Baton Rouge said goodbye to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Thursday, with an interfaith church service featuring biblical readings, a bagpiper’s skirl and stirring hymns — followed by a 15-gun salute and public visitation at the State Capitol that drew hundreds of mourners.
Most of those who attended the service at St. Joseph’s Cathedral or paid their respects afterward in Memorial Hall felt directly touched by Blanco during her long years of public service, or they simply admired the state’s first female governor from afar.
“She was a woman of deep faith who loved the Lord,” said Cleveland Domino, a resident of Plaquemine who never met her, commenting as he stood at the end of a queue that wound through Memorial Hall.
“She’s the real deal,” Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said as he wiped away tears, moments after walking past her open silver casket and greeting Blanco’s husband Raymond, and her 99-year-old mother Lucille Babineaux. “You could tell that she cared about people. We lost a real Louisianian today.”
“She was my friend, and I was her friend,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, when asked why he was there Thursday. Jones served as an aide to Blanco when she was governor.
Blanco, 76, died on Sunday after a long fight against ocular melanoma.
Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke at the cathedral, and he and his wife Donna comforted the Blancos immediately after the service and again at Memorial Hall.
Shawn Wilson wouldn’t have been anywhere else Thursday. Originally from New Orleans, Wilson was among the hundreds of students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who were befriended over the years by the former governor’s husband, Raymond, a former football coach who served as the university’s dean of students.
Wilson worked for Kathleen Blanco when she was lieutenant governor and now serves as Transportation Secretary under Gov. Edwards.
“I wouldn’t be where I am professionally if it weren’t for Coach and Kathleen,” Wilson said, “They’ve been part of our family for every major life experience I can think of since 1987” when he first met Raymond at UL-L.
Thursday’s events were the first of a three-day celebration for Blanco, who was governor from 2004-08. The fallout from Hurricane Katrina kept her from running for re-election.
There will be a public visitation in Lafayette on Friday from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral – Blanco’s home place of worship – and again on Saturday at the cathedral from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., followed by a funeral mass there on Saturday.
She will be buried in a private service in Grand Coteau, in St. Landry Parish, a community that her daughter Monique Boulet described as the "Holy Land of Louisiana." (Blanco grew up in a different community, Coteau, where she lived until age 14 when her family moved nearby to New Iberia.) Blanco’s son Ben, who died tragically at age 19 in a 1997 industrial accident, will be reinterred in Grand Coteau.
Political leaders spanning Blanco’s 25 years in elected office turned out Thursday in Baton Rouge, including former Gov. Edwin Edwards (she served in the Louisiana House and as a Public Service Commissioner when he was governor), former Gov. Bobby Jindal (she narrowly defeated him in 2003 to become governor, and he replaced her four years later) and Senate President John Alario (they served in the House together).
Others included East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome; U.S. Rep. Garret Graves; former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who succeeded her as lieutenant governor; current Speaker Taylor Barras and former speakers Bubba Henry, Jimmy Dimos, Joe Salter, Jim Tucker, Chuck Kleckley and Charlie DeWitt; former Senate President Joel Chaisson; Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon; and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.
Dozens of former legislators and staffers showed up as well.
Leonard Kleinpeter, who played football at the then-University of Southwest Louisiana (now ULL) and then worked for her when she was governor, wore a Blanco 2003 campaign pin.
Tammy Bridges, who has worked for the Lt. Gov.’s office for decades, including under Blanco, said while waiting in line that she will remember the former governor for her willingness to help others.
“She was a very sweet person,” Bridges said. “Compassionate, kind, but about getting business done.”
Cherry Fisher May, a former newspaper publisher in Lafayette, recalled working for Blanco’s first, short-lived campaign for governor in 1991, drawn by a feeling that “even then she would be a great governor.”
“I’ve just always admired her, her integrity, her compassion, her inclusiveness,” May said. “I’m so delighted to see what a great turnout there is.”
Said Andy Kopplin, her first chief of staff: “Kathleen Blanco made every one of us better people by her example.”
Thursday’s events began when more than a dozen State Police troopers on motorcycles led a black hearse that pulled up in front of the cathedral on Main Street. Bill Dedo, a parishioner at St. John in Lafayette, played “Highland Cathedral” on the bagpipes as six of Blanco’s grandsons accompanied her casket into the church.
Southern University’s Gospel Choir sang “Every Praise; Total Praise,” followed by the St. Aloysius Children’s Choir singing, “You Are My Sunshine.”
With Blanco’s approval, the service at the cathedral featured remarks by Gregory Aymond, the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, and readings by ministers representing Jewish, Baptist, Muslim, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, African Methodist Episcopalian faiths.
“Gov. Blanco never gave into desolation but rather renewed her spirit through her great trust in God’s providence to make up for what was lacking in power and easy answers,” Aymond told the packed cathedral in his welcoming remarks.
State Police troopers draped the state flag over the coffin.
Kim Hunter Reed, who was Blanco’s deputy chief of staff and is now commissioner of higher education, spoke about her emphasis on improving education and helping the powerless.
“She gave voice to those who were rarely heard or seen or considered with little consideration of the political consequences,” Reed said. “For her, good politics was what was good for the people.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards remembered that in 2013, when he was the longest of long shots to win election, he met with the Blancos at their home in Lafayette so his children could hear from the Blancos’ children on what it was like to live in the Governor’s Mansion.
“That night, she also spoke to me about the need to focus on the least fortunate and most vulnerable in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “She did not cite Matthew 25, but I knew that passage greatly influenced her: ‘Master, when did I see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or in prison.’
“This deep and abiding love for the people of our state made her a special leader – authentic, consistent and sincere.”
Afterward, former U.S. Sen. John Breaux marveled at the array of voices heard at the service.
“I’ve never seen one that was so across the board and encompassing,” he said. “You had every aspect of America’s religions.”
Following the service, the scene shifted to the state Capitol, where on Jan. 12, 2004, Blanco gave her inauguration from the front steps, promising a “new kind of government.”
Former staffers and legislators formed two columns on those same steps Thursday when the hearse brought Blanco to the State Capitol one last time.
An honor guard fired a 15-gun salute.
State Trooper Monty Montelongo then played taps.
“This was a tremendous honor at such a profound event,” he said immediately afterward.
Inside Memorial Hall, long-time friends and colleagues caught up with laughter that belied the otherwise-solemn occasion. Several of them said Blanco would have liked the light-hearted touch.
“Even when we disagreed, she was a beautiful human being,” said Jim Tucker, who led the opposition to Blanco in the state House when she was governor.
Blanco was wearing a dress that was a replica of the one she wore at Gov. Edwards’ inauguration in 2016. She also wore a set of pearls.
Asked whether it was a favorite pair, daughter Monique laughed and said, “She had a lot of pearls.”
A gold cross hung in the casket, a gift from Father Chester Arceneaux of St. John in Lafayette.
Karmen Blanco-Hartfield, another of the former governor's daughters, placed a gold rose-shaped pin in the casket that had been a gift to his mother from Ben, who was Blanco’s youngest child. He had given it to her a year before he died. Blanco wore it frequently afterward.
Mourners passed by the red dress that Blanco wore to her inauguration, a wedding day photo and framed newspaper articles on her election and inauguration.
James Carville, the New Orleans-based political consultant, said he came to Memorial Hall out of respect.
“I loved her,” he said. “I think she was a really good governor.”
Capital news bureau reporter Sam Karlin and Capital News Bureau editor Mark Ballard contributed to this article.