It was raining 55 years ago when Raymond and Kathleen Blanco were driving in New Iberia from the church to their wedding reception immediately afterward.
“That’s not rain,” Kathleen teased Raymond. “Those are all my former boyfriends crying that I’m getting married.”
It rained again on Saturday, but this time it happened while Raymond and her entire family were saying a final goodbye to Blanco, 76, who died on Sunday from ocular melanoma, a rare type of cancer, and was sent off during a stirring funeral Mass in Lafayette followed by her burial in Grand Coteau.
This time the tears were real, but there was also plenty of cheer as the Blancos’ five surviving children told stories about their mother during “Reflections and Mass of Christian Burial” at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Raymond Jr. told about being mesmerized by the beautiful setting one day in the backyard of their home in Lafayette – so much so that he didn’t hear his mother suddenly yell his name.
Family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
A moment later, over his right shoulder, a large spade shovel chopped off the head of a copperhead snake that appeared likely to bite him. Raymond Jr. then watched his mother scoop up the snake’s head with the shovel and flip it into the bushes.
Blanco put her hand on her son’s head and said matter-of-factly, “Well, that was close, wasn’t it”?
Laughter rang through St. John’s.
There was a capacity crowd of nearly 600 people, including Gov. John Bel Edwards and First Lady Donna Edwards; former U.S. senators John Breaux and Mary Landrieu; and Donna Brazile, a Kenner native who chaired the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, presided along with Father Chester Arceneaux of St. John’s. Blanco was a devout Catholic.
At Blanco’s insistence, the altar was full of large bouquets of flowers from New Iberia, the former governor’s hometown.
“Kathleen was allergic to the fragrance of flowers,” Merilyn Crain, a longtime friend, said before the Mass began. For the funeral Mass, “She said, ‘I want lots and lots of flowers. Now I can have as many as I want.’”
Also in the audience Saturday were 13 of the surviving 24 members of Blanco’s 1960 graduation class at Mt. Carmel High School in New Iberia.
“She was very special,” said Robbie-Dale David, one of the classmates.
Blanco moved to Lafayette when she and Raymond married in 1964. She began teaching at Breaux Bridge High School, but school rules required her to quit when she got pregnant six months later.
Like many of her Mt. Carmel classmates, Blanco was a stay-at-home mom in the 1960s and 1970s. Her job was to raise their six children. She did everything from ferrying them to and from school to cutting their hair to making minor repairs around the house with a set of power tools.
Raymond, she recalled later, didn’t even know how to boil water. He was the dean of students at the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), so devoted to his students that he was always willing to help them, no matter the hour.
Blanco joined the workforce at age 37 and at age 40 won her first race, to represent Lafayette in the state House of Representatives.
“She was very humble. She never lost that,” Glenn Lazard, one of the many former students of Raymond Blanco who volunteered in that campaign, said before Sunday’s Mass began.
Blanco won re-election to the Louisiana House, won election and re-election to the Public Service Commission, won election and re-election as lieutenant governor and in 2003 was elected as the state’s first (and only) female governor.
She was a popular, can-do governor when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.
To the public, Blanco appeared indecisive and overwhelmed as government failed to protect its citizens. More than 1,500 people died from the hurricane, and New Orleans became uninhabitable. Blanco’s popularity evaporated overnight.
Four weeks later, Hurricane Rita walloped southwest Louisiana, flooding coastal towns and knocking out electricity.
Blanco spent the rest of her term focused on helping the state recover from both disasters. What didn’t recover was her political popularity. She had to forgo running for a second term.
Before she left office, however, she led the state takeover of New Orleans’ failing schools – test scores and graduation rates have risen dramatically since then; oversaw the professionalization of the dysfunctional Orleans Levee Board; pushed for the rapid rebuilding of the Louisiana Superdome, a move that kept the Saints in New Orleans; and consolidated New Orleans’ system of assessors into a single office. The full set of her achievements have been recognized only in recent years.
Blanco governed without a hint of scandal.
Raymond Jr. joked about that during his remarks on Saturday.
“What do they say about an honest politicians’ children? They have to work for a living.” (He works as an occupational safety professional in Atlanta.)
Harold Suire, a friend and political adviser of Blanco’s, summed up what many have said in recent days when he said in an interview about her, “She had a moral compass, was kind and was strong.”
She also had a practical political side, as David Begnaud, a CBS News correspondent from Lafayette who interviewed Blanco at length after she was no longer governor, noted during his remarks.
“If you’re getting ready to be run out of town,” he quoted her as telling him, “jump in front of it and call it a parade.”
It was raining lightly when the Mass ended. A dozen State Police motorcycles escorted Blanco’s hearse from St. John’s, followed by dozens of cars, all headed to St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery in Grand Coteau in St. Landry Parish.
The family left the cemetery later than planned because they decided to grab shovels to fill the burial plot themselves. By that time, the sun was shining.