I remember the day like it was yesterday, even though it was a half-century ago. My eighth grade classmates and I were sitting in the stands of the Holy Cross School gymnasium when the kid next to me struck up a conversation.
What struck me immediately was his raspy voice — it had a disarming warmth, almost a softness, to it. He told me how he and his friends had just come to Holy Cross from St. Cecilia Elementary School in the Upper 9th Ward (this was before the name "Bywater" came into vogue), and he had some questions for me because I had attended "The Cross" (as 9th Warders referred to our school) since seventh grade. What I recall most about our first conversation isn't what we said, but the way he made me feel so comfortable talking to a guy I'd never met before.
His name was Frank Donze. We became fast friends, and our friendship grew and deepened over the next 50 years — through high school, college, during our time together as reporters at The Times-Picayune, right up to the morning of Nov. 3, when I got the phone call telling me that Frank had died of a heart attack several hours earlier. He was 64, and irreplaceable.
Even as an eighth grader, the guy with the raspy voice who would one day become the city's best political reporter had a knack for asking tough questions - and for putting people at ease as he did it. Frank joined The Times-Picayune in 1977 and earned his chops covering the often wild politics of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. In the early 1980s he moved to City Hall, where he quickly earned the trust and respect of everyone at all levels of government.
The things that made Frank a great reporter were the same things that made him a great human being: He was honest, humble, respectful, generous, compassionate, hard-working, dedicated to his family and to his craft, and above all, fair. He never took a cheap shot, nor did he pull any punches.
Frank had no ego; there was no pretense about him. He was just Frank, the kid from the Upper 9 who loved to hang with his friends, help strangers, observe his corner of the world and share his remarkable insights. He treated everybody alike, and everybody liked him.
Gordon Russell, who worked with Frank at The Times-Picayune and now serves as managing editor of The New Orleans Advocate, compared Frank's style to that of TV's detective Columbo, whose disarming manner and persistence always got his targets to fess up. I can still hear Frank asking a mayor or council member, "Before we go, just one more thing…"
As a columnist, I often have to rely on the reporting of others, and I make a habit of fact-checking them. Good reporters welcome that. With Frank, I never had to fact-check. His stories always hit the reporter's trifecta — accurate, fair and insightful. He had a rare gift: He could view issues and politicians from several angles at once.
Frank Donze, perhaps the premier New Orleans political reporter of his generation, died unexpectedly Saturday at his home. He was 64.
Frank and I gave the final presentation to the Loyola Institute of Politics class every spring, and one of my favorite memories of him was the time he summed up Ray Nagin's term as mayor by reading a list of Nagin's most outrageous quotes. (Of the airport, as a candidate in 2002: "I'm gonna sell that sucka." On the 10th anniversary of "The Vagina Monologues" being performed in New Orleans: "I'm a vagina-friendly mayor.") No one else would have thought of that. Only Frank.
Frank was kicked to the curb during the T-P's "digital transition" in 2012, but the paper's loss was the Audubon Nature Institute's gain. He became the organization's spokesman. Years after leaving the City Hall beat, Frank was still sought out by politicians and reporters. He never missed a step.
Most people have several orbits of friends. Frank had solar systems of friends. He was the sun that held each one together, not because he sought to be the center of attention, but because people just naturally gravitated to him. Fellow reporter and columnist Stephanie Grace called his newsroom desk "mission control" because no day could begin without first checking in with Frank.
I'll remember many things about Frank, but mostly I'll remember him as the kid who did me the supreme honor of befriending me all those years ago at Holy Cross. His life reflected our school's code — "The Holy Cross Man" — which ends with these words:
"[H]e is a man of faith and honesty, of strength of character through self-mastery, of respect for the Christian family and lawful authority, of leadership in the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful - that is the Holy Cross Man."
That was Frank Donze. I miss him so much already.
Frank’s family and friends have established The Frank Donze Memorial Fund at the LSU Foundation in his honor at https://tinyurl.com/ForFrankDonze. Donations will benefit the Manship School of Mass Communications and help future journalists explore their passion.