to carry us through the coming days and months of sorrow as we mourn her absence from our lives."
Finally, it is fitting that Blanco, a woman whose life revolved around worship and prayer, passed away on a Sunday — a day of worship and prayer. Rest in Peace, Ms. Kathleen.